The year 2019 has been a bad year for law in that we have lost some brilliant minds to destiny. Arun Jaitley and Amarendra Sharan went untimely and with years of promise snatched by the ultimate Master of Roster. Ram, as Ram Jethmalani was affectionately called by young and old, wryly spoke for some years as stationed in the departure lounge of life. I bet everyone who heard him say that secretly prayed for an indefinite delay. I was not fortunate to ever work with the legendary criminal lawyer during the formative years of my career at the Bar. But his remarkable court craft and dogged determination to persuade the court was a delight to watch. Curiously, although he belonged to a weighty tradition we identified as “Bombay lawyers” not at ease with those seen to belong to the Congress school, we took to each other in social gatherings and became close enough to share frank opinions about events and political predilections. Some of those often cut close to the bone and remained our shared discretion. Of course, for Ram discretion was not part of valour and he had no dearth of the latter, sometimes engaging with formidable adversaries like Subramanian Swamy!
Having dominated the Bar for over half a century and contributed immensely to the development of criminal law in the country, Ram had an interesting presence in politics. Even as political life became polarised as a prelude to the polarisation of social institutions and the electorate, he remained somewhat sui generis: willingly to speak up publicly against his colleagues in the BJP (a party that he was in and out of), not sparing even the powerful party leader and Prime Minister.
Principles remained for him more than the party. There was a time when Ram’s uncompromising convictions caused a drift in his political affiliations and much as he had been sceptical of the Congress, there was a time about a decade ago that he came close to several of our colleagues and was received quite warmly. For me of course, he was always a friend enough to have shared his reading and understanding of Islam and the Holy Quran. But of course, what ultimately mattered to him was belief in absolute equality and gender justice. This passion he shared with his late daughter Rani Jethmalani, an accomplished lawyer herself before her untimely demise and his son, Mahesh, with whom I made acquaintance in Oxford. Besides gender justice, Ram was always scathing of the corruption he believed was eating the entrails of our political system. I am not certain if a mighty mind like his was ever able to suggest a lasting remedy to the cancer of black money and sleaze but he seldom missed the chance to use judicial intervention to make political corruption accountable to the law. Sadly, his short tenure as the law minister must have left a sense of helplessness in public life where the system defeats the best, in contrast with the impact he was able to make in court and the satisfaction that would have given him.
What will the world look like now that Ram Jethmalani will no longer be amongst us? Well, the Bar will be conspicuously depleted. Many a swinging party will no longer have the lively, jovial, entertaining, inspiring centre of attraction. The self-conceited and egoistic politicians will not have some one to bring them down a peg or two. When politics sinks to lower depths, young aspirants will have no one to turn to for pep talks and inspiration. As I try to put down what about him will remain a lasting memory, the word “invincible” comes to mind. I knew the successful Ram Jethmalani, but surely he must have had his share of disappointments, trials and travails, the struggle to find roots in India after Partition and to secure a place at the Bombay Bar that was studded with talent and reputation. But he would of course want us to remember him as the ultimate maverick who left no space for mediocrity and the trodden path. Fighter might be another apposite word but a fighter with style, somewhat like Mohammed Ali.
There are no disputes in heaven and therefore no opportunity for lawyers to practice their craft. I am certain though that Ram will try to persuade God to make provision for his precious baggage of jurisprudence for he could not have travelled light. Or else he may well discover that all the detestable evil he refused to suffer on earth is completely absent in the kingdom of God. He will finally have no briefs and can finally put his feet up to enjoy the other cherished things beyond law. Good wine was one of those. The defence can now rest in peace....