Ram Jethmalani

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A brief biography

Dhananjay Mahapatra, Sep 9, 2019: The Times of India

India’s most famous criminal law practitioner, Ram Bulchand Jethmalani, passed away on Sunday just six days short of what would have been his 96th birthday, bringing the curtain down on a career that recorded and analysed almost all significant developments in Indian criminal jurisprudence since independence.

Jethmalani is survived by lawyer-son Mahesh Jethmalani and US-based daughter Shobha. Daughter Rani and son Janak died before him. He was cremated on Sunday afternoon at Lodhi crematorium here. President Ram Nath Kovind, PM Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah condoled the death while paying homage to the outstanding lawyer, considered a human encyclopedia on criminal law.

Born in Sindh province’s Sikharpur (now in Pakistan) on September 14, 1923, Jethmalani displayed brilliance by completing his bachelor of law at age 17. He got special permission to start practising at 18, when the minimum age was 21. As a Partition refugee, he initially struggled to find his foothold in Mumbai. Some 65 years later, then CJI H L Dattu in 2015 referred to Jethmalani as “Bhishma Pitamah”, to bend rules and allow him to make a request for an adjournment before a five-judge constitution bench. 

Ram was highest-paid lawyer in India

Jethmalani excelled in convincing judicial minds in favour of clients through wit, knowledge and repartee, all in a rich baritone. These traits stood him in good stead as he taught law students across Indian universities.

For the last two years, his vision had dimmed, preventing him from practising. For some time now, he had put up a big board outside his 2, Akbar Road residence declaring that he was not taking any fresh cases. But the man was amenable to persuasion. Since 2016 till he stopped practising, he had a common refrain in court, “I am in the departure lounge waiting for the flight to God’s land.” He took the flight on Sunday after two weeks of age-related illnesses.

Jethmalani, who married twice before the codification of Hindu law banned second marriage, was a regular badminton player, a sport he credited for his youthfulness, allowing him to run from court to court till his late eighties. He was open about what he said was his “westernised” lifestyle and social life.

His career in law and politics saw him make foes and enemies with equal fervour. He fell out with BJP, whose founding vice-president he had been, but reconciled towards the end. Former attorney general Mukul Rohatgi has written that this came about through the efforts of Arun Jaitley, a little known fact as Jethmalani often targeted the late BJP neta with sharp verbal barbs.

After settling in Bombay, “the most important milestone” of his professional career came in the murder case of 1950s in which Commander K M Nanavati was accused of killing his wife’s lover Prem Ahuja. “My role in the trial court as well as in the HC was of protecting the interests of the family of the deceased. I was therefore confined to helping (prosecutor C M) Trivedi and (government pleader Y V) Chandrachud. But, for some reason, everybody seems to think that I was responsible for both Nanavati’s conviction as well as his presidential pardon that overturned the Supreme Court’s award of life imprisonment,” he had told TOI in 2010.

Jethmalani had a penchant for defending the most despised, such as the convicts in cases of assassinations of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, and Afzal Guru of the Parliament attack case. He succeeded in saving death row convict Balbir Singh by getting him an acquittal in the Indira Gandhi case. In the 1960s, he had represented smuggler Haji Mastan.

While defending Tamil Nadu government’s 2014 decision to commute sentences of Rajiv assassination convicts, whose death sentences were commuted to life terms by the SC, Jethmalani had created a flutter by arguing that the suicide attack to kill Rajiv was not a crime against India.

He loved the challenge of representing accused in cases that were considered “open and shut” by the public, took pleasure in riling the prosecution and mostly came good before the courts, as he did with aplomb in the Bofors case by getting the Hinduja brothers discharged. No wonder he was the highest-paid lawyer in India.

Don To Netas, Jethmalani Argued For All

Sep 9, 2019: The Times of India

An image of Ram Jethmalani etched in public mind is that of a haggard looking man in a torn shirt and vest, asking seemingly innocent questions about why hoodlums had assaulted him.

The irrepressible lawyer had dared to sit on a dharna outside the residence of socialist doyen Chandrashekhar in a bid to embarrass him into withdrawing from the prime ministerial race in favour of V P Singh.

The assault by Chandrashekhar’s men could do little to faze the lawyer. As Singh led Janata Dal to victory against Congress, Jethmalani had the satisfaction that in the Bofors-powered polls of 1989, his daily 10 questions to then PM Rajiv Gandhi had helped set the public mood.

