The Man before the Mahatma: MK Gandhi, Attorney At Law By Charles Di Salvo (Random House India) (2012)

Anirveda Sharma reviews this book by Prof. Charles Di Salvo as the first biographical account of Mahatma Gandhi’s professional life as an attorney and his experiences which transformed the man into the Mahatma.

  • The Man before the Mahatma

Mahatma Gandhi, the two words inevitably conjures the striking image of a thin, bespectacled man attired in a homespun khadi loincloth championing the cause of an independent India through mass civil disobedience against the might of colonial Britain. But before Mahatma Gandhi attained immortality as the ‘conscience of humanity’1; he arrived aboard the S.S. Clyde on September 29, 1888 in London as Mohandas K. Gandhi, a shy and impressionable adolescent upon whose shoulders his family’s financial future depended. With a firm belief in the mantra of ‘patience and perseverance (can) overcome mountains’; the journey of Mohandas K. Gandhi, an ordinary man from a remote corner of western India began through the grand halls of the Inner Temple2, to the courts of colonial South Africa and subsequently into the political atmosphere of pre-Independent India.

The author, Prof. Charles Di Salvo is the Woodrow A. Potesta Professor of Law at the West Virginia University where he teaches a one-of-a-kind course on Civil Disobedience. According to Prof. Di Salvo, civil disobedience is the conscientious breaking of the law and his quest to investigate further into Gandhi’s professional life as a lawyer began when in 1978 Prof. Di Salvo stumbled upon a book titled ‘The Law and Lawyers’ by Gandhi. Prof. Di Salvo realized that until now, no one had tried to co-relate the development of Gandhian philosophy and civil disobedience with his professional experiences as an attorney. Thus the book is a result of two foundational questions- ‘Was there no relationship between Gandhi’s practice of law and his embrace of civil disobedience? Was there no relationship between Gandhi’s practice of law and the person he became over the years?’ Through the book, Prof. Di Salvo has taken on the mission to demonstrate the critical role played by the law and it’s systemic failures thereof, which brought Gandhi to a position from which he was forced to invent his philosophy and practice of non-violent civil disobedience.

As the first biography of Gandhi’s life in law, the Author explores the foundation and the genesis of the Gandhian concepts of Satyagraha and Civil Disobedience. Tracing Gandhi’s footsteps from the Inner Temple through a brief stint in India and his subsequent journey to South Africa; the book enlightens its readers on the socio-cultural and political influences which coupled with his deep sense of conscience and personal values immortalized the Man into the champion of Non-violence. Put simply, the law firstly gave Gandhi his voice and the confidence which transformed him into a revered leader of the masses; and secondly the systematic failure of the judicial mechanism in

1. Gandhi was regarded as the 'conscience of humanity' in the "Manifesto of Nobel Prize Recipients" signed by 53 Nobel Laureates in 1981.
2. The Honourable Society of the Inner Temple, London.

colonial South Africa to provide justice against racist laws and safeguard against race-based discrimination led the young attorney M. K. Gandhi to conceive, write and advocate for civil disobedience against a reluctant government.

The Introductory Chapter gives the readers a glimpse into the object and purpose of the book and a brief initiation into the essence and motivations for Civil Disobedience. According to the author, the most salient and discrete purposes for civil disobedience begins with the ‘honoring (of) one’s conscience’, wherein the primary motivation lies simply to act in a manner consistent with his/her conscience. The second and the third purposes, namely ‘Testing the law’ and ‘Advancing the debate’; concentrates on the redressal aspect of a civil disobedient act. ‘Creating change’ and change being- political, social, cultural and legal is the fourth and most important purpose of Civil Disobedience. Giving the examples of Brown v. Louisiana3 and Susan B. Anthony4 , the author highlights the role self-suffering plays in a civil disobedience campaign in the quest to create change. The political journey of Mahatma Gandhi is as much about his spiritual evolution as it was for the cause of Indian independence and his unflinching devotion to the cause of social upliftment of the masses.

The book is organized as a continuous biographical story of M. K. Gandhi’s journey to qualify as a Barrister from Inner Temple5 and subsequently to South Africa as an attorney for his client Dada Abdulah in the case of Dada Abdulla & Co. v. Tayob Hajee Khan Mahomed & Co. and Moosa Amod & Co. However as circumstances would have it, the increasing racial discrimination by the colonial establishment and the threat of disenfranchisement of the Natal Indians ushered Gandhi into his next assignment as a public figure in South Africa for the next 20 years until 1914 when he would finally step into the cause of Indian independence. As Natal’s 1st Indian Barrister, Gandhi’s initial foray to get admitted into the Natal Bar was mired by the Law Society’s objections, which were unanimously rejected by the Court. Thereafter with the backing of the Indian merchants, Gandhi started his legal career amidst his recurrent battle against racial prejudice by the colonists. As the book progresses, the readers would witness the transformation of the young attorney into a respected public figure whose ideas of non-violence and civil disobedience would quickly crystalize into an art of appeal to the human conscience which would alter the course of human history. Towards the end of the book, the Appendix is an interesting addition; as it succinctly enumerates on certain resistance cases litigated by Gandhi primarily concerning one, Peace Preservation Ordinance, which was framed to control immigration via a permit system. Going through these cases would further enlighten the reader into this hidden aspect of Mahatma Gandhi’s life before the courts. To Gandhi, the true function of a lawyer was

3. When in 1964 five African-Americans entered a Louisiana public library to protest against racial-segregation; the United States Supreme Court not only held the library’s segregation as unconstitutional but also ruled that the disobedients have a constitutional right to protest against the unconstitutional segregation of a public facility.
4. In the presidential election of 1872, Susan B. Anthony attempted to cast her vote despite being prohibited on the grounds of gender. Her arrest on November 18, 1872 and subsequent trial stirred up heated debates and discussions on universal suffrage throughout the United States.
5. The Honourable Society of the Inner Temple, London.

to ‘unite parties riven asunder’; a philosophy he would later carry forward into his public life.

From being a shy adolescent, it was the law and the practice of it that gave Gandhi the confidence to become a leader, not only to millions of Indians but as a beacon of non-violence for the human race. The book reverberates a thorough and an exhaustive research exercise deep into the archival vaults, and gives its readers an invaluable experience into the transformation of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi into the Mahatma Gandhi whom we all regard as the Father of our Nation. Like his autobiography ‘The Story of My Experiments with Truth’, the book by Prof. Di Salvo is a must read for persons from all walks of life who is interested in understanding the philosophical evolution of an ordinary man into the extraordinary. Especially to lawyers and law students alike facing the dilemma about the relationship between the truth and the law, Gandhi deciphers the conundrum when he states, ‘Facts mean truth, and once we adhere to truth, the law comes to our aid naturally’. Prof. Di Salvo rightfully aspired the book to illuminate its readers on Gandhi’s near-perfect unity of his public behavior, professional progression and his spiritual transformation.

Anirveda Sharma is a Fourth-Year B.Com., L.L.B. student of Gujarat National Law University and an Assistant Editor of India Law Journal. He can be reached at