Picturing Justice, the On-Line Journal of Law and Popular Culture

Shubha Ghosh
Professor, University at Buffalo Law School, SUNY


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What is amazing about Gandhi, why he will always resonate as a Great Soul, is that he was one person who through will and personality was able to catalyze a movement. He combines the symbolic defiance of Rosa Parks or Fred Korematsu with the leadership of Martin Luther King or Malcolm X.

Feature article

Gandhi & The Life of the Law

by Professor Shubha Ghosh

South Africa. 1893. A year after Homer Plessy boarded a first class coach in Louisiana, a newly minted barrister is riding first class to Pretoria. A white passenger sees him and runs to get a ticket collector. A black porter advises the passenger if he has ever been in South Africa before. We are informed that this is the first trip. The collector arrives with the irate passenger and asks how a coolie got a first class ticket. "I am an attorney and I purchased the ticket through the post," the seated barrister responds. The porter becomes nervous as the passenger and collector grow irate. "There are no colored attorneys in South Africa," the passenger curtly states. A lawerly syllogism follows: "Sir, I recently entered the bar in London and since in your eyes I am colored, that proves that there is a colored attorney in South Africa." The barrister, bags, and all, is shown being thrown off the train in the next scene.

Richard Attenbororugh's film epic Gandhi begins with a depiction of the assassination of the hero. The train scene is the second one, a flashback to the beginning of the public life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (whose name literally translates from the Gujarati to "Action-slave Fascination-Moon Grocer"), also known as the Mahatma (or Great Spirit). The movie depicts in a cursory, yet dramatically compelling way, the major events of Gandhi's life and more importantly the critical historical events in Indian history from World War One to Independence in 1947. Some of Gandhi's contradictions come through Attenborough's glass darkly: his autocratic manner and his holiness, his mysticism and his practicality, his public devotion and his narcissism. Other sources, particularly Stanley Wolpert's 2001 biography of Gandhi, Gandhi's Passion, and Shyam Benegal's 1998 film The Making of the Mahatma, have more depth and insight. I talk about Attenborough's film here for one simple reason. I was asked to write about Asian and Asian American lawyers in the movies and the Gandhi was the only serious candidate I could find.

Maybe I missed something while strolling down the aisles of Blockbuster or Buffalo's great Mondo Video or surfing the various film web sites. Maybe my colleagues missed something when I asked them for examples of Asian lawyers in the film. All they could find was a cameo of Whoopi Goldberg's lawyer in Boys on the Side and Hunter Thompson's Samoan paladin in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The small screen offers Lucy Liu as the dragon queen on Ally McBeal. Asian lawyers are sight gags, much like Arche Bunker's reference to the only law firm in Queens he trusts, Rabinowitz, Rabinowitz, & Rabinowitz. You can always count on a Jew lawyer for results; you can count on an Asian lawyer for laughs. With this raw material to work with, I really had only one choice in writing about Asian lawyers in film.

The irony is that Gandhi by his own admission was a terrible attorney. He hated public speaking and was not very good at court appearances, as his Autobiography more than once attests. He did show a knack for negotiation, and he was able in several instances to bring difficult disputes to settlement. As a leader in the independence movement, Gandhi's skills (and weaknesses) as a negotiator were clearly on display. Attenborough depicts these all well, but once again people serious about understanding Gandhi are referred to the Wolpert book and the Benegal film. I would argue that Gandhian style politics and negotiation represent the worst of the politics of the personal and the narcissism of piety. Gandhi would be appalled by how the current Indian government uses his iconography to support an aggressively capitalist and anti-Muslim agenda. The man's virtues were his universalism and his attempts to unify, even at the expense of repressing the expression of legitimate political, economic, and social interests (as with his disasterous treatment of the Muslim League that led to the bloodbath that was partition and with his unwillingness to grant concessions to the Untouchables whom Gandhi felt should recognize and accept their lot in the social order). But given Gandhi's style, the current state of Gandhi iconography was inevitable. For Gandhi, politics was personal and that meant the requirement that followers had to embrace an alignment, however dangerous, between the interests of a developing nation and the wants of a Great Spirit. As the poet Sarojini Naidu famously quipped, it cost the nation of India a fortune to keep Gandhi in poverty.

But to focus on the negative, ideas that have been explored in other fora, would miss the lessons of Gandhi's life, all of which is so exquisitely captured in the train sequence in Attenborough's film. The echo of Homer Plessy's ride should resonate with lawyers, if not with the average film goer. When the film came out in 1982, some members of the audience would have seen the parallels with the sit-ins of the 1950's and 1960's but even then I am afraid that those connections were already fading from the nation's memory. Plessy's ride lead to a law suit that resulted in a devastating decision that sparked legal battles and debates that continue today . Now seats in a university classroom rather than on a first class rail coach are at issue. Gandhi's ride sparked a man to think about how to deal with oppressive power. The scene on the train is quintessential Gandhian politics. Gandhi is seated throughout the scene, his audience is standing. The audience consists of three types: the angry white passenger, the oppressed black porter, and the ticket collector representing the force of the state. Gandhi is outnumbered but he relies on his strength to shock the audience into response. No one expects a colored attorney; no one expects that he could have simply purchased a ticket through the mail. And no one expects the syllogism. But it is the syllogism that fails. A newly minted barrister has to try out his recently acquired legal reasoning. And it is the legal logic that fails in front of law's violence. The rest of the film, the rest of Gandhi's career is about discovering the true life of the law, the life that was turned into a cruel instrument of oppression by the use of violence.

