From Mohandas to Mahatma: How legal advocacy helped make Gandhi one of the greatest leaders of all time

[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n a cold misty morning in Scotland, standing on the sidewalk with my mentor, in the context of the class of the day, a question came towards me: “Did barrister Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi play any role in the life of the ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi?”

I was suddenly perplexed at this rudimentary but very difficult question put forward by my advocacy professor, Lady Dame Elish. Coming from Lady Dame Elish, the former Lord Advocate of Scotland, and being one of the leading Advocacy trainers in the United Kingdom and a most prominent academic, this question assumed extraordinary significance.

Despite coming from the land of Gandhi and being an experienced lawyer with extensive litigation experience in India, I had no thoughtful answer to the question from the eminent British scholar.

After some cogitation, however, I tried to stitch a rebuttal, that, this hardly was an issue, as none had ever heard of prowess of Mahatma Gandhi in practice as a Barrister-lawyer and hence the question of the impact of his advocacy skills polishing his career as one of the greatest political leaders of all time was rather irrelevant. Of course, what I hadn’t quite considered is that Mohandas Gandhi, after qualifying as a barrister in England, had almost two decades of experience as a practising lawyer in litigation, in India and South Africa — exactly what Dame Elish pointed out.

I asked her, how was this question about the role of barrister M K Gandhi being alive in the life and times of Mahatma Gandhi, actually important, and why did it at all matter, if his advocacy skills from practice of the profession of law affected the life of the “Father of the Nation” in India.

Dame Elish replied that in her experience the skills required for advocacy and litigation can often help in leadership skills in life. Hence, we see many leading politicians who happened to be lawyers and are also often good speakers, writers and analysts. Logically, the transition of Gandhi from a meek and shy lawyer to a brave and bold leader certainly could have been influenced by the two decades of practice at the Bar which could have laid the foundation for this transformation.

This cue from my mentor took me to study Gandhi in his years of practice of law.

Repeated performances in court, repeated drafting and continuing analysis of the law, indisputably help firm up such skills. Similarly and conversely, if the skill set is practised wrongly, then in fact one ends up firming and deeply rooting, a bad template model with frequent practice of a bad skill set. That is what puts, advocacy skills, as a great subject for inspection qua the life of Gandhi.

Overcoming shyness as a young lawyer

Diffidence and mediocrity marked life of Gandhi as a student and initially as a barrister-lawyer in India and South Africa. In his two decades of legal practice he certainly appeared to have picked up some skill sets which contributed to the final statesman and leader that he became.

Every young lawyer enters the Bar contemplating, if he would ever make it big in the profession. The young lawyer, often puts a benchmark, that if he is even one-tenth the material talent of what the leading lawyer of his times is, then, he would still be much above his contemporaries in other professions. That is the tremendous potential of this profession and practice of law.

Broadly, there are two sets of fresh lawyers. First set are those who enter the profession with some background of the practice of the law in the family; and the second, who are the first timers in the profession.

Both have their set of problems.

The first set having a legacy of leading lawyers or judges in the family, often have too many expectations attached to them, which puts undue pressure on performance prematurely, often harming usual professional growth.

The other set, who is the first-timer, feels marooned and has more often than not to wait much longer, for the deserved big break. The point is, that both sets and most lawyers at the threshold have this difficulty in coming up to the professional expectations. Unfortunately, the universities teach law, but cannot make a student mature any earlier than s/he should be, which ought to be done by long years of advocacy at the Bar.

Gandhi fell almost into the latter category. Gandhi had his brother practising at the Bar in the small town Rajkot in the State of Gujarat. Despite this, Gandhi as the England qualified barrister, was the first generation of lawyer, considered overqualified for the small practice in his town and under-qualified for the High Court practice, owing to little knowledge of local laws and total lack of experience.

How legal practice hones crucial abilities

The question then arises if there were any visible instances of use and development of skills required for advocacy by Mahatma Gandhi, who was first a Barrister, then an Advocate and then a practising Attorney in South Africa, during his professional legal practice of over two decades.

Usually, practice in litigation has developments of elements of rhetoric, visual impact before the court, constant evolution of mediation and negotiation skills, clear drafting, among many other abilities. Skills of advocacy are partly taught in the law schools when training to be a Barrister, or in various law degrees or advocacy courses. Advocacy skills are, however, substantially developed, while in actual practice in profession.

Skills imparted as per the Bar manuals and other legal books and law school courses, would include court soft skills like voice training, making opening and closing Speeches, public speaking, note taking, development of wit and off-the-feet thinking while addressing the court, story-telling styles, etc. Further, visual appeal of the lawyer and presentation skills, court manners, humour, powerful yet simple writing skills, skills for witness examination, negotiation and mediation skills, and most importantly, ethics, are constantly under examination and development, as a lawyer with experience realises the critical value of these attributes. Any of them, or conversely a lack of it, could actually be a turning point development of the case.

Development of these advocacy skills and attributes, as well as ethics, after two decades of practice by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was thus logical. As one traces his growth from his initial years at the Bar to his later part of second decade, one clearly sees him having evolved as lawyer in midst of legal struggles, legal trials and writings. His clear drafting was becoming more manifest in his articles in the journals and magazines he had begun writing for. His carriage of these skills and attributes to political arena and leadership was quite evident from the bold manner he faced his legal trials and cases and the impact he had begun to have on the South African establishment.

