Do we really need Gandhi’s glasses?

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.


34 thoughts on “Do we really need Gandhi’s glasses?

  1. I think this is one of those sensitive topics… Let’s for a moment, believe that the artifacts that were ‘plundered’ and are currently exhibited in ‘world class’ museums were somebody’s kids, would the argument still hold true? Imho, these ‘stuff’ are part of our heritage and should ideally, be brought back to the mother country for free (since we all agree that those were taken away illegally) and lent to the museums abroad on a temporary basis for requisite fees so the world gets to see it as well periodically. Of course, due importance should be allotted to their care. A lot of such artifacts have been returned to Turkey, Egypt and Italy and let’s hope the same criteria of justice is applied to those belonging to India.

    It was still an interesting view, and thanks for sharing, Lekhni:)

    • It would be ideal if we can get them back for free. But that’s not likely to happen in most of the cases. But you are right that other countries have been successful in claiming their antiques/ artifacts, so it helps to speak up about ours too. Making a comprehensive list would be a good place to start.

      But your point about Indian museums lending artifacts to be displayed in museums abroad is a good one. That is certainly one way Indian museums can earn more revenue.

      • I’m sorry I keep coming back to this one, but I’ve to say that if everything comes down to revenue, these ‘stuff’ which’re unfortunately categorized as ‘trivial items not worth fighting over’ is minting zillions of dollars each year by way of tourism. That explains the reluctance of these museums to part with them. So without saying, the artifacts’re taken care of well, thanks to the revenue it renders to these institutions and indirectly, the countries which display them. Taking further the argument, if we’re to let go of ‘our stuff’ ‘cos ‘others’ are better equipped to take care of them, we might as well ship the hordes of slum kids to the West. Of course, they wouldn’t relent, there’d be no tourists coming in, to see those ‘slum kids’. And why spend so much money rebuilding the Taj Hotel? It’s just a hotel, right? We’re doing that to send the message that we won’t be cowed down. Some things cannot be assessed with tangibles.

        We’ve to learn something from the west and that is cooperation with the government on key issues, the only reason being that they got elected because of us. We want to lead this secure life and criticize their every move… Let the people who’ve chosen to be in the ring take some decisions…The least we can do, is stand with them.

  2. With the elections 40 days away, the Cong wants to be seen as the saviours of mahatma’s heritage!
    It’s another things that 2 months from now the glasses will be languishing in a dilapidated museum/ashram with the spiders keeping them company.

    I’d rather see it in another museum outside the country where thousands visit and appreciate it. It’s not like they are going to be renamed as Lincoln’s glasses. No matter where they are, they are still the Mahatma’s glasses and the price they fetch lays testimony to his legacy!

    dil pe mat lo, lite le lo….

    • That’s an interesting perspective – you think this has more to do with the upcoming elections than anything else? Who knows, that is quite possible 😦

  3. you know its funny, i was wondering about this topic coming up in this blog when i was reading I come here and here it is. my sentiments exactly. if the artifacts were plundered and not given away as per one’s wish, then it makes sense for government to go ahead and get it.
    what’s up with our governement anyways, are these knitwits governing and looking at daily issues in India or are they reading world news….??!!!
    I hear the PM has instructed to go and bid for these items, according to Indian news, WTF?. we don’t have langot for our kids…and you the government is willing to spend $30k (equivalent of Rs15lacs) to Gandhi’s glasses. Never mind the fact that a miniscule of Indian population even pays taxes.
    if they netas in our country wanted to get their undergarmets twisted in a knot over Gandhi’s belongings, maybe they can get together and spare some money from their monthly pay and bid in the auction.
    i got a better idea instead of going after dead people’s belongings.. maybe India should do a better job spending some serious cash and protect Intellectual property rights of India related things like Yoga, basmati rice, ayurveda teachings, healing techniques…which are uniquely indian, which are nowadays plagiarised and patented in countries like USA.
    read Bikram yoga.

    • I am quite thankful that in the end, no taxpayer money was spent, especially given that the final purchase amount ended up as $1.8 million.

  4. I had the same thoughts and was actually thinking of writing about this. Glad that you’ve written about it. India has many more important things to take care of rather than being emotionally attached with some old stuff that was gifted away

  5. A few points, and I’ve the same opinion as “naperville mom”.
    1. If the purpose is to have people see these artifacts, they can very well be kept in a museum in New Delhi as in NYC or London. USA (or other countries) don’t give away and put their artifacts related to their cultural heritage in African or Asian countries so that people in those countries can learn from them. So, it makes sense that India wants those artifacts which are related to a famous Indian.

