(This article was first published on 8 September 2023. It has been reposted from The Quint's archives on the birth anniversary of lawyer Ram Jethmalani.)
A living legend, a wizard of law, a maverick - he was quite a phenomenon. It's been four years since we heard the sternly majestic voice of Ram Jethmalani in the courtrooms.
To say that he had led an illustrious life would be an understatement. For him, the courtroom was a stage, and he was an actor. He brought empathy and passion to every case he fought. His role as a lifelong legal educator merit him a place of great honour. His love for students was beyond all boundaries.
We have seen so many instances where he used to take a flight immediately after Friday hearings for lectures at different universities.
His weekends were thoroughly devoted to students over and above his legal conferences. In one such instance, he was scheduled to deliver a lecture at Pune and he missed the flight. He didn’t cancel the program, rather he immediately chartered a plane to Pune to ensure that the students didn’t get disheartened, as they were eagerly waiting for him. For him, learning the law had no age.
'I Decide According to My Conscience Who to Defend'
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, once famously said, “The life of the law has not been logic, it has been experience”.
Today we look into a life in law, the life of Ram Jethmalani, and indeed, what an experience it has been, a life which seems to most people who look up the long shadow cast by the tall doyen of the criminal bar, a shimmering, colourful, unfiltered and ever so often, a controversial experience.
But, to those who knew the man, and looked at him with lenses spared the tint of hearsay, a deep, meaningful, and honest experience. A practice of law that went on to mark an epoch in the century, began when a young Ram Jethmalani, then 17 years old, appeared before Justice Godfrey Davis to contest the minimum age rule passed by the bar council of Sindh, and as one may guess, won this first contest.
He then moved to India after partition and in decades to come he emerged as someone who was believed to rescue men from the clutches of the hangman even at the eleventh hour, and there is much evidence to corroborate this belief, for some of the most loathed men in the nation, found a hope in him even when every other prominent lawyer had refused to touch their case.
He never allowed public opinion on a case to affect his judgment, as he firmly believed that a court of law cannot be allowed to become a court of public opinion. And yet, the remarkable strength of his character is displayed by the fact, that of all these cases, he walked out with an unquestionable, unblemished image.
In his eyes, there was nothing more sacrosanct for a criminal lawyer than entering every case with an unprejudiced and impartial mind. He used to say: “I decide according to my conscience who to defend. A lawyer who refuses to defend a person on the grounds that people believe him to be guilty is himself guilty of professional misconduct.”
Ram Jethmalani's Political Life
His political ideology was independent of the party he was associated with, this is one of the primary reasons why his political career is a misunderstood one. It seems like an absurd stance at first glance but a profound one when understood truly. His frequent association with the BJP and just as frequent disassociation with it, as his political flirtations with RJD and the TMC often present a blurry picture of his political life.
But on the other side of the same coin, Jethmalani has been a union minister, has twice won a Lok Sabha seat, and has been elected several times to the Rajya Sabha. The vast erudition that he had to offer was an added accolade to the debating halls of this hard-earned democracy. He was unfettered by the obligations that come with being associated with a political party, if speaking his heart meant breaching the party lines, then the latter was hardly ever a consideration.
And this often resulted in the contrasts that we see in his political life, whether it be him being a union minister in the Vajpayee government or his contesting against Vajpayee for the Lucknow seat in 2004, behind this contrast was simply a man unwilling to compromise on what he stood for. When a chargesheet was filed against L K Advani in the Hawala case, it was Jethmalani who came to his rescue and had the chargesheet quashed, however, he felt betrayed by Advani when he was expelled from the party for ‘breach of discipline’ and Advani failed to withdraw this expulsion.
What followed this was a legal battle, where Jethmalani dragged his former party to the court for contravention of the party constitution. This case came to rest when Amit Shah expressed ‘regret’ over his expulsion and both parties presented a joint plea before the court having ‘amicably settled’.
His role as a public servant is often overshadowed by his law practice and political life. His contribution to the rights of the common man, and his drive to contribute to the life of the last man in the society was immense. His fight to unravel the labyrinth of black money channels that operate in the backwaters of business and political rose gardens that strike deep in taxpayers' pockets without him ever coming to know of it, was much highlighted, he appeared before the apex court as a party and eventually secured an order directing the union government to gather a sit to look into the black money stacked in foreign bank accounts.
He didn’t shy away from pointing out the lacuna in the incumbent government's policy regarding black money, a government which in fact he had rooted for earlier, on the grounds of its fiscal cleanliness, and this was another glaring reflection of his unshakable hold on his principles. He had opposed the NJAC in no timid tone, as he thought the government being the biggest litigator in the country should not be allowed to have a say in the appointment of judges.
Jethmalani Could Not Be Silenced
Law is often called a jealous mistress. Even after his marriage to the political life, he interestingly managed to flourish both at the expense of neither. His law practice never suffered the tribulations that his political life would undergo, some guess this is owed to his acute craftsmanship of using legal tools in his political maneuvering and vice versa.
But the truth is too simple to match the appeal of glamour that surrounded his life throughout. It’s partly owed to his exceptional legal prowess, ever so brilliant eloquence, and almost gifted wit, and partly to those fundamental characteristics that were woven in the very fabric of his being, namely integrity, fearlessness, and a phenomenal fighting spirit.
It is by virtue of these factors that Jethmalani was able to curate a stature for himself. His contribution to the legal canvas can’t be summarized, whether it is via cases that got the attention of the media to such an extent that even a disinterested citizen in some far off corner couldn’t resist their scrutiny, which includes cases like K M Nanavati, Jain Diaries case, Jessica Lal murder case, the parliament attack case, and the Indira Gandhi murder case, to name a few, or via cases which subtly escaped the media attention while leaving a significant mark in the growth of criminal and constitutional jurisprudence of this nation.
In his long march from a young boy of 17 to a young man of 95, his opinions have invariably solicited responses from either end of the spectrum, there are those who were scathing in their criticism against him and there were those who bowed to his magnanimity, to some his words were prophetic wisdom, to some they were heresy, but his voice was never affected by either.
If there was something on which he believed he needed to speak out, his voice could not be silenced. After all, he belonged to a school of thought that said, “I have not learned the lesson of silence. My teachers and professors whom I revere taught me exactly the opposite. Silence is no different from being a conspirator and truth must be loudly trumpeted from the housetops.”
(The authors would like to acknowledge the efforts of Vansh Verma, Fifth Year, Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies, New Delhi.)
Tanvi Dubey is an independent practitioner at the Supreme Court of India, with a diverse practice ranging from civil, commercial and constitutional disputes to service matters before the Supreme Court and other fora in Delhi.
Sumit Chatterjee is a civil and commercial dispute resolution lawyer at Arista Chambers, practicing before the Karnataka High Court, trial courts and a wide array of tribunals in Bangalore.
The authors can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com respectively.
(This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)