Unbridled anti-Congressism defined the lifelong political commitment of the man who otherwise was not always known for consistency. Jethmalani was fairly young when Emergency was imposed and he came out strongly against it. His detention order forced him into exile overseas but he contested the 1977 elections from Bombay North-West where he romped home against law minister H R Gokhale. He retained the seat in 1980, finally losing to actor-turned-politician Sunil Dutt in 1984.

But his blazing, unmitigated anti-Congressism ensured lifelong friends in the opposition. He took up legal briefs of leaders in the crosshairs of the law. This ensured his net spread wide, ensuring six terms in Rajya Sabha during a long career. It included support of as ‘secular’ a politician as RJD chief Lalu Prasad as also BJP chief Amit Shah. There was a time when he even launched a political platform, Bharat Mukti Morcha, a non-starter.

Jethmalani’s day came when the legal eagle became law minister in the Vajpayee government. However, his independent style and attack dog ways led him into a confrontation with the then CJI R S Anand. Finally, Vajpayee dropped him.

Jethmalani was shocked and never forgave his successor, late Arun Jaitley. Jethmalani was his own man and did not need a political perch to be noticed. In 2012, he spoke against BJP leaders and was suspended from the party for six years. But soon, he was back. While he backed Narendra Modi, he later accused the leader of not doing enough. It was a typical about turn, indicating his individualism that came in the way of sustained engagement with party or government.

Kapil Sibal remembers

Kapil Sibal, Sep 9, 2019: The Times of India

Ram Jethmalani was born on September 14, 1923 I remember Ram in his many avatars. He was an extraordinary lawyer with a razor sharp mind who stooped to conquer the many legal battles he fought. He was a voracious leader with a love for literature. His daily routine included a few games of badminton every evening and a drink thereafter, during which he chatted with his friends who came to be energised by his vigour and love for life.

He obtained his LLB degree at the age of 17 and started practising law in his hometown in Pakistan. With partition, he moved to Bombay as a refugee and began life afresh. With one paisa in his pocket, he stayed in a refugee camp for a few days and thereafter charted his own destiny. He came to the spotlight as a lawyer when he assisted public prosecutor C M Trivedi in framing arguments in the famous Nanavati trial. He never looked back thereafter.

It was a privilege for me when he approached me sometime in 1986 to argue a writ petition filed by him in a proceeding against Swaraj Paul. I remember him sitting by my side instructing me as I argued that case. Since then, we became close friends. He always treated me with great affection.

The quality that I most admired in Ram was his commitment to the cause that he took up and his ability to be fearless in defending that cause. Least concerned about what others might say, he always fought to win. He was indefatigable. His conferences would start in the morning and he would sit through the day putting to shame young lawyers who found it tiresome. His mastery over facts and the Evidence Act was legendary. His forensic abilities and originality of mind won him admiration whenever he stood up in court. The opponents feared him and judges were in awe of him. He later developed into a fine constitutional lawyer.

He also had the ability to take up unpopular cases. He defended Afzal Guru. Despite public sentiment, he continued to defend Manu Sharma in the Jessica Lal murder case. He was unfazed by criticism when defending Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh in the stock market scams. Some of his other famous clients included J Jayalalithaa, Jaganmohan Reddy, B S Yediyurappa, Ramdev and Asaram Bapu in the Jodhpur sexual assault case. Very few know that he did a lot of pro-bono work.

He had a mercurial temperament. He was a bundle of affection for those who he liked and a fierce enemy for those who he thought harmed him and his reputation. Just as in the law, he was a political maverick. Since 1988, he continued to be in the Rajya Sabha. He could change sides based on his changing perception of political parties. One could have never imagined that Ram would be a candidate against Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the 2004 Lok Sabha election from Lucknow. He had entered politics with the support of the BJP and was very close to L K Advani. Because of his outspoken nature and his criticism of stalwarts in the BJP, he was eventually expelled from the party in May 2013. Eventually, BJP withdrew his expulsion realising that it is better to befriend him than to be the object of his wrath.

He never gave up in defending his clients except on one occasion as counsel for Sanjay Dutt who was being prosecuted under TADA. He made several unsuccessful attempts to get him bail. One day, he held my hand and told me that may be, he is not lucky for Sanjay and that it might be better if someone else tried his luck. That is how Dutt Saheb asked me to defend his son. He always believed that his client deserved to get relief from the court and would seldom come to terms if his client was denied relief. That was the nature of his commitment to the cause he represented.

He was a giant in the field of law. He charted his own course in life and stuck to the principles that he believed in. He measured others by the yardstick of values that he embraced. He was unconventional in every sense of the word. It is because he always fought against the tide that he was often misunderstood. He was a man with a golden heart who savoured each moment of his life.

The writer is a senior advocate and Congress leader 

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