Mahatma Gandhi has been recognised throughout the world as a glorious symbol of truth and non-violence. He laid great emphasis on the purity of means for achievement of noble ends. Truth is as old as the Himalayas. Everyone knows its value and strength but Gandhiji applied it in every aspect of his life and proved that one could achieve success even in the most difficult areas of his activities by sticking to truth. There is an erroneous belief that to be a successful lawyer one has to twist facts and sometimes present certain facts which are not wholly true. But this was not so with Gandhiji. He had been in search of truth from his early life. There are a number of incidents in his life which go to show that he followed the path of truth even in the face of numerous difficulties. He disproved the theory that without using untruth no one could be a successful lawyer. He held that ‘it was not impossible to practice law without compromising truth’.
He had expressed that in England and South Africa lawyers were consciously or unconsciously led into untruth for the sake of their clients. He vehemently opposed an English lawyer when he advocated that the duty of a lawyer was to defend a client even if he knew that he was guilty. Gandhi on the other hand was emphatic that the duty of a lawyer was to place correct facts before the judge and to help him to arrive at the truth, and not to prove the guilty as innocent.
Barrister in the making.—Gandhiji passed his Matriculation examination in 1887. Some well-wishers of the family suggested that he should go in for medical profession, while others desired him to join the service of Porbandar State, but on the suggestion of Joshiji, a well-wisher and adviser of the family, it was decided to send Gandhiji to England to study law. His father was dead. Initially his mother was opposed to the idea of sending him to England for such a long period, but ultimately she permitted him to go, on his taking a vow not to touch wine, women and meat. Gandhiji himself was hesitant to go in for law in England because of his poor knowledge of English and secondly he was afraid of studying Latin, which was so essential to an understanding of law books. In spite of all these considerations he decided to study law in England. After passing his law examination he was called to the Bar on June 10, 1891 and was enrolled as Barrister the next day in the High Court. His first reaction after his enrolment was “It was easy to be called, but it was difficult to practice at the Bar. I had read the laws but not learnt how to practice law”.
On his return from England he settled at Bombay and started practice. In the profession he had to face another difficulty. In England he was taught Roman Law and Common Law, but this was of no use in India. If he was to practise in India, he had to study Indian Law. Civil Procedure Code and Evidence Act appeared to him very difficult. Finding a Gandhi somewhat pertured, a leading Barrister of Bombay at the time, Mr Frederick Pincutt, advised Gandhi: “I understand your trouble. Your general reading is meagre. You have no knowledge of world, a ‘sine quanon’ 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”. Mr Pincutt said all this in good faith, but he himself could not read in the face of Gandhi that one day he was going to be the greatest leader of India, who will be respected all the world over.
First case—A failure.—When he got his first case in the Small Causes Court, he was asked to part with a portion of his income for the tout, who had brought the case. He refused to pay the tout, because he felt it was a sort of bribery. Even after accepting this case he had no courage to conduct it. In his own words he describes the experience of his first case as follows: “I stood up, but my heart sank into by boots. My head was reeling and I felt as though the whole Court was doing likewise. I could think of no question to ask. The judge must have laughed, and the Vakils no doubt enjoyed the spectacle. But I was past seeing anything. I sat down and told the agent that I could not conduct the case, that he had better engage Patel and have the fee back from him”. During his short stay of six months at Bombay, in spite of his hard labour, his income was so meagre that he could not afford to go to Court in a conveyance. He used to walk the distance from his residence to Court and back. But he regularly attended the High Court in order to watch the senior lawyers conducting difficult cases. Because of his failure in his first case he lost confidence in himself and decided not to appear in any case in a law Court in future. He felt that a Barrister’s profession was a bad job. He thought of joining a school as a teacher. Something unexpected happened at this time. He was asked by a senior counsel to draft a memorial pertaining to confiscation of land. His draft was not only approved, but was appreciated by other lawyers. This helped him to regain the lost confidence.
First shock.—From Bombay Gandhiji shifted to Rajkot, where he could manage to earn about Rs 300 a month. Here he came to know that a certain percentage of the fee was to be given to the Vakil who sent work to him, but he did not remember to have given money to any Vakil on this account. Here too circumstances did not permit him to practise for a long time. His elder brother persuaded him to recommend to the Political Agent certain official matter concerning his brother which was pending before him. The Political Agent did not like this interference and he got Gandhi out of his office through a peon. Gandhi threatened the Political Agent to take legal action against him for his misbehaviour, but had to abandon this idea on the advice of Sir Feroz Shah Mehta, a leading lawyer practising there. He described this incident as the first shock of his life.
