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Over a crore for a Gandhi letter

- record price for 3 pages written under house arrest

London, Feb. 17: A letter by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi on October 26, 1943, while under house arrest and pressing for Indian independence, has fetched 134,550 (approximately Rs 1.13 crore), which auctioneers in Britain believe to be a world record price.

The signed three-page typewritten letter “had belonged to a man in India who was a freedom fighter with Gandhi but the elderly seller decided to auction the letter because he wanted to provide for his family”.

This was revealed by Richard Westwood-Brookes, a historical documents expert at Mullock’s, a specialist auction house in Church Stretton, Shropshire.

In his opinion, Gandhi was aware that as India moved towards freedom there were several factions within the Congress and that he was keen to outflank the violent movement led by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. But it will be for other historians to say whether they agree with this assessment.

The guide price for the sale, which was held at Ludlow Racecourse, Shropshire, on February 14, was between 10,000-15,000.

The letter from Gandhi, “one of the most important ever to be offered for sale”, attracted buyers from around the world. It was finally knocked down to a bidder on the telephone for 115,000. With buyer’s premium of 17.5 per cent, the total sale price comes to 134,500.

“This was quite an astounding result,” commented Westwood-Brookes. “The key to our success is that we are specialists in what we do — be it historical documents, sporting memorabilia, fishing tackle, toys or militaria. Our experts know their subjects and can deal professionally with material which is consigned.”

Auctions are remarkably cagey about revealing the identities of buyers but Westwood-Brookes told The Telegraph the buyer came from overseas and was of “Indian origin” — so there is an outside chance the letter may be gifted for public display in India.

There is also the possibility that the high price will encourage other “freedom fighters” or their families to rummage through rusty old trunks or almirahs to check if there is anything that can be salvaged and sold in the West.

“I have already had two or three people ringing me up from India,” he said.

Westwood-Brookes made an offer which prospective sellers in India and elsewhere may find hard to resist: “Vendors can come to Mullock’s for all of our sales and be confident that in our highly motivated team we can achieve prices which are often much higher than the London rooms.”

Last year Mullock’s sold a collection of Gandhi material, including his glasses and prayer book. The collection went for a total 138,000, with letters fetching 4,000-6,000 each.

As to why the latest letter went for 134,000, the explanation from Westwood-Brookes was: “There is a golden rule in auctions — if two people are prepared to buy something they outbid each other.”

As for the letter, “I have a fond belief that Gandhi typed it himself. It has two textual corrections that he made.”

The letter was dated Detention Camp October 26th 1943 and addressed to the additional secretary of the government of India in New Delhi.

Adding his personal comments with extracts from the letter, Westwood-Brookes says that “Gandhi makes a typically reasoned plea for his own and his followers’ release from house arrest”.

Gandhi writes that “it is unthinkable that when India’s millions are suffering from preventable starvation and thousands are dying of it thousands of men and women should be kept in detention of mere suspicion when their energy and the expense incurred in keeping them under duress could at this critical time be usefully employed in relieving distress... the huge place in which I am being detained with a large guard around me I hold to be a waste of public funds. I should be quite content to pass my days in any prison...”

Westwood-Brookes comments: “However crucially the letter also refers to the resolution of the All India Congress held on August 8th 1942 where Gandhi had himself given a clarion call of ‘Do or Die’ for Indian independence.”

Gandhi writes: “...as the Government are aware I offered to meet the member of the Working Committee in order to discuss the situation and to know their mind. But my offer was rejected. I had thought and still think that my talk with them might have some value from the Government stand-point. Hence I repeat my offer. But it may have not such value so long as the Government doubt my bona fides.”

Gandhi goes on: “As a Satyagrahi however in spite of the handicap I must reiterate what I hold to be good and of immediate importance in terms of war effort. But if my offer has no chance of being accepted so long as I retain my present views and if the Government think that it is only my evil influence that corrupts people I submit that the members of the Working Committee and other detenus should be discharged...”.

There is further interpretation from Westwood-Brookes: “Gandhi knew that there were two clear cut factions in the Congress — the first believed in non-violence as was Gandhi’s philosophy while the second believed in armed struggle. This second group had already gone underground splitting into two splinter groups — the ‘Indian National Army’ of Netajee (sic) Subhashchandra Bose which had allied itself to Hitler’s Germany and was supported by General Tojo in Japan and the Azad Dastas of Babu Jaiprakash Narayan which was bent on an armed campaign within India. This letter couched in coded diplomatic terms therefore signifies Gandhi’s desire to achieve a diplomatic strategical struggle for independence and eventual successful establishment of the State of India. The letter comes with research notes and letter of provenance prepared by the present vendor.”

Other historians will argue that Netaji did not get into bed with Hitler but was using him to further the goal of Indian independence, as he did with the Japanese.

Asked by The Telegraph to clarify whether Westwood-Brookes was claiming Subhas Bose had formed an alliance with Hitler, he replied: “This was not my opinion but that of the seller. I dealt with his grandson.”