August 06, 2020
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Selling Of A Legacy

The Indian Government may lose priceless Gandhi manuscripts

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Selling Of A Legacy

THESE are Gandhi’s real words. As penned by him in 70 priceless manuscripts which London auction house Phillips plans to put on sale come November 14. Protests notwithstanding.

For those who have heard Gandhi in Chinese whispers—Hindi translations of his writings in English, translated back into English by the Indian Government for publication—the letters are a window to his mind, his thoughts all documented in his characteristic large, crabbed handwriting.

Among these are Gandhi’s prologue to his last will and testament written three days before his assassination, a 10-page letter to Mountbatten and the announcement of a fast to prevent rioting in Delhi. "I had to be in Delhi to do or die," he wrote in one of the letters. "No man, if he is pure, has anything more precious to give than his life."

 The 450 notes, handwritten by Gandhi, and ‘owned’ by 75-year-old freedom fighter V. Kalyanam—who served the Mahatma for four years from 1944 to 1948—were first offered to the National Archives in 1988 for free. There was no response. "In 1990, I contacted the PMO. There was no response. With my advancing age and the manuscripts themselves becoming extremely brittle, I did what I thought was right," he says.

And so he approached Sotheby’s in 1993 and asked them to auction the letters for an estimated £1.25 million. By 1994, he had despatched the entire bunch of letters through a friend. Then in January this year, Kalyanam met American guru Subramaniam Swamy whose dedication and knowledge of Hinduism prompted Kalyanam to offer the proceeds of the auction to fund a temple project in Hawaii. To ensure its construction proceeded on time, Swamy’s English disciple, Easan Katir, an English Hindu, recommended that Kalyanam switch auctioneers, since Sotheby’s auctions took longer. And Phillips came into the picture.

It was at this juncture that the Indian High Commissioner in London, L.M. Sing-hvi, chose to intervene. He alerted Delhi that the country would lose a valuable collection of Gandhi manuscripts unless Kalyanam was made to cancel his sale. Gopal Gandhi, the Mahatma’s grandson, made another appeal to Kalyanam, requesting him to withdraw the sale. Kalyanam, however, took offence at the language used in the letter sent by Singhvi’s assistant asking him to sign and forward an enclosed draft to the High Commission. The draft wants him to say that his decision to auction the papers weighs "heavily on his conscience" and that he realises its "implications" now. Asks an indignant Kalyanam: "Who are these people to talk about my conscience? I worked for the freedom of the country. Let them first learn to write and speak humbly."

 Auctioneers Phillips, too, are adamant. "There’s no suggestion that the auction of the manuscripts will be withdrawn," says Susan Santini of Phillips. According to them, any one of these 70 manuscripts would be ‘exceptional’ but the collection of 70 documents is ‘extraordinary’. "It is pure, unadulterated Gandhi," declares Phillips.

The Indian Government’s efforts to stop the auction have met with little success. The two rounds of negotiations in Chennai between Hardev Sharma, in-charge of Nehru Memorial Museum, and Kalyanam were inconclusive. "When the Sukh Rams and Narasimha Raos are there to loot the country, I was convinced these documents held no value for people here," Kalyanam said.  

And if the Government wants the manuscripts, says he, it’s welcome to actually go, bid and retrieve the manuscripts at the auction. "Let them ask the Sukh Rams and Chandraswamis to part with a fraction of their loot. One million pounds is nothing." 

The Indian Government has bid and bought at an auction before. It paid £25,000 on one occasion to buy some Rabindranath Tagore manuscripts. That purchase was criticised on the ground that too much money had been paid for manuscripts that were not very significant. And though this is a sufficiently significant collection, there are no indications that the Government will bid a £1.5 million to retrieve the manuscripts.

As for stopping the auction, Kalyanam sets down four strict conditions: personal compensation of Rs 1 crore for losses and anguish he has sustained during these years (the money should be divided equally between the Kanchi Mutt in Tamil Nadu and Mother Teresa’s Home in Calcutta); penalty to Phillips in the event of withdrawal; a "decent" compensation for the American guru for his Hawaii temple project ("This is a question of my word"); and the cost involved in organising the auctions.

The Government, however, seems in no mood to accept all the conditions. While it’s willing to repay the cost involved in the auction and the penalty to Phillips, it has refused to accept the other two demands.

And Kalyanam has the last word: "The Government is like a bania—it accepts the money part but rejects the social and sacred part. Gandhi is social and sacred to me." 

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