M.K. Gandhi, Attorney at Law: The Man before the Mahatma

M.K. Gandhi, Attorney at Law: The Man before the Mahatma

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by Charles R. DiSalvo

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In 1888, at the age of eighteen, Mohandas Gandhi sets out from his modest home in India. Shy, timid, and soft-spoken, he embarks on what he believes will be a new life abroad. Twenty-seven years later, at the age of forty-five, he returns—this time fearless, impassioned, and ready to lead his country to freedom.

What transformed him? 



In 1888, at the age of eighteen, Mohandas Gandhi sets out from his modest home in India. Shy, timid, and soft-spoken, he embarks on what he believes will be a new life abroad. Twenty-seven years later, at the age of forty-five, he returns—this time fearless, impassioned, and ready to lead his country to freedom.

What transformed him? 

The law.

M. K. Gandhi, Attorney at Law is the first biography of the Mahatma’s early years as a lawyer. It follows Gandhi as he embarks on a personal journey of self-discovery: from his education in Britain, through the failure of his first law practice in India, to his eventual migration to South Africa. Though he found initial success representing wealthy Indian merchants, events on the ground would come to change him. Relentless attacks by the white colonial establishment on Indian civil rights prompted Gandhi to give up his lucrative business in favor of representing the oppressed in court. Gandhi had originally hoped that the South African legal system could be relied upon for justice. But when the courts failed to respond, he had no choice but to shift tactics, developing what would ultimately become his lasting legacy—the philosophy and practice of nonviolent civil disobedience.

As he took on the most powerful governmental, economic, and political forces of his day, Gandhi transformed himself from a modest civil rights lawyer into a tireless freedom fighter. Relying on never-before-seen archival materials, this book provides the reader with a front-row seat to the dramatic events that would alter Gandhi—and history—forever.


Editorial Reviews

Asian Review of Books - Nigel Collett

“A very powerful and original contribution to Gandhian studies.”
The Caravan: A Journal of Politics and Culture - Tridip Suhrud

“DiSalvo, through painstaking work in the legal archives of South Africa and in the archives of the Sabarmati Ashram, has written the first account of Gandhi’s life in law. . . . The Man Before the Mahatma is without doubt among the finest in a long biographical tradition.”
Books And Culture - Tim Stafford

“South Africa was . . . a profoundly racist society. . . . This inescapable reality forced on Gandhi a response. Here Charles DiSalvo's book, examining Gandhi's life as a lawyer, is particularly worthwhile.”
Washington Post

“An excellent study of Gandhi’s 20 years as a young attorney in South Africa.”
American Historical Review

“This well-written book is the first scholarly work to connect Gandhi’s nonviolent civil disobedience to the failure of the courts in racialized South Africa.”
Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies - Vinay Lal

“Among the more arresting works on this phase of Gandhi’s life . . . an astonishingly detailed and revealing study of Gandhi’s law practice.”
America - Frank R. Herrmann

"Charles DiSalvo’s inspiring M. K. Gandhi, Attorney at Law: The Man Before the Mahatma . . . offers a detailed and deeply thoughtful study of the ambiguous place of law in the life of a man who led millions of people to freedom."

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University of California Press
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M.K. Gandhi, Attorney at Law

The Man Before the Mahatma

By Charles R. DiSalvo


Copyright © 2013 Charles R. DiSalvo
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95662-9


Dispatched to London

It seems strange that any man should take one of the most important steps of his life, and one on which his future happiness largely depends, without duly weighing what it means beforehand. Yet, in the case of many Barristers, this is so.

BALL, The Student's Guide to the Bar (1879)

IT WOULD BE SURPRISING IF anyone noticed him. Th e person who arrived on the SS Clyde on September 29, 1888, at Tilbury Station, twenty miles south of London, England, was not the ascetic, politician, and saint whose campaign for Indian independence would make his loin-clothed image instantly recognizable a century later in Richard Attenborough's Academy-award winning film, Gandhi. Rather, the figure stepping gingerly into that inhospitably cold and foggy Saturday night was a timid, even frail, eighteen-year-old child from an obscure part of a continent thousands of miles away, dispatched from his Hindu homeland to the foreign Christian and Western culture that was nineteenth-century Britain.

