Ram Jethmalani: The man who dominated courtrooms for 78 years
While we mourn Ram Jethmalani’s passing, we cannot but celebrate his life. He became a lawyer at 17, and continued to contribute till almost his end just short of his 96th birthday. A successful legal career of 78 years is unlikely to be matched anywhere in the world.
Through most of those 78 years he dominated whichever courtroom he addressed. A Sindhi from Shikarpur, he started off in Karachi, with AK Brohi, who later on became law minister of Pakistan. In his young days, he watched MA Jinnah argue a case.
Partition uprooted him, and like many a Sindhi, he found his way to Bombay and its not easily welcoming bar. Within a few years he was again flourishing. He had a watching brief for the deceased Prem Ahuja’s family, in the Nanavaty trial. His career took off to a stage, where he could boast like the Lord Chancellor in Gilbert & Sullivans’ Trial by Jury. “All thieves who Could my fees afford, relied on my oration, And many a burglar I’ve restored to his friends and relations.”
His career as a successful criminal and human rights lawyer saw him in self-exile during the emergency, immediately after the Supreme Court’s infamous judgment in the habeas corpus case. He returned after the emergency, to be twice elected to the Lok Sabha from Bombay.
After he lost in the 1984 wave election, he began a long stint in the Rajya Sabha. He pioneered the trend of Senior Advocates being elected to the Rajya Sabha, in lieu of court appearances. Every six years, he was invariably elected to the Rajya Sabha from diverse places such as Karnataka, Bihar, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. In this phase he did not shy away from defending the despicable in court, even without a fee. In the Indira Gandhi assassination case, he managed an acquittal for Balbir Singh, from the Supreme Court. Kehar Singh was sentenced to the gallows, but for a long time thereafter, his son Rajinder was employed as Ram’s clerk and man Friday.
In his post 1977 phase as lawyer and politician, Ram was the battering ram for many an anti-corruption crusade from Bofors to black money. His 10 daily questions to Rajiv Gandhi prompted an exasperated Prime Minister to ask, “Do I reply to every dog that barks?”. Pat came the answer, “Dogs bark only at thieves”. Later on, Ram ended up defending the Hindujas in court for their participation in Bofors. His legal gymnastics, were not a barrier to his appointment as minister in the Vajpayee government.
During the UPA days, Ram approached the top court as a petitioner on the issue of black money. The case was argued by his friend Anil Divan and ended in a thumping judgment, which set the stage for the Modi government to sweep into power on an anti-corruption platform. True to form, Ram fell out with Modi and Shah, both of whom had been his clients in their earlier avatars. Ram, the politician, was too independent a mind to fit into any mould. He however had the capacity to fight and build his own niche, from which no one dared dislodge him. No one wanted to be on his wrong side and many knew that they would require his legal skills from time to time. It is as a lawyer that his ultimate epitaph has to be written. He possessed in abundance, the first requirement of the lawyer — courage. To that he added, amazing industry and powers of concentration upon the documents and the brief. These qualities flowed into absolute clarity of thought and felicity of expression in court.