This week 86 years ago, Mahatma Gandhi reached down and picked up a small clump of salt from an Indian beach. Because harvesting salt was a violation of British law, this mundane act changed the world as we know it. When countless thousands of poor Indians followed Gandhi’s example, the era of peaceful civil disobedience had begun. And civil disobedience was not confined to India. Other reformers all around the world, including Martin Luther King Jr., adopted Gandhi’s strategies to promote social change.
At the time he defied the salt tax Gandhi was a spiritual leader, but the tactics he employed during what history now refers to as the Salt March can be traced to his earlier career as a lawyer. Gandhi was a London-trained barrister, but when he returned to his native India to set up practice, he found there was no work to be had. He was forced to accept a job in South Africa representing Indian merchants there. At first his work was mainly commercial in nature, but he was slowly drawn into disputes about South African laws that discriminated against Indian immigrants.
He soon became leader of the movement protesting those laws, using creative tactics to achieve his goals. One idea was to start a newspaper that would alert Indians and British liberals to the plight of Indians in South Africa. He also sometimes openly disobeyed laws he believed to be unjust.
So, while he was no longer practicing law, the Gandhi of the Salt March was very much still thinking like a lawyer. Encouraging his followers to violate the salt tax law was just one more clever tactic in his fight against injustice. The salt tax was the perfect law to violate. Salt is a basic necessity; the public would not be unduly upset that poor Indians were violating a law that deprived them of a staple of life. And the salt tax was a very easy law to violate since salt lay waiting for the taking on the salt flats along the Indian shore.
The British arrested 60,000 people, but countless more protesters were left unpunished because the number of violations overwhelmed the capacity of the British judicial system in India. The tensions created by incarcerating such a large number of lawbreakers also led police to beat the protesters, and the press quickly transmitted this official violence to the world.
The Salt March also made Gandhi and the Indian National Congress the accepted spokesmen for the Indian people in negotiations for Indian Independence. Independence did not come till 1947, but the process that led to that victory started the day a retired lawyer reached down to pick up that clump of salt.
I love the story of Gandhi’s life because it has a lot of lessons for us more ordinary lawyers and law students. The first is that guile is good; when the law is against you, you have to outwit your opponents. Also, lawyers, if they choose to so use their skills, can contribute to the creation of a less unjust world. And, finally, let’s stop looking at law school as a job qualification and see it as the beginning of a professional journey that can have many twists and turns and may bring us to some interesting and unexpected destinations.