What transformed this shy boy into a respected leader? What drew the leader to civil disobedience? The answers, in part, are to be found in the experiences Gandhi underwent in the law. Before passing into that phase of his life during which he dedicated himself to the liberation of India from British rule, Gandhi practiced law for twenty years, at first briefly and unsuccessfully in India and then for a substantial period and quite successfully in South Africa before giving up the practice and returning to India. During the period of his legal education and then his practice, Gandhi was severely tested and, in response, found his voice and his focus. He established his identity as one who saw injustice clearly and acted decisively against it, saw truth clearly and acted decisively for it. He succeeded in conjoining his practice with his beliefs, making of the law not simply his profession but his vocation. And in the end, even as he recognized the limits of traditional legal processes, he discovered the great dynamic within the law that converts civil disobedience into social change.


The choice of career, like the choice of marriage, was not Gandhi's to make. Just as his marriage at age thirteen to Kasturba was arranged for him, so, too, was the decision to study law the product of family forces other than his own will. Gandhi's father, Karamchand Gandhi, had met with some success in ascending to positions of high bureaucratic power, serving as prime minister of the small dominions of Porbandar, Rajkot, and Vankaner. While Karamchand's political career failed to make his family wealthy, neither did the family want for the basics of life. Theirs was a day-to-day stability. Karamchand's health, however, worsened as a result of age and accident, and eventually he was forced to give up his career in government. When he passed away, he did not leave the family anything on which to live. None of Gandhi's three older siblings had the prospects required to carry the family. Accordingly, the burden settled on the shoulders of young Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

After completing high school, Gandhi passed the Bombay University matriculation examination and took up his studies at Samaldas College in Bhavnagar in 1887. He wasn't much of a student, being both uninterested in and unable to follow his professors' lectures. Compounding the difficulty he had with his studies were his physical problems. Gandhi complained of constant headaches and nosebleeds due, some conjectured, to the hot climate. Gandhi's summer vacation from Samaldas could not come too soon. In late April 1888, at the start of his vacation, Gandhi and his oldest brother, Lakshmidas, decided to visit a friend of the family, the Brahmin Mavji Dave. On hearing Gandhi's complaints about college, including his prediction that he would fail his first-year examination, Mavji suggested that Gandhi be sent to England to study for the bar. This, he thought, would prepare Gandhi to reclaim his father's position and income in much better fashion than would the pursuit of an ordinary college degree. The calculus being made at this time did not involve altruistic concerns. The naked purpose of providing young Gandhi a legal education was to guarantee an income for the family. It is not surprising, then, that when Gandhi was asked in 1891 why he had come to England to study the law, his forthright reply was "ambition."

There are no reports indicating just what Gandhi thought at this time of what a life in the law meant, if he gave any thought to it at all. Indeed, there are no reports indicating any resistance on Gandhi's part to the idea of training in the law, except his timid inquiry whether he could be sent to study his first love, medicine, instead of law, a proposal which was quickly discarded in the wake of his brother's declaration that it was their father's wish that Mohandas become a lawyer, not a physician. Thus it appears that Gandhi accepted the choice of profession made for him with little more objection than that he voiced to the choice of a wife his family made for him.

Regardless of the little thought Gandhi himself may have given to studying the law or being a barrister, we do know that he relished the prospect of three years in England. Perhaps this is what motivated him to overcome four serious obstacles to his studying law there: the lack of any means to finance his legal education overseas, the concerns of his wife's family, the uncertainty of his mother, and the opposition of his caste.


Lakshmidas assumed the task of obtaining financing. His first attempt at securing the necessary funds was to send Gandhi off to beseech Frederick Lely, the British administrator of Porbandar state, for governmental assistance. The Gandhis hoped that their reputation with Lely, established by the late Karamchand, would lead Lely to open the state coffers. After a four-day journey to Porbandar and after elaborately rehearsing his request, Gandhi was startled when his request was dismissed out-of-hand. Lely brusquely advised him to secure his B.A. before attempting the study of law, after which Lely would consider granting some aid. Gandhi then turned to his cousin Parmanandbhai, who promised his financial support, as did Meghjibhai, another cousin. Despite their promises, there is no evidence that either of these cousins aided Gandhi; indeed Meghjibhai is on record as later angrily denying Gandhi any help. Two additional governmental representatives whom Gandhi approached were as unhelpful as Lely. Other than some small amounts of money and a silver chain that some of his friends gave him on his departure from Bombay, it appears that Gandhi received no financial help from any of his friends, extended family, or governmental officials. If Gandhi was to go to London, it would be by exhausting what capital remained with his immediate family after the death of Karamchand.