Coolie Barrister.—Because of the above incident, it became difficult for Gandhiji to appear before the Political Agent in any case. He, therefore, wanted to leave the place and God helped him. He was offered a job by Messrs. Dada Abdulla & Co. to go to South Africa to help the Company in it’s litigation there. Gandhiji accepted the offer. When he reached Natal, he found Indians were not given proper treatment by the English. Most of the Indians worked there as coolies. The Indian merchants were also known as coolie merchants. So Gandhiji was nicknamed as ‘Coolie Barrister’. From Natal he went to Pretoria, where he acquired some knowledge of legal practice. Mr Leonard, a leading Barrister, told Gandhiji that in the preparation of each case ‘if he took care of the facts of a case, the law will take care of itself’. Gandhiji acted on this advice and later observed: “Facts mean truth, and once we adhere to truth, the law comes to our aid naturally”.
Gandhiji always liked cases to be settled amicably out of Court, and this is how he thought about it: ‘I had learnt the true practice of law. I had learnt to find out the better side of human nature and to enter men’s hearts. I realised that the true function of a lawyer was to unite parties driven as under’. He followed this practice throughout his legal career for about 20 years and was instrumental in settling hundreds of cases out of Court. An advocate of ordinary morals could rarely have such lofty ideas.
After finishing his legal work in South Africa, he decided to return to India, but his friends persuaded him to stay there, as in him they found a person who could give leadership to fight against the highhandedness of the people of the country and insults thrust upon Indians living there by them. Gandhiji himself had been a subject of such insults on a number of occasions. On the pursuation of his friends he applied for enrolment as an Advocate of the Supreme Court at Natal. A number of objections were raised by the local Law Society against his application only to discriminate him on the basis of colour. In spite of all this, he was enrolled as an advocate. Gandhiji gained wide publicity in South Africa because of this episode.
In 1901 Gandhiji returned to India and started his practice in Mufassil Courts, where he won a number of cases, which gave him encouragement and confidence. He was pursuaded by his well-wishers to settle in Bombay and practise at the High Court, where he got some cases, most of which he won. He could now give better performance, and observed: “I prospered in my profession better than I had expected”. He, however, could not stick to the profession for long as he was called to South Africa again, and this time to lead an agitation there.
While practising law, Gandhiji never resorted to untruth. He used to say, “In my heart of hearts I always wished that I should win only if my client’s case was right”. He accepted minimum possible fees, which would help him to make both the ends meet. He was not happy over heavy fees charged by Indian lawyers. In his opinion an Indian lawyer was comparatively the most extravagant and bears no relation to general economic condition of the people. He once said: “The best South African lawyers—and they are lawyers of great ability—dare not charge the fees the lawyers of India do. Fifteen guineas is almost a top fee for legal opinion. Several thousand rupees have been known to have been charged in India. There is something sinful in a system under which it is possible for a lawyer to earn from fifty thousand to one lakh rupees per month”. He was of the view that the best legal talent must be available to the poorest at reasonable rates. While discussing the qualities of a true lawyer Mahatma Gandhi expressed the opinion that he is one who gives truth and service the first place and emoluments the next. Regarding the cheap and speedy administration of justice Gandhi was of the view that to get justice in Indian Courts was an expensive luxury and it was often the longest purse that won. Gandhiji’s principle to follow truth in the profession was put to test a number of times. When any new case was brought to him, he frankly told his client that he would not take up a false case or tutor hired witnesses. This practice made him known in the legal profession as the most honest lawyer. The Courts also gave him much respect and honour. His words carried weight in Courts. It was generally known that the parties having true facts would engage him and win the case. To have such a reputation for a junior lawyer in a foreign country was really creditable. It would be of interest to relate a case here. He was conducting a case which involved complicated account work. The award of arbitrator was in favour of Gandhiji’s client, but there was a serious mistake in the accounts which could have affected the award itself. The senior lawyer engaged in the case was of the opinion that the mistake need not be pointed out to the Court, but Gandhiji vehemently opposed the idea and offered to argue the case himself even in the absence of the senior lawyer. He convinced the judges that the mistake had crept into the accounts inadvertently. The mistake was corrected and the award was modified without any loss to his client. Gandhiji’s reaction on his success was: “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”.
