The Mahatma's Initial Struggles With Law

Afreen Alam & Hamza Lakdawala

2 Oct 2020 5:12 AM GMT

  • The Mahatmas Initial Struggles With Law

    In classic Indian fashion, Gandhi’s plans for life were brushed aside by his family in the name of superstition.

    A young Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi sailed for England on 4th September 1888 to study law and become a barrister. Law wasn't Gandhi's idea but was rather suggested by a family friend and advisor Mavji Dave who had a son studying in England. Dave suggested that Gandhi go there while his son was still in England and get from him all the help and guidance he can. Mohandas, on the...

    A young Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi sailed for England on 4th September 1888 to study law and become a barrister. Law wasn't Gandhi's idea but was rather suggested by a family friend and advisor Mavji Dave who had a son studying in England. Dave suggested that Gandhi go there while his son was still in England and get from him all the help and guidance he can. Mohandas, on the other hand, wanted to become a Physician. Gandhi recalled in his autobiography about how his brother was against the idea. His brother told him, 'Father never liked it. He had you in mind when he said that we Vaishnavas, should have nothing to do with dissection of dead bodies. Father intended you for the bar.' The main objective of providing young Gandhi a legal education was to guarantee an income for the family.

    Legal education did not come without a cost. Gandhi's desire to go abroad was met with vehement opposition from the members of his caste. In Bombay, he was forced to attend a meeting of his entire caste, at which the question of his going abroad was to be addressed, the headman of the community, who was a good friend of his father accused him, 'In the opinion of the cast, your proposal to go to England is not proper. Our religion forbids voyages abroad. We have also heard that it is not possible to live there without compromising our religion, one is obliged to eat and drink with the Europeans! Therefore, we command you to reconsider your decision, or else the heaviest punishment will be meted out to you.' To which Gandhi replied 'I do not think it is at all against our religion to go to England. I intend to go there for further studies. And I have already solemnly promised to my mother to abstain from the three things you fear the most. I am sure the row will keep me safe.' The Sheth (head) of the caste thereupon ordered that Gandhi was no longer his father's son, instructed all members of the caste to have nothing to do with him, and declared him an outcast.

    He started his legal education in 1888. He studied at the Inner Temple. It is speculated that he chose it because it focused on the common law, the study of which would aid him later in his practice in India. He managed to intensify his burden of preparation by forgoing the use of notes on the law that were circulating among students, choosing instead to go directly to the recommended textbooks instead. Foreshadowing the meticulousness that would characterize his entire life at the bar, he felt that to do otherwise would be a fraud. Consequently, he purchased and read all the text-books.. investing much money in them. Among the treatises he read was Broom's Common Law, which according to him was 'a big but interesting volume that took up a good deal of time.' Snell's The Principles of Equity, which he found 'full of interest, but a bit hard to understand' and which actually would aid him in his religious explorations later in life. He also read Williams' Principles of the Law of Real Property, intended as a first book for the use of students in conveyancing, the only law text in existence ever described as reading "like a novel."

    In January 1891, he passed the bar exam, which was quite complicated; 32 of 109 who sat for the exam failed. Of the 77 who passed Gandhi was ranked at 34th. He procured his call to the bar on June 10, was sworn in before the High Court on June 11, and on June 12 he was on his way back to India. Even after passing the bar, he was very anxious, he mentioned in his autobiography that 'notwithstanding my study, there was no end to my helplessness and fear. I did not feel myself qualified to practise law.'

    According to him, it was easy to be called, but difficult to practice at the bar as he had read the laws but not learned how to practice the law. He further attributed in this autobiography that he read with interest the legal maxims but did not know how to apply them in the profession. He gave the example of Sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas (Use your own property in such a way that you do not damage that of others), but he did not know how to employ this maxim for the benefit of one's client, he had read all the leading cases on the maxim, but it gave him no confidence in the application of it in the practice of law. He further confessed that he had learned nothing of the Indian law and did not have the slightest idea of the Hindu and Mahomedan law. He had not even learned how to draft a plaint and "felt completely at sea." He wasn't even sure if he would ever be able to earn a living by this profession.

    He went to meet Frederick Pincutt. He asked Gandhi the extent of his general reading. When Gandhi told him about his little stock of reading, at first Mr Pincutt was disappointed. Then he said, 'I understand your trouble. Your general reading is meagre. You have no knowledge of the world, a sine qua non for a vakil. You have not even read the history of India. A vakil should know human nature. He should be able to read a man's character from his face and every Indian ought to know Indian history. There is no connection with the practice of law, but you ought to have that knowledge. I see that you have not even read Kaye, and Malleson's history of the Mutiny of 1857. Get hold of that at once and also read more books to understand human nature.'

    His family, especially his brother, had high expectations from him. This made Gandhi very nervous about starting his law practice at Rajkot. According to him, 'to start practice in Rajkot would have meant sure ridicule. I had hardly the knowledge of a qualified vakil and yet I expected to be paid ten times his fee! No client would be fool enough to engage me. And even if such a one was to be found, should I add arrogance and fraud to my ignorance, and increase the burden of debt I owed to the world?' His friends advised him to go to Bombay for some time in order to gain experience at the High Court, to study Indian law, and to try, get what briefs he could. He took up the suggestion and went to Bombay.

