Mahatma Gandhi: A mystique frittered away in auctions
Daily News & Analysis
By Jumana Shah
Understanding Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is a Herculean task, to put it mildly. The purchase of Gandhi-Kallenbach letters by the ministry for the country at the cost of $1.2 million is an expensive step in that direction.
It can be debated whether it was needed or not but another issue, perhaps of equal significance, that needs to be discussed is maintaining important nuggets of Bapu’s heritage which are freely available in the country. One aspect is of procuring letters, photographs, any other form of Bapu’s writings, and his belongings from people within the country.
Over last few years, after interacting with several people with different dispositions on the subject, I have to believe that we Indians may be truly Gandhian at a very deep level but in the matter-of-fact act of preserving his legacy, the society’s involvement tends to get cosmetic. I’ll explain how.
For instance, scores of books that Bapu brought back from Africa and donated them to MJ Library are decaying every passing day even as you read this. I wrote about it on Gandhi Jayanti last year. Since then, AMC has taken up an ambitious renovation project at the library worth Rs6.36 crore but restoration of Bapu’s books and original certificates are not a part of it. We pursued Mayor Asit Vora to commit when they would restore those books but he was steadily unabashed about it.
A month later, DNA exposed the terrible condition of a hut in Karadi village near Navsari where Bapu had stayed for 21 days during the famed Dandi Yatra. There are dozens of more such places. Kirti Mandir in Porbandar and Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad can certainly do with a lot of attention. Kochrab Ashram, which is in the heart of the city at Paldi and a place where Bapu spent the first few months after his return from Africa, is only a box of brick and mortar – no trace of the momentous place they have in India’s history.
There are scores of people spread across the length and breadth of India, who even today are in possession of priceless artifacts of their sometimes sustained, sometimes chance interactions with Bapu. ‘Experts’ on the subject and those involved in preserving Gandhi’s heritage have often conceded in off-the-record conversations that they are aware that such objects exist but are unable to fully comprehend the extent of it even now. “It is an ongoing process,” is the standard reply.
Few who possess these objects are unaware of their value, and have simply given it away to any of the national agencies that carry out restoration, archiving work or to the Sabarmati Ashram Trust. Then there are others, who though realise the historic importance of the objects in their possession but want stated appreciation for their ‘donation’ or often monetary value for parting with it. And then there are quite a few who have no clue whatsoever about the significance and it wouldn’t be a surprise if they plainly junk it.
The people of the first category are very rare now, and those in the third category are difficult to manage. It is the second category where the opportunity is, and also the danger. A major controversy in this fraternity over the last few years has been of those who have ‘sold’ these material objects, either to a dealer in Gandhi memorabilia called Peter Ruhe from Germany or perhaps to other individuals who are willing to give them a price for it. These objects then find their way to international auction houses, where the government buys them back for an amount that could have resolved the woes of a backward district for life.
Ruhe is (in)famous, popular and envied in these circles. He is on a mission to fish out anyone who has any kind of photographs, letters, any other objects related to Bapu. He buys it from people (It is speculated that Bapu’s family might be among those who may have sold some very personal possessions), restores and archives them and puts them back in public forum (online) – for a steep price. I have interviewed Ruhe during one of his visits to the city in Gujarat Vidyapith. He made no bones about the fact that he is no Gandhian himself or gives a fig about it. His sole motivation is optimising the business opportunity. He scoffs at Indian agencies’ ignorance and inability to preserve Bapu’s heritage, something he stated categorically which was printed in DNA a few years ago.
That be as it may, his ambitions have ensured that India’s history of that era is effectively preserved – but at the cost of deep humiliation for local conservation agencies.
The logical question to ask would be why can’t the Indian government (the ministry of culture for instance that has dished out $1.2 million to buy Kallenbach letters) do what Ruhe has done and still continue to do so? Why can the government pay Sotheby’s a handsome chunk but not the son of a penniless follower of Bapu who had taken his photograph talking to a beggar (This is a real incident)? Answering this question, Ruhe during this interview had brought out a very pertinent observation which I distinctly remember – India takes Gandhi for granted. “People here are interested in preserving his photographs where he is posing with important people but not where he is doing mundane tasks like eating, sweeping, petting an animal or talking to a child or a poor man. These are the frames where Bapu’s character really comes through. But Indians are not interested in really studying him as a man, they are only interested in him as a politician,” he’d said. I didn’t believe him then, but over the years, much to my surprise, I have seen it reflected in peoples’ attitude here.
These are fragments of our history that need to be preserved for posterity. These documents offer us a nuanced insight into what really happened when the modern Independent India was born. In a way it is the country’s identity. While efforts are on to get these documents by agencies like the Sabarmati Ashram where they can be archived, it is also getting increasingly obvious that these efforts need to speed up.
No body seems to be interested to follow the principles for which Gandhi stood. Today, 'Gandhi' is becoming source of income for them. Let it be but I would request them to spare some of their wealth earned in name of Gandhi for the less priviledged section of the society and it would be real tribute to Gandhiji who always stressed to minimize one's needs and become trustee of the surplus wealth and be ready to dedicate it in the interest of the society as and when the need arises.