How Gandhi the Lawyer Gave Rise to Gandhi the Satyagrahi

The early years of his legal career in India & Pretoria were vital in shaping his approach to the freedom struggle.

9 min read
How Gandhi the Lawyer Gave Rise to Gandhi the Satyagrahi

(This story was first published on 1 October 2019 and is being reposted from The Quint’s archives on the occasion of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary.)

For 20 years before he got involved in the freedom struggle, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was a lawyer in South Africa, a profession common among the ranks of India’s freedom fighters, from Lala Lajpat Rai to Jawaharlal Nehru.

And yet, it is a profession that hardly seems to fit the man.

To the neutral observer, the very nature of legal practice – adversarial, materialistic (when it comes to civil cases), devoid of emotion or spirituality – would seem to be at odds with his philosophy as well as the approach he took to the independence movement and advocated in his writings.

Gandhi himself was the first to admit that he didn’t have the skills the best lawyers of the time like Pherozeshah Mehta, or Badruddin Tyabji were known for: powerful oration, exhaustive knowledge of statutes, the ability to recite case laws at will.


Despite these contradictions, Gandhi wasn’t a lawyer simply by training, giving up practice in a few years because of disillusionment, intent on doing greater things – it was something he stuck at for a very long time, moving countries and continents to find a way to make it work.

So, what does the story of Gandhi – the lawyer – tell us? How did a man like him get by in the dog-eat-dog world of law courts? And did these experiences, including some very, very abject failures, help make a Mahatma out of the man?

A Briefless Barrister in Bombay

The Bombay High Court is one of the most beautiful courts in the country, famed for its neo-Gothic architecture and a favourite among legal interns looking for an impressive selfie. Take a trip to its courtrooms over the years and you’d be witness to arguments from some of the most famous names of the Indian bar, from Badruddin Tyabji to Ram Jethmalani, and from Nani Palkhivala to Indira Jaising, by way of Fali Nariman.

However, no matter how far back you go, you wouldn’t get to see MK Gandhi, barrister of the Inner Temple in London, arguing a case before the judges. That’s not to say you wouldn’t have seen him there at all, just that the sight would be of him taking the odd nap instead. Here’s what Gandhi himself wrote about the time in his autobiography:

“I used to attend High Court daily whilst in Bombay, but I cannot say that I learnt anything there. I had not sufficient knowledge to learn much. 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 learnt to think that it was fashionable to doze in the High Court.”

He had moved to Bombay with the idea of using his qualifications as a barrister in London, but failed to get a single brief in the high court during the months he spent there (in his autobiography he says he ran the practice for six months, Ramchandra Guha says he was there from November 1891 to September 1892). His one appearance in the small causes court ended in an embarrassing fashion after he found himself at a loss for words when he had to cross-examine the opposite party.

Apart from a few memorials he drafted, this stint at the Bombay court proved to be a complete failure. He struggled with getting to grips with Indian law, and his spiritual leanings – which had given him some success as a writer during his time in London while he was training to be a barrister – did not help him in the slightest.

Gandhi leading the Dandi March.
(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

And yet, Gandhi’s time in Bombay contributed towards his legacy in an entirely unexpected way. Chances are, when you think of Gandhi, the first image which pops into your head is of him leading the Dandi March, striding forward with his staff in one hand, followed by his compatriots.

He began the practice of walking everywhere while in Bombay as a practical way to manage his finances. What was a necessity as a ‘briefless barrister’ would, however, help keep him fit and free from illness – in his own words – and physically able to lead something like the Dandi March despite his age and diminutive physique.


A Turning Point in Rajkot

After failing to establish himself in Bombay, Gandhi was forced to return home to Rajkot (his family home was in Porbandar but the household was based in Rajkot). Here, through the influence of his brother’s partner (the two of them had a small legal practice), he was able to do “moderately well” for himself, drafting petitions for clients in civil matters – though oral arguments in court were still beyond him.

Success, however, remained elusive.

Gandhi’s autobiography talks about the problems he faced in Rajkot because of a case where his brother, Laxmidas, who had been secretary and advisor to the ruler of Porbandar before he ascended the throne, was accused of “having given wrong advice when in that office.”

Gandhi wrote that the matter went up to the British ‘political agent’ for the princely state, who was “prejudiced” against his brother. MK Gandhi had made this same agent’s acquaintance when he was in London, so Laxmidas cajoled Gandhi into interceding with him on his behalf.

But while the agent agreed to meet Gandhi, he was not impressed by what he saw as an attempt to abuse their acquaintance, and told Gandhi to leave.

When he continued to try to press his brother’s case, the agent had Gandhi thrown out of the room by his peon. Gandhi was furious at this (!) and threatened to take action against the officer.
Laxmidas Gandhi (L) and MK Gandhi (R) in 1886.
(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

He was dissuaded from doing so by none other than Pherozeshah Mehta, who warned him of being “hot-blooded” and that it would not gain him anything. Instead, it would most likely ruin him. “Tell him he has yet to know life,” was Mehta’s advice.

