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Auction of Gandhi's letters no big deal: historians

June 28, 2007 13:22 IST

The Prime Minister's Office in New Delhi has stepped up efforts through official channels to acquire the letters and manuscript written and signed by Mahatma Gandhi just before his assassination and which are coming up for auction in London on July 3.

Christie's has fixed the opening bid for the draft at 12,000 pounds (app Rs 9,80,000). The issue came up when Satya Paul, senior member of Servants of the People Society drew the government's attention to the sale.

However, many Gandhians and historians have expressed scepticism over the issue.

Many, including historian Ramchandra Guha, are of the view that the issue will only benefit Christie's, the renowned auction house.

According to Christie's web site, a manuscript written by Gandhi just 19 days before his assassination in 1948 is part of a collection titled 'The Albin Schram Collection of Autograph Letters', a personal and private collection assembled over a period of 30 years by Albin Schram, a Switzerland-based collector.

However, Gandhi had bequeathed all the rights to his books, writings and letters to Navjivan Trust, which he had set up in Ahmedabad.

Jitendra Desai, managing trustee of Navjivan, says, "I find this controversy quite unnecessary. In the past too, similar issues have come up. We are not sure about the legalities. Gandhi has written thousands of letters to many individuals. Who owns those letters? Gandhiji or the people who has been addressed in those letters? This has to be resolved first."

He claimed that there have been earlier instances as well of people selling Gandhi's letters in other parts of Europe. Desai said the Navjivan Trust doesn't plan any proactive action in this regard.

For foreigners Mahatma Gandhi is merely M K Gandhi and there have been instances when public auctions may not have drawn much attention in India, said a retired teacher in Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad.

Gandhians in India feel that obviously, Christie's does not understand what Gandhiji stands for.

Talking to an Indian television channel Thomas Venning of Christie's said, 'The Gandhi letter is great. It was written very shortly before he died -- and it's about the issue effectively that killed him. He was killed by a Hindu fanatic because he urged a moderate policy toward Muslims.'

The Christie's web site claims that the manuscript signed 'M K Gandhi' dated January 11, 1948, contains a 7-page draft written for Urdu Harijan. In the article Gandhiji announces his regret at having to discontinue the publication of his mouthpiece Harijan in Urdu script. He writes: 'The dwindle (in demand) was to me a sign of resentment against its publication. My view remains unalterable especially at this critical juncture in our history. It is wrong to ruffle Muslim or any other person's feelings when there is no question of ethics.'

Gandhi urges the advantages of learning Urdu script: 'The limitations of this script in terms of perfection are many. But for elegance and grace it will equal any script in the world'. He considers the potential of Urdu for shorthand, and for the transcription of Sanskrit verses; any suggestion of a boycott on Urdu script is 'a wanton affront upon the Muslims of the Union who in the eyes of many Hindus have become aliens in their own land. This is copying the bad manners of Pakistan with a vengeance'. The address ends with a ringing call to 'Muslim friends' not only to support the Urdu edition but to learn the Nagari script and thus 'enrich their intellectual capital'.

British High Commissioner Sir Michael Arthur told the media in New Delhi on Wednesday that the Indian government hasn't spoken to him on the issue so far. He admitted it would be difficult for the Indian government to acquire the letter in the open market.

Desai is not impressed by Christie's attempts at marketing Gandhi's writings. He says, "We should understand the philosophy of Gandhi. It's more relevant now. The United Nations has just declared that October 2 will be observed as non-violence day. After fighting so many wars the world is coming back to the basics of his philosophy. The world has lost its battles by resorting to violence."

Clearing the air about the Intellectual Property Rights over Gandhi's writings Desai said that on February 20, 1940, Gandhi made a will in favour of Navjivan Trust.

In it he had said, 'I do not believe that I have any property. Nevertheless, anything which by social convention or in law is considered mine: anything movable or immovable; books, articles etc that I have written and may write hereafter, whether printed or not printed and all their copyright; I endow as my heirs the Navjivan Institution, whom I hereby declare as my heirs.'

He had also said at the time that Navjivan Trust will give to the Harijan Sevak Sangh (founded by Gandhi) 25 per cent of the net profit it earns from the sale of books and exercising its copyright.

Desai, who has been associated with Navjivan Mudranalaya for 50 years, says Gandhiji's trust, currently headed by Biharibhai Shah, 94, sells over Rs 1.5 to Rs 2 crore worth of books every year.

He says all the books are heavily subsidised by the trust's corpus. Out of the 250 to 300 books in English, Gujarati, Hindi and Urdu containing Gandhi's writings, columns and letters, the bestseller remains his autobiography in 12 Indian languages.

The story of my experiments with truth, translated by Mahadev Desai, is sold even now for Rs 30. The highest selling regional edition is Malayalam, said Desai.

"You are talking about Christie's letters. Even 59 years after Bapu's death Navjivan Trust receives letters, postcards and Bapu's belongings from nooks and corners of India. Poor people without any expectation of money or reward send us Bapu's writings," Desai said.

He says valuable items are sent to the Gandhi-founded Sabarmati Ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati in Ahmedabad.

Far away from the world of Christie's, in this ashram, more than 34,011 letters written by Gandhi, all of them digitised, are stored.

In 1954-55, on a request from the government, people had donated letters, writings and everything connected with Gandhi to the central government.

With the help of that invaluable contribution around 100 volumes of the Collected Works of Mahatama Gandhi were produced. Most of the letters were returned to the senders after taking photocopies, Desai pointed out.

He said, "Just a few days back I have received a letter written by Gandhiji from an old man in Surat. He wanted to donate his priced possession in his old age to the Gandhi Ashram. His letter has now been sent to the Sabarmati Ashram."

Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi and Dilip Patel in Ahmedabad