Ram Jethmalani – The Unapologetic Man Behind the Legal Legend

His approach to life meant you either loved him or hated him. But no matter what, Ram Jethmalani left an impression!

7 min read

Video Editor: Ashutosh Bhardwaj
Video Producer: Hera Khan

“Remember, when you’re over the hill, that’s when you begin to pick up speed.”
Charles Schulz

Perhaps no quote better encapsulates the life of Ram Jethmalani, than this.

Senior supreme court advocate and former Union Law Minister Ram Jethmalani passed away on 8 September 2019.

Quick-witted, outspoken, and a lawyer par excellence, Jethmalani divided people flat down the middle with his brazen, unapologetic approach to life and work.

And not without reason.

He held the distinction of being India’s highest paid advocate, as well as the record of being both the youngest and the oldest member of the Bar.

But people aren’t remembered simply by the things they achieved or the benchmarks they set, they’re remembered by the most trivial-seeming memories, the words they said in passing, and the lives they touched without knowing.

Knowingly or unknowingly, Ram Jethmalani touched a thousand lives.

Today we take a closer look at the legend that was Ram Jethmalani.


Age No Bar: From Youth to Retirement

Age was never a limiting factor for Ram Jethmalani. While this may sound like a cliche, Jethmalani embodied this through every phase of his life.

He was born in Pakistan’s Shikarpur on 14 September 1923, to Boolchand Gurmukhdas Jethmalani and Parbati Boolchand.

His childhood would be spent in Shikarpur. Back then, Shikarpur was under the British’s control, a part of the Bombay and Sind province.

Ram Jethmalani is famous for being the youngest person to appear as a counsel in court, at the age of just 17. But what many don’t know, is that he had a track record of doing things earlier than others, going as far back as his time in school. He got a double promotion, and finished school at the age of just 13, again before most of his peers.

At the age of 17, when most students are still contemplating which colleges to apply to, Jethmalani was graduating with a Bachelors in Law from SC Shahani Law College in Karachi, and an LLM from Bombay University soon after, with a first class no less!


Ram Jethmalani, the Lawyer: Youngest to Get in, Oldest to Get Out

“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”
Mark Twain

Ram Jethmalani’s entry into the field of law is an oft-retold story.

He held the distinction of being the oldest and the youngest member of the Bar. He was 17 when he secured a law degree. But back then, the minimum age to practise law was 21. Not that it stopped the man who was often described as “the maverick” and “the rebel.”

Jethmalani filed a special application contesting this minimum age rule, and before long he was practising law, not at 21, but at 18, in Pakistan’s courts. He set up a law firm in Karachi with his friend and senior, AK Brohi.

“I still remember my first client, a distressed landlord. I charged him Re 1 as a fee.”
Ram Jethmalani, in an interview to The Times of India

But before his career in Pakistan could bloom, conditions in the country would turn sour. The violence of Partition and the riots that followed in the months after forced Jethmalani to flee to India in 1948.

“Leaving Pakistan was traumatic. I believe Partition was born of temporary madness. When I landed in Bombay, we had to sleep on the floor of refugee camps. Despite six years of practice and a law degree, I had to re-do the process of enrolling all over again.”
Ram Jethmalani, in an interview to The Times of India

His first significant legal victory in India came soon after, when he opposed the Bombay Refugees Act implemented under Morarji Desai, which allowed persecution of refugees. Jethmalani opposed the act as unconstitutional and won the case.

He truly burst into the spotlight with the KM Nanavati trial. The Nanavati trial, which has been the inspiration for not one but at least two movies and several other works of art, was a turning point in India’s legal history. It was the last case in India to be heard and tried through a jury trial.

Jethmalani was the man helping the public prosecutor frame arguments in the landmark case. His approach to the cross-examination ensured that KM Nanavati was held guilty in the case.

His legal career was long and illustrious, and his legal prowess legendary, spanning over 75 years, and several controversies.

His clients included the likes LK Advani, Amit Shah, Jayalalithaa, Kanimozhi, Ketan Parekh, Baba Ramdev, Asaram Bapu, Manu Sharma, the killers of Rajiv and the alleged assassins of Indira Gandhi, Harshad Mehta, Haji Mastan, and several others.

