July 05, 2020
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Why Gandhi Turned Against Lawyers

He called them “touts that suck the blood of the poor people”. But even Gandhi had not anticipated Patiala House breed of lawyers.

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Why Gandhi Turned Against Lawyers
Lawyers carry a Tricolour as they march from Patiala House Courts to India Gate against alleged anti-national activities at JNU.
PTI Photo by Atul Yadav
Why Gandhi Turned Against Lawyers

Thanks to 24x7 television many of us have seen lawyers at the Patiala House Court in Delhi take the law into their own hands, ostensibly in the name of nationalism. And unlike the footage of the students at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, reportedly shouting anti-India slogans on campus and subsequently charged for sedition, there is no charge of doctoring of the visuals showing the lawyers’ unpardonable behaviour.

While the lawyers who were in the thick of action at the Patiala House Court are unrepentant and have even been feted by some of their colleagues, it might be worth noting what Mahatma Gandhi had written about lawyers and the profession of law in Hind Swaraj. Hind Swaraj, written in 1909, is regarded as a fundamental work for understanding Gandhi and one where we can find the essence of Gandhi’s thought, which are scattered across some 100 volumes. Hind Swaraj is also the one work where Gandhi critiques modernity and Western civilization head on.

Gandhi singles out certain aspects of modernity for stinging criticism. His targets include the railways and the profession of medicine and law. At the beginning of the chapter on lawyers, Gandhi says that they have “enslaved India, and they have accentuated the Hindu-Mohammedan dissensions, and have confirmed English authority.” Gandhi goes on to say: “The lawyers… will as a rule, advance quarrels, instead of repressing them… 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.”

There are two aspects to Gandhi’s criticism of lawyers. One, lawyers are complicit in colonial rule and for widening the Hindu-Muslim divide, which Gandhi saw as one of the primary impediments to the Indian nationalist movement. Two, Gandhi was directing a more fundamental criticism at the profession of law for encouraging litigation and prolonging them. Hence Gandhi says that lawyers have been instrumental in ensuring the charge against Indians that they “love quarrels and courts, as fish love water.”

What made Gandhi, who was himself a barrister, turn against his own profession, even going to the extent of comparing it to “prostitution?” Some might say that Gandhi’s lack of success as a lawyer might have provoked him to take an extreme position. Gandhi himself has admitted that he was a briefless lawyer in India and had even applied for a part time job in a Mumbai school to teach English. However, during his South African years Gandhi not only made a name as a lawyer, but was also financially successful. In fact, he made enough money to fund some of his political activities in South Africa.

The reasons for Gandhi’s disenchantment with the law lay elsewhere. Charles DiSalvo in his recent study of Gandhi’s legal career – ‘M.K. Gandhi, Attorney at Law: The Man Before the Mahatma’ – says that it was the injustice of the South African legal system that turned Gandhi away from the courts. But DiSalvio also argues, “It is true that Gandhi eventually lost faith in the traditional legal system – courts, judges, lawyers, litigation – but he never lost faith in the law.” According to DiSalvo, Gandhi understood non-violent civil disobedience against an unjust government to be an “expression of one’s highest form of law.”

There are, however, some who believe that Gandhi wrote Hind Swaraj in a relatively early stage of his political career and might have forsaken some of the more radical ideas that he had espoused there. Indeed Jawaharlal Nehru writing to Gandhi in 1946 said that he had found Hind Swaraj “completely unreal” when he had first read it and felt that in his later writings and speeches Gandhi had advanced beyond that position. But even in 1946 Gandhi stood by the system of government that he had envisaged in Hind Swaraj though he had nothing to say about lawyers in his correspondence with Nehru. However, in 1938 when addressing the Bar Association in Peshawar, Gandhi reiterated, “A true lawyer was one who placed truth and service in the first place and the emoluments of the profession in the next place only.”

It is probably too idealistic to expect lawyers, or anybody else for that matter, to put aside thoughts of making money. There are, of course, some lawyers who selflessly work for poor litigants and for public interest. However, the lawyers at Patiala House Court and their supporters have shown that they not only do not harbour any thoughts of public service but have contempt for the law that they profess to practice. Of course, violence and hooliganism by lawyers is nothing new in India. Last year, protesting lawyers in Allahabad High Court resorted to arson and vandalism. Similarly, lawyers of the Madras High Court indulged in violence in 2015 prompting the Supreme Court to lament the precipitous drop in the standard of the legal profession.

The only difference in the conduct of the Patiala House lawyers is that they have sought the cloak of nationalism to justify their illegal actions and the police have treated them with kid gloves. Even Gandhi had not anticipated this particular breed of lawyers.

(The writer is Senior Research Fellow, ISAS & SASP, National University of Singapore.)

This web-exclusive column does not appear in print magazine.

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