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    South Asia
 
     Mar 6, 2009

Gandhi's glasses and a rabbit's head
By Sreeram Chaulia

Barely had the controversy about the sabotage of the auction of two Chinese bronze fountainheads in Paris broken out when a parallel drama has begun to unfold about the personal belongings of Mahatma Gandhi being paraded for auction in New York.

The items of India's "father of the nation" that US firm Antiquorum Auctioneers is bringing under the hammer include his spectacles, sandals, pocket watch, a bowl and a plate - all symbols of his legendary Spartan lifestyle and saintly qualities. As in China, a national outrage has been sparked in India by the commercialization of its sacred heritage by the Western art collection business.

The auction comes a week before the 79th anniversary of Gandhi, know as the "Great Soul", beginning his campaign of peaceful civil disobedience against British rule in India. Arguably the most pivotal figure in India's history in the 20th Century, he was imprisoned by the British four times before leading the nation towards independence in 1947. On January 30, 1948 he was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic who could not forgive Gandhi for his religious tolerance towards Muslims.

The journey by which the Chinese rabbit and rat heads made their way to Europe and by which Gandhi's antiques reached the US bear some parallels. China's bronzes disappeared when French and British colonial armies looted the imperial Summer Palace in Beijing at the end of the second Opium War in 1860. Like so many other trophies and treasures seized from the colonies, they were brought to France and displayed in an art gallery as memorabilia from the age of glorious European empires.

They "legally" changed hands to become the personal property of French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, a bon vivant who was among the top connoisseurs of the art world. That the Chinese artefacts ended up in the hands of an aristocratic Frenchman who was celebrated as an icon of his country's culture instead of being returned to where they belonged was a deep humiliation for China and a daily reminder of the unrepentant attitudes of former colonial aggressors.

So, when Saint Laurent's collection went up for auction after his death, the Chinese government made every effort to prevent the continued usurpation of its prized national assets. French law, which legitimizes colonial ransacking and vandalism, refused to intervene and left nationalists from Beijing no option but to stage the dramatic sabotage action by the mysterious "Chinese buyer" - Cai Mingchao.

Cai, an antiques collector and Chinese government adviser, has become a national hero since the daring stunt which saw him bid $40 million by phone for the fountainheads at the February 25 sale at Christie's Paris. He revealed at a press conference in Beijing on Monday that he was the winning bidder, claiming to have acted "for the Chinese people". He has refused to pay for the sale, and has been served with a formal notice to pay up within a month or forgo ownership of the statues by the owner.

Gandhi's items were not forcibly grabbed by the British in the same way as the Chinese bronzes, but they too passed into colonial hands and mythology. A characteristic of the Mahatma's non-violent philosophy was his personal friendships with several Englishmen. Thanks to his nuanced argument that "I cannot and will not hate Englishmen but nor will I bear their yoke", Gandhi cultivated a mass following of admirers in Britain - from textile workers to colonial administrators.

In 1931, just prior to the Round Table Conference in London, the Mahatma gifted his leather sandals to a friendly British military officer. They were passed down through his family to eventually reach a private collector in the US.

Gandhi's glasses were similarly given as a present to a colonel in the British Indian Army who had asked for a keepsake in order to be inspired. They were held within the colonel's family for a long time before passing into a private collector's trove. The other auction items from Gandhi were gifted by the Mahatma to his grandniece and remained with his descendants until collectors netted it and brought it to the Antiquorum show.

As in the case of the Chinese government's protests and attempts to halt the Paris auction, the Indian government objected strongly and held talks with Antiquorum to remove Gandhi's items from sale, but to no avail. An Indian diplomat in New York announced subsequently, "We have offered to them that even if they did not want to donate the items, we could purchase the items on the behalf of the government of India."

Rich Indian businesspersons in the US also joined the chorus of national sentiment back home that they would buy the items and return them to their country of origin. By declaring their determination to get back rare material possessions of the Mahatma, Indians have shown the same nationalistic fervor as the Chinese did with the bronzes.

What incensed Chinese and Indian nationalists in particular was the behavior of the auction houses and private collectors who, in the eyes of Beijing and New Delhi, are thieves masquerading as respectable "legal" owners. Saint Laurent's industrialist friend and patron of arts, Pierre Berge, made the tongue-in-cheek remark that he could return the bronzes back to China if it improved its human-rights record. With his Western liberal outlook, Berge may have thought this was a clever way to shine light on the plight of Tibetans and the Falungong, but all it did was to enrage Chinese nationalists.

In all fairness, it was a case of the pot calling the kettle black. That France, which committed some of the worst colonial and neo-colonial excesses in Vietnam and Algeria and abetted the Rwanda genocide, was trying to adopt a holier-than-thou position on human rights was a supreme irony not lost on anyone who understands the violence and exploitation of imperialism.

In the Gandhi auction case, James Otis - the private American collector based in Los Angeles who calls himself a pacifist - has likewise said that he could "negotiate" a return of the items to India if New Delhi "would consider a wider commitment to improve the lives of India's people as payment". He added to the chagrin of Indians that one pre-condition for a return of the objects was increased health expenditure as a percentage of gross domestic product by the Indian government. Here was a privileged American thinking he could dictate the domestic policies of an independent Asian country through blackmail.

The attitude of Berge and Otis reflect the neo-colonial mindset that the Western intellect knows the planet's problems and has solutions for them, if only corrupt "Third World" leaders were more conscientious to listen to it.

Criticism of China's human rights and India's misplaced public spending priorities is valid and worth raising a hue and cry about, but it cannot be tagged to the emotional issue of the return of stolen artifacts that have no moral basis to be sold at gala events in Paris and New York for the amusement of Western cognoscenti. As long as political conditions are attached to restitution of colonial-era plunder to Asia and Africa, the Western world will remain mired in hierarchical smugness about its supposed superiority in culture and human evolution.

The Mahatma's glasses and the Chinese rabbit heads should have served as ultimate reminders of the destructive impact of Western colonial rule. They should have generated debate within Western societies about the apology and debt they owe to their former subjects in the Third World.

Instead, the rigidity of French and American legal systems which defend the sanctity of private property, however acquired, are enabling a cover-up of the robberies in broad daylight committed by imperialism. Both episodes enliven Gandhi's famous quip that Western civilization "would be a good idea".

Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher on international affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs in Syracuse, New York.

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