03.01.09

Gandhi's (Few) Possessions Go Up For Auction in New York

The Indian government is protesting the auction of some of Gandhi's possessions, including his trademark glasses. The Daily Beast talked to collector James Otis, who is selling the items, about how he hoped the auction would promote nonviolence rather than court controversy.

The Indian government is in an uproar over an auction this week in New York where some of Mahatma Gandhi's few personal possessions will be sold off, including his famous spectacles, sandals, and pocket watch, as well as eating utensils and the results of a blood test he once took.

Since the sale was first announced this month, Gandhi's great-grandson, Tushar Gandhi, has solicited donations to buy the items on behalf of India. He has also called on the government for assistance in blocking the sale and criticized descendants of Gandhi and of his acquaintances who had previously sold the items to collectors."I will move heaven and earth to get these items back," Tushar Gandhi told the Associated Press.

"My intent never was to create any sort of anger or animosity towards the auction, it was the opposite: to promote Gandhi's words, actions, and to promote nonviolence in any way we can."

India's Culture Minister, Ambika Soni, has since publicly declared support for his effort as well."Whatever can be done is being done to ensure that articles are not auctioned by involving all concerned stakeholders," Soni was quoted by the Press Trust of India as saying.

To collector James Otis, however, who is selling the items from his collection of thousands of pieces of Gandhi-related memorabilia, the controversy comes as a surprise. "I'm completely shocked," Otis said in an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast. "My intent never was to create any sort of anger or animosity towards the auction, it was the opposite: to promote Gandhi's words, actions, and to promote nonviolence in any way we can."

Otis, a documentary filmmaker, activist, and avid collector (his Dr. Seuss collection is said to be among the world's best), said that he had hoped the auction would encourage a renewed discussion of Gandhi's message. "Obama talked a lot about Gandhi in the election and had a picture of him in his office, however since he became president he has sent 17,000 troops to Afghanistan, so it's clear the hope of his message needs to be made relevant again," Otis said. "I hope a discussion continues about the the importance of Gandhi's work and his life message."

As for the Indian government's interest in stopping the auction, Otis said that he has yet to hear from any government representative, but would be happy to negotiation some kind of solution that might satisfy both parties.

"Nobody's contacted me at all," Otis said. "I have a contract with the auction house to sell these items, but as you know you can make a deal prior the auction. I would be very happy to welcome any serious offers from the Indian government and it might not even have to be financial. There are things they could offer in terms of helping the people of India that I would more than welcome, for example improving health care for the poorest Indians in exchange for the items. I would welcome any ideas like that that would benefit the Indian people. We even set up an email today for offers so they could contact me directly, it's gandhiitems@gmail.com."

According to Otis, he first became interested in Gandhi while studying his works in college at the University of Texas in Austin. Through Gandhi, he became involved in human rights activism and he estimates he has been arrested about two dozen times in nonviolent protests since then.

"I think what spoke to me deeply was that he wasn't only a great poitically leader but a far more great social and spiritual leader," Otis said. "Once the West understands how the power of nonviolence is more important than violence they will be able to help do things to resolve conflicts without killing people. The Iraq war would not have happened, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and India-Pakistan conflict, all these conflicts could be resolved much better with nonviolence. I hope thats what these items will bring about."

Otis is currently working on a four hour television documentary with Martin Sheen and Gandhi historian Lester Kurtz, "Peaceful Warriors: A History of Nonviolence" recounting the stories of some of the most famous advocates for nonviolence in history.

The bidding on Gandhi's items is set to begin on March 4th at Antiquorum Auctioneers, assuming no agreement is reached beforehand between Otis, Gandhi's relatives, and the Indian government.

Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.