18. COLOUR BAR
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 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 and Co., was 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 Abdulla 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 by 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 with you?'
'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? 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 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 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. 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 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
'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 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
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 jealously. The advertisement,
to some extent, simplified my work.