Who says that old age is a second childhood? Ram Jethmalani was still a young man at 95, who believed that the older you grow, the younger must be your company.
Eklavya, ace archer from the Mahabratata, made a statue of Guru Dronacharya from the mud Drona walked upon, and worshipped it as his guru. Though he never had formal interaction or training under Dronacharya, he considered him as his guru and was later known for his exceptional ability and dedication towards his teacher. In the internet era, Ram Jethmalani became the Drona of the law student, and internet the mud statue. His speeches, lectures and debates became a source of legal knowledge and information for thousands of students across India. Ram Jethmalani was the reason why people across generations, including myself, chose to study law.
A child prodigy, Jethmalani completed his law degree at the age of 17 and was admitted to the Bar at the age of 18 after a special resolution was passed for him as the age to start practicing law at that time was 21. In 1947, this 24-year-old lawyer came to India with a pair of clothes and a toothbrush from Sindh after partition and lived in the refugee camps in Pune. And a decade later he was on the front page of national newspapers. The young Jethmalani shot to fame after his involvement in the landmark Nanavati Murder Trial in 1959. Ever since, the man didn’t look back and continued to be the top criminal lawyer of the country till he hung his boots in 2017. The man defied the notion of generation gap. No lawyer has been as famous as him.
Jethmalani donned many hats. Apart from being the ace criminal lawyer, he was also the Chairman of the Bar Council of India for four tenures both before and after the infamous emergency, during which he had exiled himself to Canada. And it was during his tenure as Chairman, Bar Council of India, country’s topmost law school, the National Law School of India University, Bangalore was established. He also served as Union Minister in the Cabinet headed by Prime Minister Vajpayee. In 2010, he was elected as the President of the Supreme Court Bar Association.
Ram Jethmalani was the founding Vice President of the Bharatiya Janata Party when it was formed in 1980. Mr. Jethmalani was one person who believed in the leadership of Narendra Modi and stood with him despite all odds. He even defended him boldly in media and on public platforms. In 2012-13 he said in public gathering, “I’m firm on my statement that Narendra Modi is the Best PM India candidate from BJP and is the best person to lead the country.” He had very critical views about Rahul Gandhi, who was then being projected as the Prime Ministerial candidate. In an interview with Rajat Sharma of India TV he said, “If Rahul become PM, thousands will migrate out of the country. I would not employ Rahul Gandhi even as a clerk in my office.”
Ram Jethmalani had his fair share of controversies every time he took up a case. He has defended in court, people from every sphere of life, from scamsters like Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh to the assassins of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, from BJP patriarch Lal Krishna Advani and current home Minister Amit Shah to Congress leader Ajit Jogi and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. Ram Jethmalani was everyone’s friend. No one could question his loyalty for India and the rule of law. Jethmalani considered himself a patriotic Indian, next a lawyer, and after that a politician who was trying his best to use whatever space is available within his range to protect constitutionalism, the rule of law, and the socio-economic interest of India. On this score, even his worst detractors could not make any charge against him.
In the famous interview with CNN-IBN, where Ram Jethmalani slammed Sagarika Ghose for asking “idiotic questions”, Jethmalani boldly said, “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. And mind you, I have a conscience that many people would be proud of.”
People would often ask him why he took up the cases of the infamous or the damned, Jethmalani, with his acerbic wit, would reply, “All the milestones of law haven’t been created in the cases of good people, they have been created in the cases of bad people. Good law is not made in cases of good people, but bad people.”
Jethmalani had a penchant for finer things in life- he loved his Mercedes Benz, his Black Label Scotch whiskey and his morning game of badminton. He was also called ‘the ladies’ man’, but he never shied away from it. In one of the TV interviews he laughingly said, “Aashiq toh main bachpan se hi hoon!” He was also very fond of youngsters and student and he continued to teach them till his retirement from the bar. Every month/weekend he would go to Pune to teach at the Symbiosis Law School where he was also an Emeritus Professor. Citing this as the reason behind his lean schedule on Mondays and Fridays, the veteran lawyer told a bench of Supreme Court, “I am the only lawyer who gets no work on Mondays and Fridays.” With these two days being the busiest days in the Supreme Court, Jethmalani’s comment was a gentle jab at lawyers who make a killing on these two days. But the judges seemed to share no sympathy with this comment. Aware of the heavy price tag that comes with hiring Jethmalani, the judges remarked, “Your one matter a week is sufficient to cover the entire week for other senior lawyers.”
I grew up reading about Mr. Jethmalani and listening to him on TV and over the internet. Ten years ago, when I was doing my undergraduate degree in arts at TISS, I had memorized one of the speeches of Ram Jethmalani by heart. The more you listened to Ram Jethmalani, the more you liked him, and the more you wanted to emulate him. This man had something which no other lawyer in the country had. I’ve been lucky to have seen him in action at various occasions at the Bar in Delhi.
Ram Jethmalani survived on conviction. History might take a long while to come to terms with conviction, but in the end, it rarely has any other choice. Jethmalani always believed that conviction should be more important than convenience in life. How else would he have ruled the bar for nearly seven decades?
“He doth bestrode the narrow world like a Collosus and we petty men walked under his huge legs ….” The man we all aspired to become is no more of this world. His memory will live in our hearts forever.
With the demise of Ram Jethmalani at the age of 95, a golden chapter in the legal history of India comes to an end. There can never be another Ram Jethmalani. Om Shanti!
(The author is an Advocate, practicing primarily in the Supreme Court of India and is Chamber Junior to the Additional Solicitor General of India.)