Money, however, was the least-complicated of Gandhi's problems. He was married to Kasturba, the daughter of the merchant Seth Gokaldas Makanji of Porbandar—an arrangement put together according to Indian custom by the families of the children. Now here was the eighteen-year-old Kasturba, pregnant with the couple's child, about to be abandoned for three years by her husband. This did not sit well with Kasturba's parents. Gandhi spent many hours convincing them of the wisdom of his intentions and reassuring them that Lakshmidas would look after Kasturba. Speaking of the difficult project of winning over Kasturba's parents to his plan, Gandhi later said, "Patience and perseverance overcome mountains."

But an even more difficult task lay ahead—obtaining the blessing of Gandhi's mother, Putli Ba. Naturally, she had the reluctance any mother would to bid adieu to her youngest child. Perhaps as an expression of this fear, but more likely as an expression of genuine spiritual concern, Putli Ba, a devout Hindu, worried that her son would surrender his Hindu practices to the English appetite for the forbidden pleasures of wine and meat. Indeed, there was an idea abroad at this time in India that wine and meat were actually necessary for survival in the English climate. Determined to go to England, Gandhi devised two ways of dealing with his mother's concerns. First, by his own admission, he exaggerated the benefits of his English sojourn. Second, to quiet her concerns about his moral purity, he secured the services of Becharji Swami, a Jain monk and a family advisor, to administer an oath to him that he would refrain from wine, meat, and for good measure, women. With these steps reassuring Putli Ba, she granted her permission.

Even with his immediate family in the fold, however, Gandhi's plan was controversial. To make his way to London, he needed to travel from Rajkot to Bombay, where he would board a steamer for England. Bombay was even more populated by members of his caste than his hometown. This was unfortunate for Gandhi; there was heated resistance on the part of his caste to the notion of any of their members going abroad. A series of incidents in which Gandhi was peppered with harassment on the streets of Bombay for his intentions was followed by an even more dramatic public confrontation. Gandhi was forced to attend a meeting of his entire caste, at which the subject of his going abroad would be addressed before the whole group. The discussion came to a head with this ultimatum issued by the leader of the caste to Gandhi: "We were your father's friends, and therefore we feel for you; as heads of the caste you know our power. We are positively informed that you will have to eat flesh and drink wine in England; moreover, you have to cross the waters; all this you must know is against our caste rules. Therefore, we command you to reconsider your decision, or else the heaviest punishment will be meted out to you." Gandhi's unequivocal response was to reject the threat, saying that he was going nonetheless. The head of the caste thereupon decreed that Gandhi was no longer his father's son, ordered all members of the caste to have nothing to do with him, and declared him an outcast.

While the initial idea of taking up legal studies did not belong to Gandhi, it is clear from his determination to remain unaffected by the decision of his caste and to overcome the other obstacles to his going that once he embraced an arrangement thrust upon him by others, he advanced that arrangement with all the same energy and spirit of one who gave birth to it. Just as he had been faithful to his arranged marriage, he would be faithful to the plan to study the law, foreshadowing his faithfulness to the integrity of the legal process itself that would distinguish his career in the law.

On September 4, 1888, two weeks after being ejected from his caste, Gandhi boarded a steamship for London.


The world of legal education into which Gandhi stepped in the fall of 1888 would be almost unrecognizable to legal educators today. It is now almost universally true that there is a serious academic component in one's training for the bar, usually in a university context. It often includes or is followed by practical training in either simulated or actual practice settings or both.

