Gandhi and P-Notes

Written by  //  October 2, 2010  //  Corporate Law and Business  //  2 Comments

Celebrating Gandhi Jayanti, 2nd October 2010

Gandhiji was Gujarati. But not a man of commerce! As surprises go, this one ranks pretty high. But a little known fact about Gandhiji’s life was the momentous role played by a promissory note exchanged between a Meman firm with business in Porbandar and a rival Meman businessman in South Africa. After having failed in his fledgling legal career in India, both in Bombay and Rajkot, Gandhi was sent by his brother to assist in a money suit worth £40,000 between Dada Abdulla, a prominent Indian businessman in Durban, and his relative and rival Tyeb Sheth in Pretoria. This was a life-changing experience for Gandhi, who went to South Africa as a failed barrister but returned from South Africa as a mass leader imbued with ideas of non-cooperation and experience of leading a civil disobedience movement against oppressive colonial government.

The case itself which took him to South Africa was unspectacular. Though the amount was fairly significant, as a matter of law it involved determination of the validity of a promissory note which had been taken out pursuant to business transactions between the two parties. The plaintiff claimed specific performance of the promises made therein whereas the defendant argued that the note was fraudulently drawn and was consequently void. But in preparing for this matter and equally significantly travelling from one part of South Africa to another to assist in the arguments, Gandhi’s life underwent a radical transformation.

In the case, Gandhi realised fairly early that victory for either party in the suit would be Pyrrhic at best, given the hefty amounts which were being spent on legal fees and proceedings. Over and above that, despite their present dispute, the plaintiff and defendant were relatives, members of the same minority community in South Africa whose unity was crucial. Gandhi persuaded both parties to agree to an independent arbitrator, who would settle the dispute out of court. It is interesting to note however that the arbitrator ruled in favour of Gandhi’s client, thereby causing tremendous hardship to the losing party, given the quantum of compensation due. However the statesman-in-the-making that he was, Gandhi negotiated a staggered payment over a long period of time thereby ensuring that though his client won the case, his opponent did not feel like he lost. This success, the first significant achievement of his legal career, inspired him, and his approach towards the case, one of humane astuteness, became a hallmark of Gandhi in times to come.

Equally significant were his interactions with white South Africans in the courtroom and outside. On his first day in a Durban Court, Gandhi was asked to take off his turban, the customary Indian apparel in a courtroom in South Africa in those days. Though he refused and left the Court, he writes in his autobiography, that he had made up his mind to dispense with the turban and settle instead on an English hat. It was Dada Abdulla, his client who convinced him otherwise, saying that adopting the English head dress would to surrender to the inequities of a South African courtroom. Gandhi liked the suggestion, wrote to the press defending his actions, quickly acquired a high-profile tag of an ‘unwelcome visitor in South Africa’ and a rallying point for Indian lawyers defending their rights to wear the turban in the courtroom.

It was also while travelling to Pretoria for his first case, that Gandhi was first thrown off the first class carriage at Maritzburg, despite holding a ticket and subsequently insulted in a coach from Charlestown to Johannesburg for being a ‘coolie’ (brown-skinned man). He would have met the same ignominy again in the train from Johannesburg to Pretoria had it not been for a white co-passenger who stood up for him when the guard was preparing to forcibly remove him from the first class carriage. Racial insults of this nature had become normal for Indians living in South Africa. Over and above that, most of them being businessmen, they had learnt to take such insults in their stride since ensuring a steady stream of profit was their primary objective. Gandhi was the catalyst in their midst, who, having been changed by them, now set about to change their lot in society.

Had Gandhi not met the Memans in South Africa, understood their plight, been moulded by their thinking, his elitist trappings formed as a result of his closeted upbringing and British legal education would have had no reason or occasion to be questioned. Equally had the Memans not met Gandhi, their dignity as citizens would continue to be sacrificed for the sake of business profits. And most importantly had Gandhi not travelled to South Africa, he would perhaps never have been the man we know him to be today. For this, and for a small part in our independence, let’s take a moment off to thank a mere, trifling promissory note that changed the course of history!

2 Comments on "Gandhi and P-Notes"

  1. LONI May 26, 2011 at 4:09 am ·

    RANDOM

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