Gandhi in London:  The Law Student and the “Inner Temple”

Vinay Lal

Gandhi left India for the first time on 4 September 1888, when he was about a month shy of his nineteenth birthday, and arrived in London in late October.  Like many other Indians of his class background who were able to equip themselves financially to undertake the expensive sea voyage to Britain, Gandhi sought to get credentialed in law.  His biographer, Geoffrey Ashe, states that Gandhi had himself “enrolled” at the “Inner Temple” on November 6th, and that among the “four Inns of Court, Indians tended to prefer it as possessing social cachet” (p. 29).  But Ashe, not unlike Gandhi’s other biographers, has precious little to say about Gandhi’s relationship to the “Inner Temple”, Gandhi’s institutional affiliation to the University of London, or indeed what is meant by the “Inner Temple”.

Readers of the main web page on Gandhi on MANAS [] would have noticed the following lines where I describe how Gandhi, having defied many of his elders in India who were opposed to his journey to Britain, set about pursuing an education in law in London:

Here, too, Gandhi showed determination and single-minded pursuit of his purpose, and accomplished his objective of finishing his degree from the Inner Temple. He was called to the bar in 1891, and even enrolled in the High Court of London; but later that year he left for India.

In October 2003, I received from a gentleman in Britain a communication advising me that the information conveyed in the lines above is wholly incorrect.  Describing himself as a barrister, a graduate of the University College London (UCL), and as a member of the “Inner Temple”, this gentleman stated that the Inns of Court do not confer degrees, that Gandhi in fact earned his degree from UCL, and that there is no such thing as “enrolling” in a court in Britain.  Though with respect to one of these points, namely the fact that the four Inns of Court — Gray’s Inn, Inner Temple, Middle Temple, and Lincoln’s Inn — do not confer degrees, this gentleman is entirely correct, so long as strict fidelity to empirical facts is the only criterion of what counts as “right” and “wrong”, it does not appear to me to stretch the point to suggest that the brief description offered by myself of Gandhi’s experience with the institutions peddling a law degree, so to speak, can stand as it is.

Let us delve into this question in somewhat greater detail.  University College London claims Gandhi among its “famous alumni” on its website [], and it is conceivable that university records will show that Gandhi took classes at UCL.  But the declaration of “fact”, if “fact” this be, is much less interesting than the other observation that a careful reader of Gandhi’s autobiography is likely to reach: UCL left such little impression on Gandhi that he nowhere mentions it in his own autobiography, which down to the present day remains the most authoritative source of information about Gandhi’s years in London. Gandhi’s most notable biographers, for instance D. G. Tendulkar, Robert Payne, B. R. Nanda, and Geoffrey Ashe, make no mention of University College London, and it is striking that the short chapter on Gandhi’s London years in Nanda’s biography dwells exclusively on Gandhi’s friendships with vegetarians, theosophists, and other dissenters.  About the time that Gandhi left London, he published in the Vegetarian (20 June 1891) an article where he felt bound to admit that in his stay of three years many things had been left unaccomplished.  Nonetheless, added Gandhi, “I carry one great consolation with me that I shall go back without having taken either meat or wine, and that I know from personal experience that there are so many vegetarians”  (quoted on pp. 30-31).  In this respect, Nanda is only following the cues offered by Gandhi himself:  as he left London, Gandhi could not be bothered to recount his experiences at the University of London.

There is no question that Gandhi was enrolled at the Inner Temple.  Standing at the site of what was once perhaps a pagan temple, the “Inner Temple” was Gandhi’s conduit to the world of law and a legal education.  Chapter 24 of Gandhi’s autobiography, the twelfth consecutive chapter devoted to his sojourn in Britain, begins with the observation that he has hitherto refrained from saying anything about the purpose for which he went to England, “viz., being called to the bar.”   Other than passing examinations, being “called to the bar” entailed, Gandhi informs us, “keeping terms”.  Gandhi further elaborates, “‘Keeping terms’ meant eating one’s terms, i.e. attending at least six out of about twenty-four dinners in a term.  Eating did not mean actually partaking of the dinner, it meant reporting oneself at the fixed hours and remaining present throughout the dinner.”  Though the British condemned India as a country that was stifled by arcane rituals and archaic social institutions, their own commitment to such preposterous practices seldom received comment.  However, writing his autobiography in the 1920s, and looking back on his years in London, the irony of being installed at the “Inner Temple” did not escape Gandhi.  “The institution had gradually lost all its meaning,” he wrote, “but conservative England retained it nevertheless.”   Gandhi describes the books he went through in order to sit for the examinations, but there is no mention of any classes that he might have taken.  Insofar as Gandhi had any education in Britain, one can say, with the usual liberties allowed by interpretation, that though the “Inner Temple” did not then, and does not now, confer any degrees, in a manner of speaking Gandhi earned his degree at an institution which socialized him into the life of those qualifying for the bar.

How, then, did Gandhi describe the aftermath of his legal education in Britain.  A paltry two lines in a dense two-volume work address this question:  “I passed my examinations, was called to the bar on the 10th of June 1891, and enrolled in the High Court on the 11th.  On the 12th I sailed for home” (Chapter 24).  If there is no such thing as enrolling in a High Court, as my correspondent from Britain so strongly avers, then we must either conclude that Gandhi didn’t know what he was doing, or that 30 years later he could not recall what exactly “enrolling” in Court entailed, or — much more likely — Gandhi had his name registered at the Court as someone who, having been called to the bar, was now entitled to practice law.  But neither the autobiography nor the biographies are helpful on this point.

The story of Gandhi at the “Inner Temple” does not conclude with his departure from Britain in 1891.  In 1922, as described elsewhere on the MANAS website, Gandhi was convicted of sedition.  The “Honourable Society of the Inner Temple”, which includes Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in the “Select List” of its “Famous Members” [see], then engaged in doubtless the most dishonorable action in its history in that it “disbarred” Gandhi.  His name was struck from the rolls, and Gandhi, who had done the law the greatest honor in the speech that he offered in defense of himself, became an embarrassment to the Inner Temple and the legal establishment.  The “Inner Temple” rightly describes Gandhi as the “architect of Indian independence”, but it is significant not until 1988 did the institution reinstate Gandhi as a member.  Did it take 40 years after Gandhi’s assassination and Indian independence to recognize that Gandhi authored Indian independence and that, in disbarring Gandhi, the Inner Temple had mocked itself rather than Gandhi?  None of this, to be sure, would have surprised Gandhi an iota.

References and Further Reading:

Ashe, Geoffrey.  Gandhi.  New York:  Stein & Day, 1969.

Gandhi, M. K.  An Autobiography.  1st ed. in 2 vols., 1927 & 1929.  Ahmedabad:  Navajivan Publishing House, 1959.

Nanda, B. R.  Mahatma Gandhi:  A Biography.  Unabridged ed., Delhi:  Oxford UP, 1981.