The symbol of a Court of justice is pair of scales held evenly by an impartial and blind but sagacious woman. Fate has purposely made her blind, in order that she may not judge a person from his exterior but from his intrinsic worth. But the Law Society of Natal set out to persuade the Supreme Court to act in contravention of this principle and to belie its symbol.
I applied for admission as an advocate of the Supreme Court. I held
a certificate of admission from the Bombay High Court. The English
certificate I had to deposit with the Bombay High Court when I was
enrolled there. It was necessary to attach two certificates of
character to the application for admission, and thinking that these
would carry more weight if given by Europeans, I secured them from
two well-known European merchants whom I knew through Sheth Abdulla.
The application had to be presented through a member of the bar, and
as a rule the Attorney General presented such applications without
fees. Mr. Escombe, who, as we have seen, was legal adviser to
Messrs. Dada Abdulla & Co, was the Attorney General. I called on
him, and he willingly consented to present my application.
The Law Society now sprang a surprise on me by serving me with a
notice opposing my application for admission. One of their
objections was that the original English certificate was not
attached to my application. But the main objection was that, when
the regulations regarding admission of advocates were made, the
possibility of a coloured man applying could not have been
contemplated. Natal owed its growth to European enterprise, and
therefore it was necessary that the European element should
predominate in the bar. If coloured people were admitted, they might
gradually outnumber the Europeans, and the bulwark of their
protection would break down.
The Law Society had engaged a distinguished lawyer to support their
opposition. As he too was connected with Dada Abdulla & Co., he sent
me word through Sheth Abdulla to go and see him. He talked with me
quite frankly, and inquired about my antecedents, which I gave. Then
'I have nothing to say against you. I was only afraid lest you
should be some colonial-born adventurer. And the fact that your
application was unaccompanied by the original certificate supported
my suspicion. There have been men who have made use of diplomas
which did not belong to them. The certificates of character from
European traders you have submitted have no value for me. What do
they know about you? What can be the extent of their acquaintance
'But,' said I, 'everyone here is a stranger to me. Even Sheth
Abdulla first came to know me here.'
'But then you say he belongs to the same place as you? It your
father was Prime Minister there, Sheth Abdulla is bound to know your
family. if you were to produce his affidavit, I should have
absolutely no objection. I would then gladly communicate to the Law
Society my inability to oppose your application.'
This talk enraged me, but I restrained my feelings. 'If I had
attached Dada Abdulla's certificate,' said I to myself, 'it would
have been rejected, and they would have asked for Europeans'
certificates. And what has my admission as advocate to do with my
birth and my antecedents? How could my birth, whether humble or
objectionable, be used against me?' But I contained myself and
'Though I do not admit that the Law Society has any authority to
require all these details, I am quite prepared to present the
affidavit you desire.'
Sheth Abdulla's affidavit was prepared and duly submitted to the
counsel for the Law Society. He said he was satisfied. But not so
the Law Society. it opposed my application before the Supreme Court,
which ruled out the opposition without even calling upon Mr. Escombe
to reply. The Chief justice said in effect:
'The objection that the applicant has not attached the original
certificate has no substance. If he has made a false affifavit, he
can be prosecuted, and his name can then be struck off the roll, if
he is proved guilty. The law makes no distinction between white and
coloured people. The court has therefore no authority to prevent Mr.
Gandhi from being enrolled as an advocate. We admit his application.
Mr. Gandhi, you can now take the oath.'
I stood up and took the oath before the Registar. As soon as I was
sworn in, the Chief Justice, addressing me, said:
'You must now take off your turban, Mr. Gandhi. you must submit to
the rules of the court with regard to the dress to be worn by practising barristers.'
I saw my limitations. The turban that I had insisted on wearing in
the District Magistrate's Court I took off in obedience to the order
of the Supreme Court. Not that, if I had resisted the order, the
resistance could not have been justified. But I wanted to reserve my
strength for fighting bigger battles. I should not exhaust my skill
as a fighter in insisting on retaining my turban. It was worthy of a
Sheth Abdulla and other friends did not like my
submission (or was it weakness?). They felt that I should have stood
by my right to wear the turban while practising in the Court. I
tried to reason with them. I tried to press home to them the truth
of the maxim, 'When at Rome do as the Romans do.' 'It would be
right', I said, 'to refuse to obey, if in India an English officer
or judge ordered you to take off your turban; but as an officer of
the court, it would have ill become me to disregard a custom of the
court in the province of Natal.'
I pacified the friends somewhat with these and similar arguments,
but I do not think I convinced them completely, in this instance, of
the applicability of the principle of looking at a thing from a
different standpoint in different circumstances. But all my life
through, the very insistence on truth has taught me to appreciate the
beauty of compromise. I saw in later life that this spirit was an
essential part of Satyagraha. It has often meant endangering my life
and incurring the displeasure of friends. But truth is hard as
adamant and tender as a blossom.
The opposition of the Law Society gave me another advertisement in
South Africa. Most of the newspapers condemned the opposition and
accused the Law Society of jealousy. The advertisement, to some
extent, simplified my work.