Ram Jethmalani, described by the media as a maverick, a relentless fighter who did not know when to retreat, an outstanding lawyer and a peerless law teacher, passed away at the ripe age of 95. He has not been out of sight for long except for a few months before the end came. About three decades or so ago, Justice, J.S. Verma had once jokingly asked him, “Mr Jethmalani, I was told that you have stopped appearing in new cases. Is that true?” His reply was, “Yes, My Lord. I take up cases only of my old clients.” This was in the context of the news of a signboard newly hung outside Ram’s door reading — “No new clients please”.
That signboard must have lived a full life — at least 35 years. I had seen Jethmalani arguing in the Supreme Court in late 2018 standing erect and with his trademark commanding voice. I have no claim for being very close to him — but close enough to pay this tribute.
Ram Jethmalani’s devotion to his profession was remarkable. My personal experience of working with him before the Justice Kuldeep Singh Commission made me to wonder how he could concentrate on a matter continuously for about 10 hours. And then the next morning, a fully charged Jethmalani would make a presentation that had to be only witnessed — but could not be described. His advocacy, fluency, diction and delivery were entirely his own. I had the privilege of watching the “maestro” performing from close quarters many more times.
The list of his clients was fascinating — it included Dawood Ibrahim, Haji Mastan and their whole gang of smugglers, Asaram Bapu and sadhus of that category, and politicians of all brands so long as they were involved in crimes. Unpopularity of the cause and the financial power of the accused were no issues. He defended the killers of Indira Gandhi and secured the acquittal of one who had to be later rehabilitated in his own office because the government refused to reinstate him.
Jethmalani was not just a criminal lawyer — he was an all-rounder in the real sense of the word — successfully arguing cases involving intricate questions of constitutional law, electoral law and so on. The Shiv Sena election case, involving the Hindutva question, was successfully argued by him.
The problem with Ram Jethmalani was that he was not open to compromise. As everybody knows now, this uncompromising attitude alone saw to it that he — who in 2014 spearheaded the “Lawyers for Modi” movement and was otherwise closely connected with the leaders of Gujarat —was no longer acceptable to the Prime Minister.
The sufferer in the process was his son Mahesh Jethmalani, an eminent lawyer in his own right, one who reminds you of Ram while arguing a case.
For him, the rule of the road was once an enemy, always an enemy. Examples are many: A.N. Ray, the much-disliked Chief Justice of India during the 1975 Emergency, died in 2009. At the customary obituary reference before the full court, Jethmalani, as president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, let loose a tirade against the departed CJI — much to the embarrassment of the packed courtroom. Jethmalani agreed to defend Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of Delhi, in a defamation case filed by the late Arun Jaitley, only to embarrass Jaitley through his cross-examination. However, when that plan misfired and Kejriwal disowned him, Jethmalani raised a memo for crores of rupees as fee. The lieutenant-governor disallowed the Delhi government from paying on the ground that the state had nothing to do with the case. Dr Subramanian Swamy was perhaps the sole exception to this rule.
He was a law teacher extraordinaire. Several distinguished lawyers of today located all over India who were his students at Government Law College, Mumbai, recount how his classrooms were always overflowing when low attendance is the norm even in law colleges. I was not fortunate to be one of his students, but partially made up for that loss by attending a couple of his classes at the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru, a few years ago, where he was a guest professor. “Law of Evidence” — otherwise not a very interesting subject — was a very different proposition in the hands of Ram.
I recall him giving an example to explain what is meant by “negative presumption”. He said, “If a man and a woman of agreeable age lock themselves in a stable, the presumption may be — (long pause) — that they are not there to pray.” That was Ram Jethmalani for you.
A game of badminton was one of the activities he would not miss on any day wherever he happened to be in. I recall his hoping to have a game in Louisiana in the United States, where he was taken to a squash court instead. He was a delightful companion at a bridge table — full of anecdotes — and never blaming the partner, which is far too common.
May his soul — though he probably found no evidence to support its existence — rest in peace....