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Lone ranger in white shoes

Should Ram Jethmalani help to get the rich son of a powerful father off on a murder charge? Asks Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Nov 12, 2006 10:01 IST

Now that everybody and his dog have had their say on whether Ram Jethmalani should defend Manu Sharma, can I add my own two bits? There’s been so much heat and passion in this debate — most of it emanating from Ram himself in his new avatar as the rottweiler of news television — that I fear we may be in danger of losing sight of the core issues.

But first, let’s get the personal stuff out of the way. I have frequently disagreed with the political positions Ram has taken in his long and varied career, but like nearly everyone else who knows him on a personal level, I recognise that he is a large-hearted, warm, generous person who will rarely refuse to help a friend, whom you can count on if you are in a jam and who — despite his unquestioned legal brilliance — can sometimes be childishly naïve about the simplest things.

This controversy is not about Ram’s strengths and weaknesses as a human being. His old friends will always speak up for him at a personal level.

Nor is this — as Ram likes to believe — a controversy about a man’s right to a legal defence. To hear Ram tell it, he is a lonely gunslinger, riding in, six-guns blazing, determined to save a simple man from the blood-thirst of a lynch mob.

This is an image Ram has employed before. When he defended Kehar Singh in the Indira Gandhi assassination case, he portrayed himself as a brave lawyer upholding the basic principles of the criminal justice system (such as the right of every accused to a good defence).

More recently, when he got Professor Geelani off in the Parliament attack case, he was once again — in his telling — the courageous legal genius who defied public opinion to save an innocent man from the gallows.

Cynics questioned both characterisations. When he defended Kehar, he was taking an active interest in Punjab politics. And over the last few years, he has busied himself with Kashmir. Were these defences his way of scoring brownie points with estranged communities so that he could inveigle himself into their politics? Was there a calculation behind the courage? As a politician without a base, was he simply trying to carve out new constituencies for himself?

In all fairness to Ram, we should reject the cynical interpretation and grant him the credit that is his due for accepting cases that no other top lawyer would touch. Both men may well have been hanged had it not been for Ram’s intervention.

But there is no parallel between those defences and his decision to accept Manu Sharma’s brief. Both Kehar and Geelani were small, simple people, unable to secure a top defence lawyer because public opinion had decided that they were ‘anti-national’. Manu Sharma, on the other hand, is neither small nor simple. Nobody thinks he is an enemy of the state. His father is rich and powerful. And he has had no difficulty in securing legal representation — he can afford the best lawyers.

As for Ram’s view that he is saving a man from a powerful lynch mob — well, if the ‘lynch mob’ of public opinion was so strong, Manu wouldn’t be sitting pretty, running his own bar in Chandigarh, so many years after the murder. He would never have been acquitted by a lower court. And witnesses and policemen would not have changed their stories so that the case collapsed.

So, the correct response to Ram’s view of himself as the Lone Ranger is: nice try, pal.

But you are not on the side of the little guys this time. You are digging your snout into the trough where the money and the power are.

So, what then is the controversy about?

Well, basically, the controversy is about Ram himself. And it is about how ordinary people view our deeply flawed legal system.

When Ram joined politics full-time (in the aftermath of the Emergency) his opponents smeared him by calling him a smugglers’ lawyer. And, to his credit, Ram never denied that in the course of his legal career, he had defended (and usually got off) an assortment of people whom you and I might regard as extremely dodgy characters — murderers, smugglers, gang bosses and desi mafiosi.

Ram argued that this was his calling. A lawyer is like a doctor. He must use his skills to help defendants. If criminal lawyers were not to defend criminals, then there would be nothing else for them to do — and the system would collapse.

It is a tribute to the maturity of Indian public opinion that the ‘smugglers’ lawyer’ tag never harmed Ram. Despite all the angry noises Ram is now making, no sane person grudged him the right to defend big-time criminals. We accepted that this was what he did for a living.

The public disapproval that Ram now complains about emerges from his own redefinition of his career; from his own claims about how he now wants to lead his life.

More than any other Indian lawyer, Ram has — over the last decade and a half — chosen to fuse his legal and political careers together. There is a sign outside his house asking potential clients not to bother because he has ceased to be a lawyer-for-hire. In interview after interview he emphasises that he will now only work pro bono, and will use his legal skills only on matters of national importance or when the weak and the powerless need protecting.

And his politics have been tied up with his skills as a lawyer. His critics say that he has got himself into the Rajya Sabha only by offering legal services to the powerful (to RK Hegde, to Bal Thackeray, to the Congress and the UPA etc, etc) and even the NDA made him a minister only because of his legal expertise.

So, Ram has only himself to blame if we judge him by different standards now from the ones we employed when he first entered politics. In those days, he was a criminal lawyer by profession. But now he wants us to believe that he is some grand legal elder statesman using his brilliance for the good of society.

Should a grand legal elder statesman be devoting his attention to getting the rich son of a powerful father off on a murder charge? In a case where there is reason to believe that the course of justice has been perverted?

Ram says he’s dong this for free. In which case, he’s a fool. These people don’t need his charity. Gossip however suggests he is being paid a tidy fee. If this is true, then it confirms why the public is no longer willing to accept his own grandiose characterisation of himself of a selfless crusader for truth and justice.

There is a second reason for the public disappointment with Ram. Some weeks ago, in the context of the Mohammed Afzal case, I wrote, on this page, that ordinary people believe that if a rich or powerful man commits a murder in full public view in the middle of Connaught Place, a smart lawyer like Ram Jethmalani will still get him off — so unfair is our legal system. I did not know then that Ram would actually accept this brief and try and get Manu Sharma, a rich and powerful man accused of committing murder in full public view, off.

But my words now seem eerily prescient. Lawyers tell me that Ram is conducting Manu’s defence so ‘brilliantly’ that he may well get him off. He has already found a sex angle and has told us that the real murderer was a Sikh. Perhaps, in a week or so, he will tell us that Manu was not even there and that Jessica was killed by Navjot Singh Sidhu/Rabbi Shergill/Manmohan Singh (or by all of them).

Given how little faith people have in our legal system and given how nobody believes that the rich and powerful ever get convicted (remember the BMW that turned into a truck?) is it surprising that there has been so much public disillusionment over Ram’s decision to defend Manu? Nobody disputes that Manu has a right to a lawyer. But for the public at large, it is just one more indication of how the cards are stacked in favour of the rich and how justice is available only to those who can pay for it.

As for Ram, he can stop shouting on TV now. We don’t deny that as a criminal lawyer he can defend as many criminals as he likes. For all we care, he can defend Dawood Ibrahim next. (And no doubt, he will get him off.)

It’s just that the next time he tells us that he now wants to use his legal prowess for the national good and to help the weak and powerless, all of India will laugh in his face.

And as somebody who thinks of Ram as a friend, that makes me both sad and sorry.

(Mail your responses to counterpoint@hindustantimes.com)