It should not be surprising to point out that the train scene did not really happen. At least there is no mention of the scene with its details in Gandhi's Autobiography. Gandhi does discuss being denied a seat on a train because of his color. He does mention an instance when he was riding first class and the collector attempts to throw him off. But in that incident, a fellow passenger said he did not mind having a colored person on the train, and the collector ignored the violation. Gandhi's experiences on the South African rails sparked what is known as the South Africa campaign, one that lasted until 1915 when Gandhi returned to India permanently. Initially Gandhi came to South Africa to assist a law firm in the settlement of a commercial dispute. Once that problem had been resolved, Gandhi turned his energies to challenging the South African government's treatment of Indians, largely Muslims, both under the system of social apartheid and under appalling economic conditions in the diamond mines. The South African campaign is viewed as the start of Gandhi's experiments in political activism that were refined and then carried over to the Independence movement in India after World War One. The South African campaign has largely been viewed as a failure. The government grew more oppressive during the twenty two years that Gandhi spent in South Africa.

There isn't space here to provide all the details that explain why South Africa was so difficult to change. Needless to say the diversity of groups and interests had much to do with the problem. An example of the conflicts Gandhi faced is provided by his siding with the British government against the Zulus in the Zulu Wars. This episode is ignored in Attenborough's movie but is mentioned without apology in the autobiography. According to Gandhi, if he wanted the full benefits of British citizenship, the goal of the South African campaign, then he felt a duty of loyalty to the British government in its objectives, even if it meant the oppression of another group. Gandhi's work with the ambulance corps in the Zulu Wars is commented upon by director Shyam Benegal in his film about Gandhi. The episode, in my opinion, reflects the complexity of the South African scene as well as the continuing desire of Gandhi to be the good, well-trained British barrister falling back on syllogisms in a first class coach. Gandhi's break with this role would come much later.

Attenborough attempts to capture the transformation in the scene of Gandhi's return to India from South Africa in 1915. He is shown coming off the ship at the port of Bombay dressed in cotton shirt and dhoti with an oversized turban. Western passengers on the ship comment on his dress and wonder at how such a man could have challenged the South African government. It is true the Gandhi's reputation had grown during the South Africa campaign. But the transformation to Asian sage was much slower and more complicated. Gandhi's personal transformation goes back to his youth, his child marriage, his Western education in England, his discovery of the Gita, Tolstoy, Ruskin, and Thoreau. Attenborough suggests that Gandhi's Indianness was turned on as a symbolic challenge to the Empire. The scene on the boat, as well as the rest of the movie, views the battle as one between authentic Indianness and oppressive Western machinery, whether in the form of guns or the colonial bureaucracy.

To the extent that the term authenticity means anything (and I question whether it does), Gandhi was far from authentic. He was a reformer, a consciousness raiser. His success was his ability to synthesize Western ideas and Eastern symbols in a way that dislocated and challenged settled assumptions of hierarchy and power. What is amazing about Gandhi, why he will always resonate as a Great Soul, is that he was one person who through will and personality was able to catalyze a movement. He combines the symbolic defiance of Rosa Parks or Fred Korematsu with the leadership of Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. Gandhi's strength, however, rested on the first role rather than in the second. But Gandhi's symbolic politics is a complicated one drawing on a rich past, both Western and Eastern. At its best, his politics provides a rich view of the universal; at its worst, it is mere petulance, reducing complicated social and political choices to ones of what type of clothing to wear, of whether or not to drink orange juice, or how to practice one's sex life.

If taken as entertainment, Attenborough's film is a grand one. Perhaps it falls into that newly vintaged category of "infotainment." As one of the few, perhaps the only, representation of an Asian or Asian American lawyer on the big screen, the film needs to be treasured. The scene on the train captures much of what is at stake. Law's violence is juxtaposed against law's logic, with logic ending up in a pile on a dirty platform at the end. Law as play is carefully delineated with Gandhi as actor, challenging the symbols held unquestioned by the trinity of oppressor, oppressed, and state agent. And Gandhi's life, whether squeezed into pure theater in Attenborough's movie or in the pages of Gandhi scholarship, is about transforming law as logic into law as play. For what Gandhi did for all of us, starting with his training as barrister and moving to his skills as negotiator, was to create experience by staging moments that challenged law's violence and by showing how law's logic needs to be supplemented with law's practice and action.

There was one colored attorney in South Africa. There seems to be one Asian attorney in the Movies. Is there some film maker out there willing to add more? Eric Paul Fournier's documentary Of Civil Wrongs and Rights: The Fred Korematsu Story provides an excellent time capsule of the various attorneys who were instrumental in the coram nobis petition that lead to reparations for the internment during World War Two. More work like that would be invaluable. I have got ideas. Call me. Otherwise, we will be stuck still trying to get a ticket on a first class coach to anywhere.

Posted January 14, 2003

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