Minister for Tourism and Culture Ambika Soni is happy she could manage to bring the relics of Mahatma Gandhi back to India.
Soni, a powerful leader of the Congress owing to her proximity to party president Sonia Gandhi, claimed that United Breweries chairman Vijay Mallaya had been selected to bid on the items. Ministry sources further claimed that the mystery bidder who drove the price up to $ 1.7 million before dropping out was none other than New York-based hotelier Sant Chatwal.
In an exclusive interview with rediff.com's Sheela Bhatt, Soni talks about the Indian government's action plan to bring back the legacy of the Father of the Nation.
On the preliminary preparations
"A few days back, much before the media came to know, the government was informed about the proposed auction of invaluable items that once belonged to Mahatma Gandhi. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told me to bring these items back to India. Talk to anyone you want, he said; tell them the PM wants this to be done. That was the bottomline. United Progressive Alliance chairperson Sonia Gandhi was equally eager, and she was after me to ensure that the items were brought back to India, where they belong."
On her strategy
"For the last ten days, we worked as a team. We had a multi-pronged strategy. We told the Ministry of External Affairs what we wanted to do, and they agreed. The Navjivan Trust is the official heir of all the movable and immovable properties of Gandhiji, who never believed in personal ownership.
In 1929, he gave all rights to his writings and material possessions to the Trust. Our first option was to bring Navjivan into the picture. We got them as the front, and got the restraining order from the Delhi High Court. Our aim at the time was to stop the auction because for Indians, Gandhiji's belongings are invaluable and you can't auction them in public. It hurts us.
The second option was to talk out of court to James Otis, to whom the relics belonged. He was unclear about what he wanted. He would say, do this to your gross domestic product, travel to some 78 countries, etc -- the kind of conditions the government could not accept. We understand our responsibilities and do what we have to in our own way.
Thirdly, we told the embassy in Washington, DC to talk to Non Resident Indians to gather strength to help us. We were working on several options; nothing happened overnight and that is why so many names have cropped up in the media.
Our ministry was nodal to the effort, and we took the help of the Navjivan Trust only because they could be heard in court on this matter as they are the legal heirs. There is also a committee to handle all matters pertaining to Gandhiji, headed by her granddaughter Tara Bhattacharya, and ten days ago we sought their advice as well.
On the choice of Vijay Mallya
I don't think Mallya is a controversial choice. I don't think anybody will think like that.
I got feedback on TV that the government has done a good job. So what if he sells beer?
Jinke hath main tha who kya abhi tak beer nahin pi rahe the? (Didn't the man who possessed these things ever drink beer in his life?)
Is this case a trend-setter?
Since the last 3-4 years, we have been trying our best to stop such auctions. Gandhiji gave away so many things, there is no record of it. We are trying to build the record, but he has given gifts to an unimaginable number of people who believed in his ways of life, who moved him. He gave things as tokens of appreciation. It is impossible to have an inventory.
We have formed a committee to find out whatever is possible. We keep our eyes and ears open for such news. That's how we were able to discover the letter of Gandhiji in Japan. I believe everything connected with Gandhiji should be in India. The next government should see through a special law to make Navjivan Trust the repository of all the memorabilia, and anyone who has Gandhi's memorabilia should not be able to commercialise it. How we can do this needs to be worked out.
Our policy is to try through this committee and our embassies to discover such items. There are many India experts and many people who love India, and they send us information.
Auction revives interest in Gandhi
In the last five years, we have done many things. Congress had the Dandi March on its 75th anniversary, and we recreated history by having the heritage walk. We revived the message of Satyagraha, Gandhiji's best gift to the world. Non-violence day is now celebrated on October 2 each year by the United Nations, and the first such function was attended by Sonia Gandhi.
This event shows that people are interested in Gandhi, per se. There is so much peace associated with Gandhi. It sounds like a cliche, but one is looking for non-violence today when there is violence all around. I am not talking only about terrorism; I am talking about domestic violence, economic and social violence. There is nothing but violence in the atmosphere.
Return of the relics
The auctioneers have been restricted from handing over the items for the next few days, but we will get it back anyway. We have moved the US Department of Justice also in this regard. They need a month to decide on such issues, but I don't see any major hurdle in getting back these items. Mallya has got the items in the auction, and now he will in turn give it to the government of India. He says he is going to give it free of charge. He wants to gift it. Let's see -- I don't know, I don't want to go into that.