Legal education at the close of the nineteenth century in London could hardly have been more different. To begin with, the student prepared for the call to the bar in something other than a traditional university setting. Since at least the middle of the fourteenth century those who wished to become barristers received their call to the bar by first enrolling in one of the four Inns of Court. The source of the term "inn" is instructive. Historian Robert Pearce tells us, "The word 'Inne' was anciently used to denote the town houses in which great men resided when they were in attendance at court." From this beginning the various Inns grew into powerful voluntary associations of barristers, centered in London, the purpose of which was to control entry to the bar and to provide young men an environment within which to read the law in preparation for their bar examinations. One must be quick to add, however, that there appears to have been another function of the Inns, namely to school barristers-to-be in the long-standing elitist traditions of the bar. This tradition had deep historical roots. Sir John Fortescue, the Lancastrian chief justice, speaking of the practices of the fifteenth century, said that "the greatest nobility ... often place their children in those Inns ... not so much to make the laws their study, much less to live by the profession ... but to form their manners."

This deep-rooted awareness of manners and social status persisted down to the time Gandhi began his studies and was no more evident than in the requirement that the student eat a minimum number of dinners with his fellow students and the senior barristers of his Inn while awaiting his call to the bar. Dinners were highly stylized affairs, emphasizing hierarchy, formality, and tradition.

At earlier points in their history, the Inns provided the students with lengthy and careful lectures, known as readings, by distinguished members of the bar. The reader prepared an elaborate discussion of an act or statute that, after being delivered, was followed by a series of arguments by barristers about the incorrectness of the reader's opinion, followed itself by the reader's rebuttal. In addition to these readings, the students were provided with the opportunity to observe mock exercises called bolts and moots.


By the time of Gandhi's arrival these practices had disappeared, and the Inns, while retaining their control over admission, had, with respect to their pedagogical function, descended to institutions akin to educationally undemanding social fraternities. The practice of "keeping terms," as the dinner requirement was known, remained, but in an eviscerated form. Four terms a year were held. A student was required to keep twelve terms in all, meaning that one could complete his preparation for the bar in just under three years. During these terms, students with university educations were required to dine at least three times during each term in a dining hall run by the Inn while nonuniversity students, like Gandhi, were required to eat dinner there at least six times a term. Students and barristers would be seated at tables of four, while the "benchers" would be seated separately. Although all were required to appear for dinner attired in their formal gowns, there was no requirement that any part of the dinner conversation center on the law. Indeed there was not even any conversation between the students and the benchers. There were no readings, lectures, or speeches. There were no moot exercises, the custom of conducting mock trials having been discarded long before Gandhi arrived. The only requirement was that the student, to get credit for attending, appear before grace was said and remain present throughout the dinner until a concluding after-dinner grace was said. By 1888, it appeared that keeping terms had lost any function it may once have had to impart a formal legal education to the students and was reduced to nothing more than a ceremony to inculcate in the student the manners of his profession.

Apart from dinners there was no setting in which students were required to come in contact with either lecturers or practitioners. The students' days were their own. A diligent student would occupy himself, perhaps in one of the Inns' comfortable libraries, with the reading entailed in meeting the only academic requirements of this process: the passage of two written examinations, one in Roman law and one in English law. The Student's Guide to the Bar, by William Ball of the Inner Temple, published in 1879, states that the knowledge required to pass the Roman law examination was slight, and advises that for the person with a university education, "six weeks' work of ... six hours a day would be sufficient." In the period before Gandhi arrived in England, the English law examination had developed a reputation for being not much more challenging than that in Roman law, with Ball estimating that "four months' work of ... six hours a day ought to be amply sufficient for a University man of average abilities and education." The picture changed just before Gandhi started his studies. Writing on the eve of Gandhi's arrival in London, T.B. Napier and R.M. Stephenson, authors of A Practical Guide to the Bar (1888), claimed that "until quite recently the difficulty of the Bar examinations was greatly underrated" and that the "percentage of men who are ploughed for the Bar examinations is tolerably large." It is not surprising, then, that they advised more study than Ball, namely two to three months of steady work for the Roman law examination and more than just "a few months' reading" for the English law examination.


Excerpted from M.K. Gandhi, Attorney at Law by Charles R. DiSalvo. Copyright © 2013 Charles R. DiSalvo. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Charles R. DiSalvo is the Woodrow A. Potesta Professor of Law at West Virginia University where he teaches one of the few law school courses on civil disobedience in the United States. He has also represented civil disobedients in trial and appellate courts, written widely on civil disobedience, and lectured on the subject in the United States and abroad. He is the co-founder of the West Virginia Fund for Law in the Public Interest.

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