You can read about some of the historic cases he worked on here.

His legal excellence led to him being appointed the Chairman of the Bar Council of India four times.

But not all is rosy in this regard. His work and choice of clients had also landed him in various controversies over the years. For example, during a plea seeking bail for Asaram Bapu, Jethmalani described the girl who accused the controversial “godman” of sexual assault, as “suffering from a psychological condition that made her want to meet men alone.”

He’d also ruffled several feathers, including those of his former colleagues, with his decision to defend Manu Sharma AKA Siddharth Vashisht, in the murder of model Jessica Lall.

“If defending an unpopular cause results unpopularity, so be it,” he was famously quoted as saying.

He retired at the age of 94, on 10 September 2017.


Ram Jethmalani’s Family Life

Ram Jethmalani’s first marriage came a little after his first time in court as a lawyer. When he was a little older than 18, Jethmalani married his first wife, Durga, in an arranged marriage.

“I married Durga when I was a little over 18. When I went to meet her with my grandfather for the first time, she didn’t even make eye contact with me.”
Ram Jethmalani, in an interview to The Times of India

He’d go on to have four children with Durga – Mohini, Mahesh, Rani, and Shobha. He lost his first daughter, Mohini, to pneumonia at the age of three, a loss he says he could never get over.

A day before Partition in 1947, he married Ratna Shahani in Pakistan, in secret. Polygamy was permitted in Pakistan, so this was no problem, he’d recall later.

Jethmalani recalled that he was immediately attracted to Ratna because of her intelligence as a lawyer. He’d go on to have a child with her – Janak.

He also garnered a reputation as someone who was quite popular with women, famously saying, “I believe there’s no cut-off age for love. I don’t deny enjoying female company. But sex without emotional investment is something I don’t understand.”


Ram Jethmalani: The Politician

What can be said about Jethmalani, without talking about his love for politics? His work in politics would begin in the seventies. He lost the first polls he contested from Maharashtra’s Ulhas Nagar in 1971.

From 1975 to 1977, during his tenure as the Chairman of the Bar Council, he was one of many important figures against whom Indira Gandhi issued an arrest warrant. He would flee to Canada during this time, but continue campaigning against Emergency.

He would win elections from Bombay’s North West constituency in the seventies and eighties, eventually losing the seat in 1985.

Jethmalani was appointed as the Union law minister during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s first term as prime minister.

During Vajpayee’s second tenure as PM, Jethmalani was also given the Urban Affairs and Employment portfolio, but he resigned from the post of law minister soon after, in 1999, because of differences with the then-Chief Justice, Adarsh Anand and then-Attorney General Soli Sorabjee.

Rumour had it that Jethmalani wasn’t in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s best books, and that it was only at LK Advani’s insistence that he was given a place in the Cabinet.

This “feud” would eventually culminate in Jethmalani contesting the 2004 general elections against Vajpayee from Lucknow. But his contest as an independent candidate would fail in the face of the three-time PM.

His run-ins with the BJP eventually reached their final conclusion in 2013, when Jethmalani was expelled from the party for six years after accusing the party’s leaders of being “silent against corruption” within the UPA government.

He sued the BJP a year later in October 2013, for saying that he was unfit to be a member of the party.


No Regrets in Life: Ram Jethmalani

“All that I have earned today means nothing to me.”
Ram Jethmalani

Ram Jethmalani lived his life as an embodiment of the phrase, “Live life, no regrets.”

In an interview to The Times of India, Jethmalani said that he lived life with no regrets, save for the loss of his first daughter. In his last years, he said that he just wants to live a life of retirement.

Following his retirement in 2017, Jethmalani’s appearances in the spotlight became fewer and far in between. Several books have been written about his life, and they all talk of the man as someone who was a rebel – a maverick, outspoken lawyer who feared few and lived a life of brazen defiance.

His life ended at the ripe old age of 95, a week short of his 96th birthday. The man was divisive, like we said, leaving an impression on everyone he met, and perhaps in the end, that was all that mattered.

“We all live our lives in the hope that we become a memory.”
Antonio Porchia

(With inputs from the The Times of India, Parliament of India, Hindustan Times, and The Indian Express)

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