Mahatma Gandhi Esq.

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“Mahatma” is not a first name; it’s a honorary title (roughly translated “high soul”) spontaneously awarded revered moral teachers. “Mahatma” Gandhi certainly deserved the title. He not only changed South Africa and India, but also inspired the civil rights leaders in the United States like Martin Luther King.But before Gandhi was a ‘Mahatma” he was a lawyer,and there is a close connection between his role as a lawyer and the activities that later merited him his “Mahatma” status.

Gandhi qualified as a barrister in England in the early 1890’s but like many young lawyers at all times and in all places, when he returned to his native India he found it difficult to establish a law practice. Luckily he was contacted by some Indian-born merchants in the Natal province in South Africa asking him to come  there to represent them in commercial matters. Gandhi accepted the invitation and proved himself a skilled commercial litigator.

His success in commercial suits encouraged his clients to bring him a different sort of legal problem— laws discriminating against Indian immigrants. A small number of Indian merchants were listed on the voting roles in Natal. The local government ( all white) suddenly announced their plan to dis-enfranchise all Indians.The Indian community, angered that they should lose the vote for no reason other than their race, asked Gandhi to represent them in the voting dispute. He immediately drafted a petition to the government questioning their actions. But he didn’t stop there because he knew success was unlikely if the dispute remained local because white South Africans were quite comfortable with their prejudice against non-whites

So Gandhi immediately expanded the field of contention to include London and India. He knew that the United Kingdom was operating a large empire overwhelmingly inhabited by non-whites. They had to be more solicitous of their image on racial matters than the Natal Boers. So too, he knew that the most valuable British imperial asset was India, and it would roil the political waters there if Indians felt their kinsmen in South Africa were being gratuitously insulted.

Gandhi wrote an open letter to the British Secretary of State for the Colonies (and a former moderate Viceroy of India) calling the proposed legislation an “insult to the whole Indian nation.” He also alerted nationalists in India about the unjust treatment Indians were suffering in Natal. This strategic capacity to enlarge the field of battle to his own advantage would be a tactic Gandhi would return to many times in the next few years.

.Gandhi eventually prevailed in India, but it didn’t happen quickly. Gandhi was a callow twenty-five year old when the dispute started in 1894; he was a seasoned pro when it ended in 1914, But throughout that long struggle, he continually exhibited the traits that I think are the tools of the lawyer’s art. Gandhi was always prepared and always polite. And he made sure to never demonize his opponents; he tried hard to understand their view of the dispute. He also was very careful in advising his clients not to unnecessarily offend the opposition.

He was also very patient and showed amazing stamina and resiliency. Time and again a solution seemed at hand, only to have the Boers renege at the last moment. Gandhi never despaired and never relented in his struggle to achieve justice for his clients. And while he was always open to an honorable compromise, he refused to cave in on what he saw as principle. He didn’t want today’s partial victory be tomorrow’s defeat.

And he showed himself  very gifted in both strategy and tactics. He soon realized that he was dealing not only with a legal problem, but also a political issue that would be in the end decided in the court of public opinion. He had to communicate his side’s view to the public and potential supporters. He started by writing pamphlets putting out his clients’ view of situation and sending them to opinion makers in London and India. Later he founded a newspaper to inform the Indians of South Africa of the fight and the role they could play in it.

But even though he was always moderate in his demands, he could be very daring in his tactics. Finally in 1906, the Indians lost patience with the obduracy of the white South Africans. A law was passed that required demeaning acquiescence for the Indian community. Gandhi recognized that best legal tactic to oppose unjust laws laws was to disobey them. While there had been examples of civil disobedience in the past, I think it can be safely said that Gandhi invented its use as a tool to pressure a recalcitrant government. It was a tactic he used later in India and one which Martin Luther King gratefully copied in the American civil rights struggle. But even in breaking the law, Gandhi exhibited the lawyer’s penchant for careful planning as to when, where, and by whom the law would be broken.

Gandhi’s tactics was especially effective because they were always framed in a non-threatening manner:
“Our method in South Africa is to conquer… hatred by love. We do not attempt to have individuals punished but as a rule, patiently suffer wrongs at their hands. Generally, our prayers are not to demand compensation for past injuries, but to render a repetition of these injuries impossible and to remove the causes.” This proved to be in South Africa (and later in India and the United States) not only a high-minded philosophy, but also a very clever political tactic.

And Gandhi was courageous. He not only counselled his clients to disobey the law and defended them in court, but also personally joined in the civil disobedience.. He not only served time in lonely jail cells, but also was attacked by unruly mobs he resented his involvement.

Finally in 1914, an acceptable agreement was signed. By then the issues had changed and their resolution applied not just to Natal, but all of South Africa. It was not a complete victory, but a substantial one. Gandhi soon departed to engage in further heroic exploits in India. He left behind a very grateful and much better-organized Indian community.

There is a tendency to divide Gandhi’s career into two parts: his career as lawyer and his life as a social activist. But I would suggest we look at them as a unity. Everything Gandhi did in South Africa emerged from his role as an advocate and it was as a lawyer that he devised the innovative tactics he used there and later in India. He exemplified the energy, creativity, and cleverness that marks the best lawyers.

I don’t mean to argue that all lawyers are Mahatmas, but it is undeniable that this ‘great soul” became one through his life in the law.

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