Gandhi as a lawyer

“I had learned the true practice of law; I had learnt to find out the better side of human nature and to enter men’s hearts. I realized that true function of a lawyer was to unite parties riven asunder. The lesson was so indelibly burnt into me that a large part of time during the 20 years of my practice as lawyer was occupied in bringing about private compromise of hundreds of cases. I lost nothing thereby – not even money, certainly not my soul.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on 2nd October, 1869, in Porbandar, Kathiawar, which was a part of the British Empire then. He was a lawyer and an anti-colonial nationalist who made use of non-violent resistance to lead the successful movement for India’s independence from the British rule. Gandhiji’s father, Karamchand Gandhi, served as a Chief Minister in Porbandar and other States in Western India. His mother, Putlibai, was a religious woman. The honorific Mahatma (great-souled) applied to him in the year 1914 in South Africa, which is now used throughout the world for him.

Gandhi Jayanti is celebrated in India to mark the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. It is celebrated on 2nd October every year and is one of the official national holidays of India, observed in all of its States and Union Territories. The United Nations General Assembly, on 15th June, 2007, adopted a resolution which declared that 2nd October will be celebrated as the International Day of Non-Violence, throughout the world. Gandhi Jayanti is celebrated in India with great energy and enthusiasm. Prayers are conducted and tributes are given all over India, including at Gandhi’s Memorial Raj Ghat in New Delhi where he was cremated. In 2019, the Government of India decided to commemorate the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, Father of the Nation, at the national and international level to propagate his message. A National Committee headed by Hon’ble President of India was constituted for this purpose. The Committee included Hon’ble Vice-President, Hon’ble Prime Minister, Chief Ministers of all States of the country, representatives from across the political spectrum, Gandhians, thinkers, and eminent persons from all walks of life. The Prime Minister of India stated that it is our social responsibility as citizens of India to help fulfil Gandhiji’s vision of Clean India, by his 150th birth anniversary. He also added that whether it is climate change or terrorism, corruption or selfishness in public life, Gandhiji’s ideals are the guiding light for us when it comes to protecting humanity and the path shown by Gandhiji will lead to a better world.

Gandhiji passed his Matriculation examination in 1887. Some members of his family suggested that he should enter the medical profession, while others wanted him to join the service of Porbandar State, eventually, it was decided that Gandhiji must study law in England. His mother did not want him to study in England for such a long time but finally, she permitted him to go. After passing his law examination he was called to the Bar on 10th June, 1891 and was enrolled as Barrister on the very next day in the High Court. Soon after his enrolment, he stated that it was easy to be called to the Bar, but it was difficult to practice at the Bar, he had read the laws but not learnt how to practice law. When he returned from England, he started practice in Bombay and Mr. Frederick Pincutt told Gandhiji in good faith that “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.” Little did Mr. Pincutt know that one day Gandhiji would be the greatest leader of India.

In 1893, Gandhiji obtained a contract to perform legal services in South Africa for one year and he went to Durban. When Gandhiji arrived in South Africa, he was disappointed by the racial discrimination faced by Indians at the hands of white British authorities. When he appeared in a courtroom, for the first time, he was asked to remove his turban which shocked him beyond belief. In Pretoria, South Africa, he was travelling by train, had a valid ticket but a white man opposed Gandhiji’s presence in the first-class railway compartment. Gandhiji denied to move to the back of the train and in the fullness of time, he was thrown off the train at a station in Pietermaritzburg.

In 1901, Gandhiji returned to India from South Africa and started practising in Mufassil Courts. He won numerous cases in Mufassil Courts and his confidence was uplifted. He was advised by his friends and well-wishers to settle in Bombay only and practice at the High Court. He got a number of cases to work on and he triumphed in most of them. Continuing on his merry way, he stated that he prospered in his profession better than he had expected. Destiny had different things in store for him as he was yet again called to South Africa to lead an agitation there.

During his practice as a lawyer, he never deceived the Judge. He believed in speaking the truth no matter what the consequences would be. He used to say that in my heart of hearts I always wished that I should win only if my client’s case was right. However, his noteworthy habit of speaking and following what is right, sometimes, made people not to approach him for taking up their cases. He used to tell his clients that he would not take up cases which are false and unfounded. This great tendency propelled Gandhiji to be called as an honest, upright, and a principled lawyer in the legal profession. He was even respected for his work in South Africa. Judges admired and honoured his integrity and his words were always considered serious and important. It is pertinent to mention that the parties which had valid facts for their cases, would request him to take up their matters as his quality of following the truth fetched him fruitful results based on rightness. On one occasion, he took up a case which had account work. Though the award of the arbitrator was in favour of Gandhiji’s client, there were some errors in the accounts. Gandhiji’s Senior Lawyer who was also engaged in the matter wanted the errors not to be identified before the Court but Gandhiji took an exception to his Senior’s notion and argued the case himself. He accepted the errors before the Court and the errors were made right resulting in the modification of the award but his client did not suffer any loss in the end. After the pronouncement of the award, Gandhiji stated that “I was delighted, so were my client and senior counsel; and I was confirmed in my conviction that it was not impossible to practise law without compromising with truth.”

Once Rustamji, a good friend of Gandhiji, was involved in the business of smuggling and he had not revealed it to Gandhiji. It was crystal clear that Rustamji would be imprisoned as the Government Authorities had got knowhow about his affairs but Gandhiji made sure that truth wins. He told Rustamji to accept his faults and he would save him by employing his path of truth. Gandhiji had a meeting with the Attorney General, other Authorities and persuaded them not to take this matter to a Court of Law instead impose a fine on Rustamji. Thus, Rustamji was saved and Gandhiji yet again displayed that truth and honesty always emerge victoriously. Rustamji used to confabulate with Gandhiji about his personal affairs, such was his trust in Gandhiji. In Johannesburg, while appearing for a case, Gandhiji noticed that his client had misled him and provided him with wrong facts. He scolded his client and immediately requested the Court to dissolve his case there and then only, which shocked the opposite Counsel. The Judge praised the morals and ethics of Gandhiji. Gandhiji always used to tell his friends and clients that truth triumphs and one must always follow the path of truth and non-violence. His dependence on truth always proved to be a boon for him in and outside the courtroom. He was honest not only to the Court but to his clients as well. He would never shy away in accepting his mistakes and would never hide any ignorance of the law, if he had any, to his clients. Gandhiji used to discuss and deliberate about the intricacies of laws with his colleagues and seniors which helped him to effectively analyse and grasp laws of different kinds. Gandhiji, with the efflux of time, gained popularity as a lawyer and his clients increased rapidly. It was difficult for him to work single-handedly as his legal work expanded and thus, he engaged Mr. Polak and Ms. Schlesin in his office to assist him. He continued to follow the path of truth which was liked not only by his clients but also by the courts of law.

Gandhiji never lost sight of truth and non-violence which always guided his path. Therefore, we must always try to discover Gandhiji’s message of peace, truth, and non-violence and make it relevant in our day-to-day lives. Each one of us has an important responsibility towards our nation and we all must aspire to fulfil our responsibilities by following the path of truth, in the words of Gandhiji: –

“It’s the action, not the fruit of the action, that’s important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there’ll be any fruit. But that doesn’t mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.”

Muneeb Rashid Malik is a student of law.