He wears the word as a badge of honour. A maverick, he says is “someone who thinks independently, who has not mortgaged his soul or intelligence to anybody.” At 83, Ram Jethmalani has probably been called a maverick more times than he can remember. “I am fine with the appellation,” he says.
The ‘maverick’ lawyer is back in the news with his decision to defend Manu Sharma, main accused in the Jessica Lall murder case. The headlines have been inevitable. The subtext: Ram Jethmalani, India’s most celebrated criminal lawyer, has ‘sold out’ to protect the rich and powerful.
But Jethmalani points out that he is fighting the case without charging a fee, in consideration for Manu’s father, Venod Sharma, a former colleague in Parliament. If that is a decision that could cost him his reputation, so be it. If his family is reportedly unhappy, so be it. Advocate Kamini Jaiswal who appeared alongside Jethmalani in the SAR Geelani matter says she is ‘very disturbed’ by the decision. “He has publicly said he has retired and will appear only in matters where the larger national interest is involved,” she says. “This is not a larger issue.”
Jethmalani’s admirers say he has always been a crusader for lost causes: from Balbir and Kehar Singh, accused of complicity in Indira Gandhi’s assassination, to underworld don Haji Mastan and stock scamster Harshad Mehta. In an interview to CNN-IBN, Jethmalani clarified, “I decide according to my conscience who to defend. A lawyer who refuses to defend a person on the ground that people believe him to be guilty is himself guilty of professional misconduct.”
Jethmalani is off to a flying start. First, Sabrina Lall, Jessica’s sister, was reported saying she had consulted Jethmalani. The implication: by accepting the brief of the opposing side, the lawyer had violated an ethical principle. Jethmalani has responded by sending Sabrina a legal notice.
Next, Jethmalani asked Justice RS Sodhi, one of the two judges hearing the case, to recuse himself following a newspaper revelation that Justice Sodhi had excused himself in 2002 from Manu’s bail attention because the Sharmas had approached him. The High Court dismissed Jethmalani’s petition.
Finally, Jethmalani plunged into his defence argument. Describing Manu Sharma as a ‘victim of a media witch hunt’ he claimed that he was not even at the scene of crime. Jessica was killed, Jethmalani said, by a tall Sikh; a man too powerful to be touched by Delhi police. Then, hitting his stride, he said Jessica was not killed over a drink. There was a much more powerful motive at work. And he would gradually reveal the truth.
His career, like his life, has had all the ingredients of a potboiler. A brilliant student, Jethmalani obtained his law degree from Sind University when he was only 17. He had to apply for special permission to practice before the stipulated age of 21.
It was his appearance in the famous Nanavati case in 1959 with YV Chandrachud, later to become India’s chief justice, that first brought Jethmalani into the spotlight. Commander Kawas Nanavati had shot his wife’s lover, Prem Ahuja in cold blood; Chandrachud and Jethmalani appeared for the prosecution. His later defence of a string of smugglers in the late 1960s established Jethmalani’s image as a ‘smuggler’s lawyer’. Even back then, he would point out that he was only doing his duty as a lawyer.
The maverick streak pretty much informs his politics. He started off with the Congress’s VK Krishna Menon in the 1962 Bombay North election. He subsequently contested as an independent with the support of the Jan Sangh and Shiv Sena for the Ulhasnagar/Bhiwandi seat. He lost.
Jethmalani spent much of the Emergency outside the country evading arrest: he believed he could be of greater use outside the country. In 1977 he returned to defeat law minister HR Gokhale but was not made law minister himself; Morarji Desai disapproved of his lifestyle, including his unabashed enjoyment of a drink or two, writes Nalini Gera in Ram Jethmalani, The Authorized Biography. Nor was he made law minister as a reward for his campaign against Bofors. And when he finally was made a cabinet minister by the NDA government, he also become the only one to be sacked by AB Vajpayee following differences with the then chief justice AS Anand and attorney general Soli Sorabjee.
Along the way, he has announced his candidature for President of India (“I owe it to the nation to offer my services”) and launched his own political fronts, the Bharat Mukti Morcha, launched as a ‘mass movement’ in 1987 and the Pavitra Hindustan Kazhagam in 1995.
His personal life has been as colourful. Asked once by TV anchor Rajat Sharma about his two wives, Jethmalani shot back, “Yes, and my first wife is happier than your only wife.”
It’s this blunt honesty that has won him both friends and enemies. He has never denied enjoying the finer things in life, whether it’s fine wine or the company of women. When made a minister, he was allotted a standard-issue white Ambassador car. He preferred to use his own Mercedes Benz. If there is one man who can swim against the tide of popular opinion, it is Ram Jethmalani. Blogs are abuzz with chatter vilifying the lawyer (“hang Manu and hang Ram”). But he has managed to raise reasonable doubt: who is this Sikh man? What was the deeper motive for Jessica’s death?
In the weeks to come, Jethmalani will continue raising these questions and, hopefully, provide some answers. It could be the biggest gamble of his career. But then, Jethmalani has never been afraid to take his chances.
Email Namita Bhandare: firstname.lastname@example.org