In what could be a reassuring experience for young lawyers, an exhibition on the life of Mahatma Gandhi as a lawyer, organised by the Madras High Court, demonstrates how he couldn’t conduct his first case before a small causes court in Mumbai and had to repay the fees of ₹30 to his client in 1891.
Titled ‘Mahatma Gandhi – The Lawyer,’ the two-day exhibition inaugurated by Acting Chief Justice T. Raja along with Justice P.N. Prakash on Wednesday, highlights how Gandhi struggled to learn Indian laws while attempting to establish practice in Mumbai after completing his law course at the Inner Temple in London.
His first client was one Mamibai and he was asked to pay commission to a tout for getting the case. But, known for his uprightness since young age, he emphatically declined to pay any commission despite being told that even famous criminal lawyers, who earn ₹3,000 to ₹4,000 a month, pay commission.
He did not want to emulate other lawyers in following such practices and yet, the case came to him. He charged ₹30 as fees and prepared for his debut before the Small Causes court. His client was the defendant in the case and he had to cross examine the witnesses appearing on behalf of the plaintiff (petitioner).
“I stood up but my heart sank into my boots. My head was reeling and I felt as though the whole court was doing likewise. I could think of no question to ask. The judge must have laughed and the Vakils, no doubt, enjoyed the spectacle. But I was past seeing anything. I sat down and told the agent that I could not conduct the case and that he had better engage Patel and have the fee back from me. Mr. Patel was duly engaged for ₹51. To him, of course, the case was child’s play,” Gandhi later wrote in his autobiography, My Experiments with Truth.
Not just excerpts from the autobiography but also materials collected from various other sources too had been put on display in the exhibition organised jointly with the Gandhi Museum in Madurai and Gandhi Study Centre in Chennai. National Gandhi Museum and Library in New Delhi too had provided the materials.
Copies of certificate issued to Mahatma Gandhi accepting him as a member of Inner Temple on November 6, 1888 and an order passed on November 10, 1922 debarring him from practising law after his conviction in a sedition case too had been put on display in the exhibition. A Sessions Court in Ahmedabad had sentenced him to six years of imprisonment on March 18, 1922.
The exhibition also highlighted how Gandhi solved through mediation, most of the cases that he took up in South Africa. His first act of disobedience was when he refused to remove a Topi (cap), that he had been wearing since childhood, despite the insistence of a Magistrate at a Durban court and walked out of the court hall just on the second or third day of his arrival in South Africa.
However, after being admitted as an advocate of the Supreme Court in South Africa, he removed the Topi in order to abide by the dress code meant for lawyers.
The exhibition could be viewed at the meeting hall on the second floor of the heritage building of the High Court between 10 am and 4 pm on Wednesday and Thursday.