The Indian Government wants Gandhi’s glasses back. Also his bowl and plates, a pocket watch and sandals. Indian ministers and Gandhi’s descendants have been making statements about how these are part of our national heritage and we should buy them back at any cost.
Picture courtesy: The Hindu
Certainly, I’d like to see a pair of the iconic glasses in the Sabarmati ashram. But I presume the ashram already has one of these. For you see, these glasses in the auction aren’t Gandhi’s only glasses or sandals. If you read this WSJ article, you will realize that these are items Gandhi had given away to others, some as far back as when he was in Aden. Some, in fact, were given by Gandhi to his grandniece, who apparently sold them. Obviously all the descendants of Gandhi didn’t consider these items priceless.
So does the Indian government believe that we need to acquire every pair of Gandhi’s glasses, and every plate of his at taxpayer expense? Where do we stop – what about every letter he ever wrote, every stick he used, every loincloth he ever wore?
Why stop at Gandhi anyway? Shouldn’t the taxpayer also pay for every one of Nehru’s caps and jackets, and Sardar Patel’s shawls ? Aren’t all these part of our national heritage too?
I am sure they are. The question is whether these (and other Indian artifacts and antiques) have to necessarily remain in India, and whether we should spend taxpayers’ money to bring them back.
Here is what I think:
1. We are proud to have given Gandhi to the world, aren’t we? Then why shouldn’t his artifacts remain abroad? Ideally, they can be housed in museum(s) around the world that attract lots of visitors, like the Smithsonian or the Louvre, so everyone can learn about Gandhi and his message of non-violence and peace. Something tells me that’s what Gandhi would have wanted, not to spend tax rupees to house his glasses in an ashram in Gujarat that very few people in the world would visit.
2. If we are going to go on the path of buying back cultural artifacts, or demanding that countries return them, shouldn’t we start with the priceless, one-of-a-kind stuff first? Why not the Hope diamond, which occupies pride of place in the Smithsonian, or the Kohinoor, which sits in the British crown jewels? Or innumerable priceless Chola bronzes or other sculptures? Bringing back all these would cost millions of dollars, of course, and there would be thousands of such antiques. But who decides that the Kohinoor is not a better symbol of India’s heritage than Gandhi’s brass bowl?
3. What do we intend to do with all the artifacts and antiques we buy back? What are we doing with the existing antiques we have? Most of our museums need to be renovated. We have priceless antiques that we don’t preserve properly or display to the public, and we have museums that are badly maintained and shunned by visitors.
When I think about all this, I wonder if there is any logical reason why Indian artifacts should only remain in India. If we want the world to know about India, its culture, history and heritage, then people all over the world should have a chance to see these artifacts in museums around the world. Trying to repurchase these artifacts only to house them in a dilapidated Indian museum serves no purpose. We are better off, instead, trying to spend taxpayer money to improve the state of our museums and get people to visit them.
There is another issue – that of compensation. Most of these antiques did not go out of the country legally. They were stolen, like the Hope diamond and many Chola bronzes, either by the British, or by unscrupulous smugglers.
In all these cases, the Indian government certainly deserves to be compensated for the loss of its property. It would be a great idea to list out the antiques housed abroad that are of illegal provenance and demand compensation in each of those cases. The government can use the compensation proceeds to improve the state of Indian museums and attract more tourists to visit the many priceless artifacts that are in India.
I would say the same about Gandhi’s glasses. It turns out that the Indian government might not need to spend taxpayers’ money after all. I am happy to read that Sant Singh Chatwal is willing to spend a quarter million dollars for the glasses and the other artifacts. But I’d be happier if he spent that money on an Indian museum, with a condition that it be maintained well and its exhibits preserved better.
So let’s start demanding compensation for possession of Indian artifacts that have left the country illegally (even if the current owner purchased them legally), while letting these items remain wherever they are. Let us use the proceeds to improve our museums and preserve our existing antiques and artifacts.
This way, everyone will be able to enjoy all the artifacts of India’s glorious cultural heritage.