Mahatma Gandhi on law and lawyers | Perspective  

[dropcap]M[/dropcap]AHATMA Gandhi was a lawyer for almost 25 years before he became an apostle of nonviolent revolution. While leading the independence movement in India, Gandhi worked as a journalist and edited the Young India, Navajivan and the Harijan.

In South Africa, Gandhi led a civil disobedience movement to fight racist laws on several occasions. Charles R. DiSalvo, in his book The Man Before The Mahatma: M.K. Gandhi, Attorney at Law in Morgantown, has argued that it was the injustice of the South African legal system that turned Gandhi away from the courts. “Gandhi eventually lost faith in the traditional legal system – courts, judges, lawyers, litigation – but he never lost faith in the law,” DiSalvo says in his study of Gandhi’s legal career.

Gandhi in his writings and public speeches remained a bitter critic of Indian courts and lawyers. He believed that Indian justice system rewarded the wealthy and compounded the miseries of the poor. Yet he would enjoin lawyers to place “truth and service” above the perks of the profession. He advised lawyers to write their petitions in a simple language.

What a lawyer charges a client remains largely unregulated in India and there is a growing demand for a law to regulate hefty fees charged by the lawyers. However, Gandhi, addressing the Bar Association Peshawar way back in 1938, had asserted, “I confess, I myself have charged what I would now call high fees. But even whilst I was engaged in my practice, let me tell you, I never let my profession stand in the way of my public service…”

He maintained that throughout his career at the bar he never once departed from truth and honesty. “The duty of a lawyer is always to place before the judges, and to help them to arrive at, the truth, never to prove the guilty as innocent.”

As far back as 1909, Gandhi had slammed lawyers in his book, Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule, for encouraging litigations and prolonging them. He stressed on lawyers to promote reconciliation.

Gandhi blamed lawyers for giving legitimacy to the accusation against Indians that “they love quarrels and courts, as fish love water.” Gandhi also denounced them for their tacit support to the British colonial rule.

He doesn’t stop here in his scathing criticism. In the book, he goes on to say: “Men take up that profession, not in order to help others out of their miseries, but to enrich them. It is one of the avenues of becoming wealthy and their interest exists in multiplying disputes. It is within my knowledge that they are glad when men have disputes. Petty pleaders actually manufacture them. Their touts, like so many leeches, suck the blood of the poor people.”

“Lawyers are men who have little to do. Lazy people, in order to indulge in luxuries, take up such professions. It is the lawyers who have discovered that theirs is an honourable profession. They frame laws as they frame their own praises. They decide what fees they will charge and they put on so much side that poor people almost consider them to be heaven-born,” he adds.

In his weekly journal, Young India dated October 6, 1920, Gandhi warned that justice must not be a luxury of the rich. “Law courts are probably the most extravagantly run. I have some knowledge of the scale in England, a fair knowledge of the Indian and an intimate knowledge of the South African. I have no hesitation in saying that the Indian is comparatively the most extravagant and bears no relation to the general economic condition of the people.”

He continues, “The best South African lawyers –and they are lawyers of great ability –dare not charge the fees the lawyers in 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.”

“Legal practice is not — ought not to be — a speculative business. The best legal talent must be available to the poorest at reasonable rates,” he remarks.

On justice, Gandhi said, “This is not a maxim to be mouthed in courts of law but to be applied in every concern of practical life.” Gandhi has been quoted as saying in Young India dated December 3, 1919: “I have not a shadow of a doubt that society would be much cleaner and healthier if there was less resort to law courts than there is.”

In another edition dated August 25, 1921, he had preferred bravery, sacrifice, truth, love and faith to legal acumen, calculation, diplomacy, hate and unbelief for the success of India’s independence movement.

Justice should become cheap and expeditious, he asserted.

But Gandhi never lost sight of the positive aspects of the legal profession. In The Law and The Lawyers, a book compiled and edited by SB Kher, Gandhi has thus advised the lawyers: “Petition writers must understand that they address busy men, not necessarily sympathetic, sometimes prejudiced, and almost invariably prone to sustain the decisions of their subordinates. Petitions have to be read and analysed by public workers and journalists who have none too much time at their disposal.”

The book also records Gandhi’s interesting take on the ideal purpose of law in a civilized society: “It is not legislation that will cure a popular evil. It is enlightened public opinion that can do it.”

At a time when citizens are increasingly being treated as mere breathing bodies by the governments and ruled through draconian laws, Gandhian philosophy seems like a whiff of fresh air in this period of despair: “A law can touch the body, but not the mind. The mind can be touched only by love and persuasion.”

There is a higher court than courts of justice and that is the court of conscience, The Law and The Lawyers quotes Gandhi as saying, “It supersedes all other courts”.

Gandhi, according to DiSalvo, understood non-violent civil disobedience against an unjust government to be an “expression of one’s highest form of law.”

Such ideals may sound “unpragmatic” to the cynics. But we know Gandhi was an incorrigible optimist—who believed in the innate goodness of the people. When the entire world was morbidly obsessed with war, between 1915 and 1945, he was talking about peace and non-violence.

Gandhi searched for an alternative way for the humankind to co-exist harmoniously.

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Leaflet.)

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