It will not be out of place to mention here one more instance to show how he stuck to truth in the profession of law. While conducting a case in Johannesburg, he discovered that his client had given him false facts. He requested the Court to dismiss his case. The counsel appearing on behalf of the other side was astonished, but the presiding officer of the of the Court appreciated his moral character. The client was scolded by Gandhiji. In fact he had brought this false case to Gandhiji in the hope to win it on the basis of his reputation, which had spread far and wide, that he accepted only those cases which were based on true facts.
Gandhiji was not only honest and true in accepting genuine cases, he was honest to his clients also. He never tried to conceal his ignorance of any particular aspect of law to his clients and colleagues. Whenever he saw that he required the guidance of a senior counsel, he never hesitated in asking his client to pay extra fee to the senior for his advice. He often discussed his difficulties in law with his colleagues only to gain more knowledge. He was never ashamed of admitting his meagre knowledge on a particular branch of law. The path of truth adopted by Gandhi helped him to increase his clientele and after some time it became difficult for him to cope with his legal work single handed. He, therefore, invited Mr Polak to join him in his profession. He engaged Miss Schlesin also as his Secretary.
The path of ‘Truth’ followed by Mahatmaji saved his intimate and trusted friend Rustamji of South Africa from imprisonment. Rustamji was so near to him that he used to consult Gandhiji even in his domestic and private affairs. He had, however, not informed Gandhiji that he was carrying on smuggling business. When this was detected by Government authorities, it was evident that he will be sent to jail. It was at this stage that he broke the news to Gandhiji and requested him to save him. Gandhiji persuaded him to accept his guilt and he would exercise his utmost influence to save him. He met the Attorney General and Customs authorities and made them to agree to impose fine on his friend and not to take up the case in law Court. This incident saved his friend from going to jail, but for Gandhiji it was a victory of truth and honesty. His faith in truth became all the more sublime.
[We wish to add to the above saga of truth—Gandhiji as a Lawyer—an epistle as an epitome which would demonstrably show how this apostle of truth was Truth cent per cent even when he was arraigned as an accused for the offence of sedition under Section 124-A of the Penal Code, 1860. We pen down a short sketch of what has been called ‘The Trial of Mahatma Gandhi’, written some years ago by me—Hony. Editor].
THE TRIAL OF MAHATMA GANDHI
Mahatma Gandhi had faced many a prosecution in his crusade of non-violence and disobedience against foreign yoke. But the very first trial he had to face after he returned from South Africa is a memorable one insofar as it highlighted how Indian patriotism fought against British Imperialism. The modus operandi of Mahatma Gandhi was unique, admirable and truthful.
Gandhiji’s arrest on March 8, 1921, stirred the nation to its depths. He was so venerated that the people of India associated his acts with DHARMA while the act of the bureaucracy was considered as ADHARMA.
Gandhiji was taken to Sabarmati jail along with Banker, the printer, and later they both were produced before Mr Allen Brown, I.C.S. The trial was before Mr C.N. Broomfield, District and Sessions Judge of Ahmedabad. The offences consisted in publishing three articles in YOUNG INDIA under captions, “Tampering with Loyalty”, “The Puzzle and Its Solution”, and “Shaking the Manes”. The charge was that by these articles Gandhiji brought into hatred and excited disaffection towards His Majesty’s Government and thus committed the offence of sedition under Section 124-A of the Penal Code, 1860.
The Court was crowded with anxious people. When the charges were read and explained, Gandhiji instead of claiming to be tried pleaded guilty.
Gandhiji: I plead guilty to all the charges. I observe that King’s name has been omitted from the charge and it has been properly omitted.
Judge: Mr Banker, do you plead guilty or claim to be tried?
Banker: I plead guilty.
This took the wind out of the prosecution. Sir J. Strangman desired that despite this plea, the trial be proceeded with. The bureaucracy wanted to proclaim how serious was the charge and publicity would mar Gandhiji’s reputation.
Judge: No. The plea of guilty is clear. The mere recording of evidence would make no difference one way or the other. I, therefore, propose to accept the plea.
This suited Gandhiji and he smiled. The Court called upon both sides to state what will be the proper sentence to be passed.
Strangman: A full trial can help in assessing the evidence and the sentence to be passed. In view of Your Lordship’s attitude, I can only draw on the proceedings before the Committing Magistrate for demanding a heavy sentence. The matter which is the subject of the present charges formed part of the campaign to spread disaffection openly and systematically to overthrow the Government. The articles in question published in YOUNG INDIA were not isolated but formed part of an organised campaign from its inception in 1921.
