The legendary Ram Jethmalani breathed his last at his residence in Delhi on 8 September 2019.
He held the distinction of being the oldest and the youngest member of the Bar. He was 17 when he secured a law degree from the SC Shahani Law College in Karachi. At the time, the minimum age to practice law was 21, but an exception was made to allow Ram Jethmalani to start practicing at the age of 18.
So, when he announced his retirement at an event organised by the Bar Council of India to felicitate new Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, many agreed it was the end of an era.
While a lot has been written about Jethmalani’s legal genius and his political rebelliousness (like the time he called Modi’s government a calamity), not much is known about how his arguments in court left a lasting impression on the legal and political history of India.
1. 1962 Nanavati Case: A Guilty Verdict and a Pardon
A handsome Naval officer, Kawas Nanavati, shot dead his wife Sylvia’s paramour, Prem Ahuja, after discovering that he had no intention of marrying her or accepting their children as his own. The case was among the first to be put to a media trial and the last to be decided by a jury. At the time, Jethmalani was not the maverick he would eventually be known as, and in his own words, the case had earned him “great fame which I badly needed at the time.”
Jethmalani assisted the Public Prosecutor in framing the arguments first in the trial court and then later in the High Court. His strategy and line of cross-examination ensured that Nanavati was held guilty.
However, when the conviction became a rallying point for the Parsi and the Sindhi community, to which Ahuja belonged, Jethmalani stepped in and convinced Ahuja’s sister, Mamie Ahuja, to write a letter forgiving her brother’s killer.
2. The Emergency Stand Off
On the night of 25 June 1975, Indira Gandhi declared an Emergency. The government, in its attempt to exercise absolute control, passed the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) to make arbitrary arrests. Hundreds of political activists and journalists were jailed or put under house arrest without any explanation or legal recourse. A team of 12 lawyers, led by Shanti Bhushan, challenged the unlawful detentions in the Supreme Court. This came to be called the Habeas Corpus case. And the question argued by these lawyers was whether fundamental rights, like the right to life, stood abrogated during a state of Emergency.
One of them was Jethmalani, who stood before the Supreme Court and said:
It is almost right to say that democracy is already in the coffin. The government wants the court to slam shut its lid – something so dirty that it would rather want to do it for them. You will be locking up the door of your own sepulchre for all time to come. The free world is watching to see how a great court reacts and conducts itself in the face of supreme tragedy.
You may afford to be contemptuous of contemporary opinion but long after your identity as judges is forgotten, posterity will read your judgement and draw its contempt, is the choice before you. Do remember that the Emergency can be made permanent by those who are determined to make themselves permanent.
In a stunning verdict, the Supreme Court favoured the Centre with only one of five judges dissenting against the majority ruling.
Jethmalani’s arguments were circulated in a secretly circulated paper, Evening View.
3. Defending Indira’s Killers
Indira Gandhi’s assassination was believed to be an open and shut case. But, thanks to Jethmalani, it turned out to be anything but. He got involved in the case after the accused conspirators – Balbir Singh and Khehar Singh – requested that he represent them.
“In the tradition of our profession, that request is treated as a command. I had no option but to accept,” he told Outlook in 2009.
Jethmalani successfully proved that the link between Balbir Singh and the two Sikh guards who shot down the Prime Minister was tenuous. But, he could not save Khehar Singh, who was sentenced to death.
It boiled down to their being Sikh colleagues in the security police at the Prime Minister’s house. Together they’d identified a bird outside the house as Gurudu baaz (Guru Gobind Singh’s falcon) in September. The prosecution held that they took it as a signal to avenge the desecration of the Golden Temple during ‘Operation Bluestar’ earlier that year. But the Supreme Court accepted Balbir’s claim that he was picked up the day after the murder and framed after being illegally detained for 33 days. The prosecution’s story that he was picked up from a bus stop crumbled under questioning by the court.– India Today report dated 31 August 1998.
But, there were political consequences. Jethmalani was thrown out of the BJP after the case. When he eventually found his way to the Rajya Sabha as an MP, the Congress benches shouted – “Indira Gandhi ke hathyaron ka wakil, usko tum Rajya Sabha main le ke aaye (You have brought the lawyer who defended Indira’s killers to the Rajya Sabha).”
In response, Jethmalani sought permission to make a small statement and asked the Congressmen – “Would the soul of Smt. Indira Gandhi be happy if an innocent man is hanged for her murder?”
4. Defending Rajiv Gandhi’s Killers
Jethmalani argued for commuting LTTE operative Murugan’s death sentence in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case on the grounds that he had spent more than 23 years in prison, and if the remissions earned were to be taken into account, the period of incarceration would be over 30 years.
During the course of the hearing against the Centre’s petition challenging the Tamil Nadu government’s decision to commute the sentences of the convicts, Jethmalani told the Supreme Court that the 21 May 1991 suicide bomb attack, which killed Rajiv Gandhi, was not a crime against India.
There was so much public sympathy for Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s decision to release the convicts. It (Rajiv assassination case) was not a crime against the nation but a conspiracy to punish a PM who reneged on his promise to help the LTTE. These accused had no direct role in the assassination. They were indoctrinated and did what their bosses said. They had suffered enough for being just indoctrinated. The court must look at their case from mercy point of view.– Times of India report dated 22 July 2015
5. The Harshad Mehta Scam: Enter Big Money for Lawyers
When the Harshad Mehta scam broke in 1992, it is understood to have catapulted the status of Mumbai-based lawyers.
The Economic Times reports – “In the initial years of the case, Harshad and his brothers — inured to expensive cars and swanky apartment blocks — hired the most expensive lawyers in the country. No less than Ram Jethmalani was engaged to beachhead the 70-odd criminal cases lodged against the Mehta family.”
This was when lawyers started billing Rs 1 lakh per appearance at a time when even senior Supreme Court lawyers were also not commanding that kind of money.
The Harshad Mehta case could have marked the beginning of serious money coming into the profession.
A Livemint report, quoting interviews conducted by Legally India with more than 32 Delhi law firm partners and advocates working with business clients, reveals that the elite class of lawyers is typically paid between Rs 5 lakh to Rs 15 lakh per hearing.
But, there was only one who charged up to Rs 25 lakh to have his name attached to the case file and for him to read it. And why was Jethmalani able to charge this astronomical sum? Because of his pro bono work, he’d been appearing in very few cases.
While the fortunes of top lawyers in the country have seen a sea change, the Harshad Mehta files remain stagnant. Twenty five years on, even after Harshad Mehta’s death, there’s no quick end in sight to the case.
A man who forever left an impact on India’s legal world, Ram Jethmalani’s legacy stays long after his passing.
(This story was first published on 14 September 2017. It has been updated and republished from The Quint’s archives after senior SC advocate Ram Jethmalani passed away at the age of 95 on 8 September 2019.)