The symbol of a court of justice is a 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 enrolled there. It was necessary to attach two certificate 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 advisor to Messrs. Dada Abdulla and 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 and Co., he sent me word through Sheth Adbulla to go and see him. He talked with me quite frankly, and inquired about my antecedents, which I gave. Then he said:
‘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 diploma 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 with you?”
‘But then you say he belongs to the same place as you? If 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 had 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 quietly replied:
‘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. 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 affidavit, 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 Registrar. As soon as I was sworn in, the Chief Justice, addressing me said:
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 in insisting on retaining my turban. It was worthy of a better cause.
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 practicing 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 thses 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.
An Autobioagraphy, (1959), pp. 105-07