    2. Looking at it from a different level, this whole issue of buying glasses and artifacts of Gandhi (by anyone) seems misguided, as if someone who looks at Gandhi’s artifacts or owns them will suddenly learn about Gandhi’s philosophy. That’s how personality cults and religions get started after the person is gone, with more importance ascribed to physical objects associated with the person, rather than making an attempt to learn about his ideas/philosophy and their relevance in today’s life.

    3. On what basis can museums in France or UK lay claim to sculptures and artifacts that were stolen from other countries and/or were taken because they were the colonial powers? In instances where such thievery can be established clearly, the artifacts rightfully belong to the country from which they were taken, and not in a museum in Paris or London.

    4. India needs to step up and renovate/upgrade its museums, as in spite of point 2. and my personal views, such artifacts do matter to many people in today’s world.

    • You are assuming the Gandhi ‘artifacts’ were stolen. What if the person now selling them had gotten them as a gift either from Gandhi or someone close to Gandhi? Would India have any right on them apart from buying it from him?

      • Patrix, I am not. I know that the person who sold those Gandhi artifacts didn’t steal them. My points are not just related to this current issue, and I’ve been careful to choose my words. 🙂

        If you are referring to point 3., then that point was not about Gandhi artifacts, but generic in nature, applicable to those items that were “taken” during colonial period by UK and France, and not just from India.

      • “Would India have any right on them apart from buying it from him?”

        Legally, no. But it would be gracious on the part of that person to either return or sell them back to India if there was an interest.

    • Amit,
      On your first point, the fact is the Gandhi artifacts in particular were given away, or sold. More generally, I understand that whatever antiques/ artifacts that were stolen are India’s property. The only issue is, where do they best serve our interests – in India or remaining where they are.

      I thought your contradict your first point with your second.

      • lekhni, not sure how points 1. & 2. contradict each other.
        2. is my personal opinion applicable to me, whereas I know that it’s not shared by the majority and I wouldn’t want to impose my opinion on to them, or deny them the joy/inspiration they may find in looking at Gandhi’s artifacts in a museum in India. Hence, point 4. 🙂

      • Well, in #1 you mention that it makes sense to you that India wants the artifacts of a famous Indian back, and in #2 you say that buying Gandhi’s artifacts is misguided and that’s how personality cults are started…

        But I see now that in #1, you are arguing for others and in #2, you are arguing for yourself 😉

  6. And you know what…these have now been bought by ‘liqour baron’ Vijay Mallya ! So much for Gandhi’s values that Vijay Mallya will now look at the world through the lens of the Mahatma.

    This was one heck of a brilliant post ! Well written!

  7. We’d do better to clamour for Gandhi’s vision than his glasses!

    I agree totally with you that his artifacts do better being displayed through the world, rather than a corner of India.

    And what fun if we get the Kohinoor back. Any government that manages to do that can be ensured they will win votes for atleast 50 years on the basis of that.

    As for Nehru’s jackets and Sardar Patel’s shawls and so on, soon we’ll have all kinds of subgroups demanding their leader’s/idol’s things back. Maybe this can replace the Hindu/Muslim and other such issues?

    • I’d love to see how they’ll try to get the Kohinoor back 😀 And you might be on to a good thing – should we start inciting people to protest about return of Nehru’s jackets? It might very well keep them from trouble 🙂

  8. I’m thinking, should we start a protest about a liquor baron being allowed to buy Gandhiji’s things? Hmm? 😀 Aren’t the means as important as the ends? What message does this send out to the nation and all that? 🙂

  9. I endorse the views and the basics of this article in pricipal,
    We are doing a drama of first order by showing such longing for these
    Glasses -Katori – and Chappals of Gandhi ji.
    We have killed the Soul of Gandhi by our deeds innumerable times–
    WE means–LEADERS OF INDIA–not the commoner,good soul,
    who remembers Gandhi by Heart but only is too busy to show it on stage,
    Like AMBIKA SONI who promptly callled a Press conference, to take credit,
    even before Malya could speak.—ha—ha ha—ha.

  10. Now theres a new controversy between Mallya and the Govt. The Govt is claiming that they “instructed” VM to go ahead and make a bid and VM is refuting this.
    I also dont see why getting this back meant so much but as previous commenters have mentioned, this is election season..and our masses are still swayed by crap like this…

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