His struggle for equality in South Africa, in light of his more equitable experience of the Empire in England during his study towards becoming a Barrister, was the key to his development as a lawyer in South Africa constantly evolving in his practice.

Why advocacy helps make great leaders

Research has shown, that advocacy skills to a large degree can be acquired or polished. While some of the advocacy skills are probably innate, a large part of it can be actually taught and mastered with practice and experience. George Hampel, one of the leading advocacy skills trainers in the world — who in fact trains the trainers on advocacy — emphasises this.

Study material also shows that these advocacy skills, often need to be taught to lawyers, to bring greater certainty in outcomes and for improving chances of success in a trial or courtroom presentation. Practice of skills as discussed above, make performances more consistent in courtroom. These techniques and skills assist one in professional life, as also in other vocations one may practise, which may require some of these skills.

Politics is one such field requiring good skills of excellent public speaking, apart from good understanding of the law if one were a lawmaker leader. History shows that a number of famous leaders have been lawyers and similarly number of famous lawyers have been leaders. Their advocacy skills are a subject of interesting study by Deborah Rhodes in her book Lawyers as Leaders.

The case of Mohandas Gandhi

While the details can be reserved for a longish work which is part of a book, it can broadly be said that research and existing material show how the shy and modest Mohandas Gandhi materially and mentally changed into a very strong leader by the time he had almost two decades of core litigation experience. His professional career started from being a Barrister in England and then to being an Advocate in India and he then went on to practise as an Attorney in the Courts in South Africa.

During this period, he conducted smaller trials and cases, as majority of his clientele in South Africa were the lower class migrant Indians. He was probably the only non-white and Indian attorney in the South Africa of the day and thus the natural choice of the migrant Indian community in their daily conflicts with the South African empire.

Gandhi, thus, was in a fertile ground of cases and problems; he was the one who, it appeared, was forced by circumstances to slowly become the leader of the Indian and Asian mass of migrant population in South Africa. His exposure to the English legal system and court system in the Crown Empire in England gave him an indomitable spirit and confidence to seek similar equalities and rights in the colony of the Empire, South Africa.

The Empire, on one hand found Gandhi the attorney lawyer to be a difficult challenge, as he would always talk of equality and law, as available in the Crown Empire in England; yet on the other hand, they found an easy moderate in him, who could with some ease be the bridge between the forces of the colonial Empire in South Africa and the unlettered volume of masses of migrants struggling against the daily discrimination by the white regime.

Dealing with Gandhi the lawyer in these circumstances was much easier at times for the colonial Empire, than dealing with working class migrants who had little knowledge of law or systems. Certainly we can see the barrister-advocate-attorney Gandhi rise in stature and impact with passage of time, as his practice at the Bar, his advocacy skills acquired during this period through various trials and cases, only improve with leaps and bounds.

Advocate Gandhi would get the complaints from his community and Advocate Gandhi would analyse them for redress in light of the available legislation. He would then challenge the legislation in court where possible by petitions and other places by way of joining social agitation. He would also draw draft petitions as representation to various authorities. In short, he was continuously and ferociously evolving in the discriminatory colonial regime as a lawyer and garnering more and more skills of a practising advocate.

Legal and soft skills of Gandhi in courtroom trials in South Africa, both as a lawyer and litigant, deserve extensive and exhaustive book-length studies of their own, since it’s still a raw and underdeveloped area of inquiry.

Gandhi, during his professional life, went on to also become a writer. Notable among his works are his own autobiography, My Experiments with Truth, and a compilation of his legal writings, which is now called Law and Lawyers. These works will help an ardent student to explore some more in case, one wants to know more about early years of Gandhi in his practice in South Africa. Gandhi ultimately rose to the level, of being called the “Father of the Nation”. His practice in law for over two decades in South Africa in most tempestuous conditions can be seen as a critical groundwork for his years of leadership in India. His presence in India post his practice at the Bar can be noted for his participation in trials as a litigant, a writer, a speaker and a strategist. He was also considered a moderate by the regime, someone who was at times both the complainant and the mediator.

Challenges to law and interpretation of law, brings politics, law and courts together. Gandhi practised both politics and law for over two decades. He acquired and developed his advocacy skills, largely during his practice of two decades and his political life. Though he could possibly be called only a medium-ranked lawyer in terms of earning and practice, yet in those trying, hostile, discriminatory conditions, he still very successfully used his advocacy skills, to sharpen his courtroom contests, as also his political battles. He was on trial a number of times as also contesting in trials of others. His skills and traits as a lawyer made the definitive difference to the later Indian independence movement, which he led in his time.

Gandhi, and indeed a number of other lawyer-leaders of our independence movement, could indeed be a guiding light in the current times, which too show tremendous turbulence as far as the rule of law is concerned. We need lawyer-leaders of similar vision, mettle and tenacity to fight for the survival of the Indian Constitution, as envisaged by our founding fathers and mothers, and the idea of India as an inclusive, pluralist, secular society of unity in diversity. When the biggest challenges today in India, as also elsewhere, are emanating from the court, the solutions too must lie in marrying legal advocacy and social movements together. Gandhi is the perfect template for us to follow.


The Leaflet