Gandhi's Life as a Lawyer Revealed

Jan 17, 2014

Charles R. DiSalvo in his office at the College of Law at West Virginia University
Credit Glynis Board / WVPublic

Mahatma Gandhi is widely recognized as a leader of Indian nationalism in British-ruled India who employed nonviolent civil disobedience, inspiring movements for civil rights across the world. A professor at West Virginia University’s College of Law recently published book that explores a side of Gandhi most are not familiar with: his early years as a lawyer in South Africa. It’s the first extensive examination into this chapter of Gandhi’s life.

Author and Woodrow A. Potesta professor of law, Charles R. DiSalvo, recently read excerpts of his new book The Man Before The Mahatma: M.K. Gandhi, Attorney at Law in Morgantown. First published by Random House India, and most recently by University of California Press, DiSalvo says producing this work that explores Gandhi’s early life in South Africa has been a goal since he discovered that Gandhi was in fact a lawyer for 25 years before becoming a pacifist reformer in India.

“I was astounded,” DiSalvo says, “because he becomes a civil disobedient while he’s a practicing lawyer.”

Disalvo says he had to ask himself if there was a connection between Gandhi’s practice of law and the development of his philosophy. He also wondered, why hasn’t anybody explored this?’

10,000 Newspapers Later...

DiSalvo gives much credit to the many law and history students who read through some 10,000 newspapers from South Africa which held keys to unlocking details of Gandhi’s career as a lawyer and a politician. DiSalvo says it was that Herculean effort that perhaps prevented anyone else from writing this book earlier.

One intriguing insight? DiSalvo says Gandhi had a near terminal case of shyness—an unlikely quality for an aspiring lawyer. He says Gandhi’s severe stage fright made the start of his career publicly presenting cases rather rocky.

“In fact in one of his first cases in India where he tried to launch a practice and failed, he had to basically withdraw from the case because he was too nervous in court!” DiSalvo remarks.

DiSalvo explains that it was in what was considered at the time a backwater, in South Africa, where he worked to overcome his fear.

“And he grew, he rose to the occasion, and he changed. Before he leaves South Africa, before he gives up the practice of law, he’s on his feet giving speeches that last two and more hours. This is how much he changed.”

He became the Mahatma in South Africa,” he adds.

DiSalvo feels now that he could go back in time and be quite comfortable strolling through the streets of Durban and Johannesburg with Gandhi.  And he says there were certainly surprises in his journey getting to know the lawyer who became the legend. He points to one example of a tactic that Gandhi, a consummate politician, used to secure the rights of Indians in British South Africa:

“The British South Africa was of course run by Europeans who identified with the United Kingdom. Because Indians were also members of the Empire, Ghandi’s argument was, ‘We are fellow members of the Empire. You should not be discriminating against us. We are not like these black people. We are better than they are. We are different from them. And you should not treat us like them.’ It was shocking to see that.”

Disalvo points out that nevertheless, Nelson Mandela would come to lionize Gandhi. He says Mandela, with his magnanimous spirit, recognized that young Gandhi was developing and would someday be a friend to the black community. He hopes he and all his students take a lesson from the path to Mahatma.

“At first there’s a strong distinction between his legal work and the work that is fueled by his politics, his morality, and his spirituality,” DiSalvo says.

Eventually those two come a little closer, he says, when Gandhi starts to devote some of his practice to civil rights work. By the end his practice, his entire practice is devoted to his political, moral, and spiritual beliefs. And at that point he becomes integrated.

“There’s only one Gandhi at that point,” DiSalvo says. “To me that is a goal for myself and for all lawyers: That we should have practices that, in some respect, our practices are an expression of who we are politically, morally, and spiritually.”

Gandhian scholar Thomas Weber comments on the new publication.