    At Bombay, he was joined by his friend Virchand Gandhi. For him, the study of Indian law was a tedious business. He set about studying Mayne's Indian Law, which he read with "deep interest." He had no similar luck going through the Civil Procedure Code, one of the driest subjects. By contrast, the Evidence Act held his interest. But even after learning the Indian law, he was "hopeless beyond words."

    Gandhi leaped at the chance to represent a real paying client in court when a defendant in a civil case, Mamibai, asked Gandhi to represent her. He thought it would be an easy case; little did he realize how unprepared he was by nature to advocate a client's cause in open court. A lawyer has to be a people's person, someone who does not have a lack of nerve. In the year 1891 twenty-two-year-old M.K. Gandhi, barrister at law, lacked the nerve. Consequently, his representation of Mamibai ended in failure and embarrassment. As she was the defendant, Gandhi's first task at the courtroom was to cross-examine the witnesses for the plaintiff. When he stood up to conduct his first cross-examination as a barrister, he was clutched with fear. He became dizzy, and his head began to spin. His heart sank. He was unable to ask a single question. He wobbled to his seat and told the client's agent that he could not go on. Then, he stumbled out of the courtroom in disgrace.

    He decided not to take up any more cases until he had the courage enough to conduct them. He started attending the High Court daily to learn something, about this experience he mentioned, 'I used to attend the High Court daily, but I cannot say I learned anything there. I did not have sufficient knowledge to learn from. Often I could not follow the cases and dozed off. There were others also who kept me company in this and thus lightened my load of shame. After a time, I even lost the sense of shame, as I learned to think that it was fashionable to doze off in the High Court.' While Gandhi was optimistic, the stalemate in Bombay continued. Eventually, he made peace with reality and packed his bags.

    With the memory of his failure fresh in his mind, Gandhi arrived at Rajkot and set up his own office. With a steady flow of drafting work, he managed to earn around Rs. 300 a month. This however wasn't a result of his skill, but due to the influence his brother's partner had. However, this success was short-lived. Gandhi got into a spat with an English Saheb. He soon realized that the Saheb wasn't of the forgiving kind and thus their history stood in the way of his practice. While he struggled to make ends meet in Rajkot, a golden opportunity came his way. He spoke of the incident in his autobiography, 'A Meman firm from Porbandar wrote to my brother making the following offer: We have a business in South Africa. Ours is a big firm, and we have a big case there in the Court, our claim being £ 40,000. It has been going on for a long time. We have engaged the services of the best vakils and barristers. If you sent your brother there, he would be useful to us and also to himself. He would be able to instruct our counsel better than ourselves. And he would have the advantage of seeing a new part of the world, and of making new acquaintances.'

    Gandhi went to South Africa in April 1893 and stayed for a whole year in Pretoria in connection with the case of Sheth Dada Abdulla who was involved in a civil suit with his near relative Sheth Tyeb Haji Khan Mahammad. The year's stay in Pretoria changed Gandhi's life. Here it was that he had opportunities of learning public work and acquired some measure of his capacity for it. And it was here where his religious spirit became one with his work. It was here too that he acquired a true knowledge of legal practice and learned the things that a junior barrister learns in a senior barrister's chamber and also gained confidence that he would not after all fail as a lawyer. It was here in South Africa that he learned what it takes to succeed in the law. At the end of the Abdulla case, he was to return to India. However, a new Natal government discriminatory proposal led to Gandhi extending his original period of stay in South Africa. He had decided to assist Indians in opposing a bill which denied them the right to vote, a right then proposed to be an exclusive European right. Though unable to halt the bill's passage, his campaign was successful in drawing attention to the grievances of Indians in South Africa. It was here that he found his true calling.

    From 1893 till 1913 Gandhi practiced in South Africa. Early in his practice, he realized that "the true function of a lawyer was to unite parties riven asunder." "This lesson", he writes, 'was so indelibly burnt into me that a large part of my time during the twenty years of my practice as a lawyer was occupied in bringing about private compromises of hundreds of cases.'

    Soon enough, Gandhi settled in South Africa as a lawyer. He was known for his industry and dedication. He read his cases and ensured he was abreast of the facts. What made him stand out was his non-adversarial nature and calm style of presenting arguments, which starkly opposite to the aggressive advocacy which judges were used to. More importantly, Gandhi excelled at cross-examination, which was one of his earliest sources of embarrassment. He rarely failed to break down a dishonest witness and managed to do so without attacking like a mad-dog. As far as he could, Gandhi discouraged litigation and advised out-of-court settlements through mediation - something that would go on to become the foundation of the freedom struggle he led.

    When one thinks of Gandhi, a national leader comes to mind. However, much of his early years were spent in struggle and professional stagnation. A man who captured the imagination of a country could once barely speak before a magistrate. And still, despite his initial struggles with self-confidence, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi rose to become the man we know as the Mahatma - who single-handedly inspired a country to push for independence.

    Views are personal only.

    [Hamza Lakdawala is an aspiring litigator, researcher, and writer from Mumbai. He studied Journalism at Mumbai University and is currently pursuing his LL.B. at Kishinchand Chellaram Law College, Mumbai. He tweets at @hamzamlakdawala]

    [Afreen Alam is a law student, researcher, and writer from Delhi. She is currently pursuing her B.A. LL.B from Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi. She tweets @Afreenalam_]

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