This proved to be a turning point in Gandhi’s life in two different ways, both of which would have an impact on his eventual role in the freedom struggle. The first was a philosophical realisation:

“The advice was as bitter as poison to me, but I had to swallow it. I pocketed the insult, but also profited by it. ‘Never again shall I place myself in such a false position, never again shall I try to exploit friendship in this way,’ said I to myself, and since then I have never been guilty of a breach of that determination. This shock changed the course of my life.”

The revelation and the vow he made after that came at an inconvenient time for Gandhi. It was then that he came to realise how much of practice in a place like Kathiawad was about influence, intrigue, and sycophancy, and how hard it was to come by justice. All of this convinced him that it was time to leave India and gain new experience in a different country.


Truth and Unity in the Transvaal

Whatever may be the exact timeline of the events which transpired in Rajkot and Bombay, the fact of the matter is that Gandhi was disillusioned with India and needed an opportunity to, as Ramchandra Guha puts it in Gandhi Before India, “escape from the political intrigues of home, and to earn a decent sum of money.”

The escape came as moving to South Africa, where his involvement in the fight against discrimination faced by Indians would prove to be the crucible of his ideas for a non-violent political struggle.

While most of us are aware to some extent of how that played out, what is less known is how the legal case which took him to South Africa had a tremendous impact on how he would practice law, and his very conception of the freedom movement.

The case involved a dispute between members of a Muslim trading family from Gandhi’s ancestral home of Porbandar, who had branches in Natal and Transvaal. Dada Abdulla was suing his cousin Tayob Haji Khan Mahomed for a sum of 40,000 pounds sterling, which the latter owed the former.

An oil painting of a young MK Gandhi with Dada Abdulla, by Kishorebhat Thanki, now in the Gandhi Smruti Kirti Mandal in Porbandar.
(Photo Courtesy: Cutchi Memon Digest)

Gandhi’s opportunity to get involved in the case arose as Abdulla’s records were in Gujarati – since he knew the language and was a London-trained barrister, he could bridge the language divide for the British lawyers representing Abdulla in court. He reached Durban on 24 May 1893, and travelled further to Pretoria where the case was being heard.

During the journey, he was thrown off the train because of his race not once, but twice, and on the third attempt, was asked to not sit in the first-class compartment despite having a ticket for the same. These incidents, of course, served to increase his fame later.

According to Gandhi, the year he spent in Pretoria working on the case was “a most valuable experience” in his life. He credited the year for giving him an opportunity to learn public work, enhance his spirituality, strengthen his confidence that he could succeed at what he sought to do – pretty important for what eventually unfolded.

The case also made him realise the value of facts and through them, of truth. “Facts mean truth, and once we adhere to truth, the law comes to our aid naturally,” he wrote. These became words to live by in his legal practice, where he came to be known for his devotion to truth, even giving up cases mid-argument if he realised the client had lied to him.

One hardly needs to point out that this devotion to truth was the cornerstone of his philosophy going forward, and of his idea of the freedom movement as ‘Satyagraha’, or struggle for truth.

In addition to the contribution of the Dada Abdulla case to Gandhi’s idealisation of truth, it changed the way he approached disputes in general. Rather than fight the case out in court which would involve more time and expenses, Gandhi thought it would be better to tackle the case in an arbitration. Abdulla didn’t think Tyob would agree.


But Gandhi managed to meet Tyob and, according to his autobiography, convinced him to take the arbitration route – the first time he used the skills of negotiation and compromise which would play a key role in all his movements. When Abdulla eventually won the case, Gandhi further managed to convince him to let his cousin pay the amount in moderate instalments.

“My joy was boundless. 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 riven asunder. The lesson 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. I lost nothing thereby – not even money, certainly not my soul.”

The Rest Is History

Gandhi was supposed to return to India after the conclusion of the case, but during the farewell dinner hosted for him by Dada Abdulla in Durban, conversation turned to the Bill in the Natal legislature which sought to prevent Indians from voting in elections there. Gandhi was persuaded to stay on and help fight this discriminatory measure, and this cemented his interest and passion for what he called ‘public work’, and how he thought it should be done.

“Thus God laid the foundations of my life in South Africa and sowed the seed of the fight for national self-respect.”

The lessons he learned in Bombay, Rajkot and Pretoria would remain with Gandhi all his life.

MK Gandhi (seated, centre) and other members of the Indian community fighting against the discrimination laws at the Empire Theater in Johannesburg.
(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

He represented teachers, students, indentured labourers, families seeking shares of ancestral property, and also fought cases to defend individual rights. For instance, the case of a Muslim who would take his cap off in court when told to by a magistrate – something Gandhi himself had to do as a barrister, but which he contested because the man had a right to dress according to his faith.

He never became known for being a great orator or a courtroom warrior, but he nonetheless became a a prominent member of the bar in Natal, even though a second attempt to establish himself in Bombay ended in failure as well. He returned to South Africa where he thrived once more and was, as Guha puts it, “the lawyer of all the Indians of Natal, regardless of caste, class, religion of profession.”

It was rather perfect training to become the man who would fight for the cause of all Indians.

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