The Advocate General then read out the offending passages and pressed for severe sentence.
Judge: Mr Gandhi, do you wish to make a statement on the question of sentence?
Gandhiji: I would like to make a statement.
Judge: Could you give it to me in writing to put it on record?
Gandhiji: I shall give it as soon as I finish reading it. I have, however, a few introductory remarks to make. I entirely endorse the learned Advocate General’s remarks in connection with my humble self. I think that he was entirely fair to me in all the statements he has made because it is very true and I have no desire whatever to conceal from this Court the fact that to preach disaffection towards the existing system of Government has become almost a passion with me, and the learned Advocate General is also entirely in the right when he says, that my preaching of disaffection did not commence with my connection with YOUNG INDIA but that it commenced much earlier; and in the statement that I am about to read, it will be my painful duty to admit before this court that it commenced much earlier ……….. I wish to endorse all the blame that the learned Advocate General has thrown on my shoulders in connection with the Bombay occurrences, Madras occurrences, and the Chauri Chaura occurrences ……….. He is quite right when he says that as a man of responsibility, a man having received a fair share of education, having had a fair share of experience of the world, I should have known the consequences of everyone of my acts. I know that I was playing with fire. I ran the risk and if I am set free, I will still do the same. I have felt this morning that I would have failed in my duty, if did not say what I said here just now. I want to avoid violence. Non violence is the first article of faith. It is the last article of my creed. But I had to make my choice. I had either submit to a system which I have considered had done an irreparable harm to my country, or incur the risk of the mad fury of my people bursting forth, when they understood the truth from my lips. I know that my people have sometimes gone mad. I am deeply sorry for it and I am therefore here to submit not to a light penalty but to the highest penalty. I do not ask for mercy. I do not plead any extenuating act. I am here, therefore, to invite and cheerfully submit to the highest penalty that can be inflicted on me for what in law is a deliberate crime and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen. THE ONLY COURSE OPEN TO YOU, THE JUDGE, IS, AS I AM GOING TO SAY IN MY STATEMENT EITHER TO RESIGN YOUR POST OR TO INFLICT ON ME THE SEVEREST PENALTY IF YOU BELIEVE THAT THE SYSTEM AND LAW YOU ARE ASSISTING TO ADMINISTER ARE GOOD TO THE PEOPLE.
Gandhiji then read a lengthy statement which concluded thus: “In fact, I believe that I have rendered a service to India and England by showing in non-cooperation the way out of the unnatural state in which both are living. In my humble opinion, non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is co-operation with the good”.
The Judge: Mr Broomfield passed the judgment addressing Gandhiji thus:
“Mr Gandhi, you have made my task easy in one way by pleading guilty to the charge ……… The law is no respector of persons. Nevertheless it will be impossible to ignore the fact that you are in a different category from any person I have ever tried or am likely to have to try. It would be impossible to ignore the fact that in the eyes of the millions of your countrymen you are a great patriot and a great leader. Even those who differ from you in politics look upon you as a man of high ideals and of noble and even of saintly life ……….. It is my duty to judge you as a man subject to the law, who by his own admission, has broken the law and committed what to an ordinary man must appear to be grave offence against the State. I do not forget that you consistently preached against violence and that you have on many occasions, as I am willing to believe, done much to prevent violence. But having regard to the nature of your political teaching and the nature of many of those to whom it was addressed, how you could have continued to believe that violence wouldn’t be the inevitable consequence, it passes my capacity to understand …… You will not consider it as unreasonable,. I think, that you should be classed with Mr Balagangadhar Tilak, i.e., a sentence of two years’ imprisonment on each count of the charge, six years in all, which I feel it my duty to pass upon you.”
As to Banker he was sentenced to one and a half years as he was deemed to have acted under the influence of his chief. Gandhiji prayed for leave to say a few words which Judge Broomfield allowed.
“I just want to say that I consider it to be the proudest privilege and honour to be associated with the name of Lokamanya Balagangadhar Tilak. So far as the sentence itself is concerned I certainly consider it as light as any Judge would inflict on me and so far as the whole proceedings are concerned I must say that I could not have expected greater courtesy.”
So ended the trial which created quite a sensation at the time.
* Research Officer, (Law) U.P. Government
** This Article was first published in Supreme Court Cases 1970) 1 SCC J-7. It has been reproduced with the kind permission of Eastern Book Company