A Legal Giant Named Ram Jethmalani Passed Away

'One of the best aspects of Shri Ram Jethmalani Ji was the ability to speak his mind. And, he did so without any fear. During the dark days of the Emergency, his fortitude and fight for public liberties will be remembered. Helping the needy was an integral part of his persona.”

- Prime Minister Narendra Modi

It is most depressing to learn that a legal giant named Ram Jethmalani finally passed away at the age of 95 just short by 6 days ahead of his 96th birthday on 14 September on 8 September after suffering from prolonged illness! But we all were witness to the irrefutable fact that he was physically very fit till the end and did all his works himself! He had announced retirement from legal profession in 2017!

It is my good luck that I had the fortune and privilege of listening exclusively to one of the most eminent, experienced and expert lawyer of Supreme Court named Ram Jethmalani while he came to deliver lecture in our class while I was doing LLB from Symbiosis Law College in Pune way back in 1996-97 and he spoke with not just extreme eloquence and brilliance but also encouraged students like me to not just answer any question which we liked but also answered them to our fullest satisfaction. I still remember that he spoke with a lot of cheerfulness and politeness inspite of being such a great legal giant that it is beyond the capacity of my pen to describe in words! He always advised that never term anyone a criminal unless and until a person is finally convicted and that too not just by lower court or high court but by the top court itself and here too until all his/her remedies are exhausted he/she has the right to be treated just like any other individual! He also advised law students like me that lawyers should never refuse brief from any client even though the cases may be most heinous because those cases may be false and in most of the cases they actually turn out to be false also! Most importantly, he said that it is lawyers job to take up any case whatever he/she gets!

When I asked Ram Jethmalani about Pakistan's belligerence towards India, he replied most eloquently that, 'China keeps instigating Pakistan against India. China is the most dangerous country in the world. It will eliminate the very existence of Pakistan if it keeps on walking into their trap. China is the root cause of Pakistan's belligerence against India. China is the real enemy of not just India but also of Pakistan whom it is fooling in the name of friendship just like it fooled us in 1962 and stabbed us most grievously. Pakistan must wake up its ideas before it is too late. Pakistan must develop good relations with India by shunning terror policy because this will benefit Pakistan most than anything else!” I can never forget his priceless words ever which I heard from him then which I remember now more than anytime else as he has finally and forever left for his heavenly abode! He also recounted his hardships which he faced after partition when he migrated to Bombay from Pakistan and lived in an Indian refugee camp. He said that his hard experience made him believe firmly that, 'India and Pakistan must forget the tribulations of the tragic Partition and develop a relationship of trust and cooperation.” Pakistan must pay heed to what Ram Jethmalani said and shun its blind hatred for India! Only then can both the countries prosper and progress in the true sense!

It must be mentioned here that Ram Jethmalani was born in Shikarpur which is now in Pakistan. He was an exceptionally bright student right from the scratch! He completed his matriculation at the age of 13. He became a lawyer at the age of just 17 years at Sindh which is now in Pakistan which itself demonstrates how brilliant he was!

It would be relevant to mention here that he began his career at 17 when he pleaded his own case against the minimum age rule for a lawyer to enroll at the bar which was 21. The rules were amended especially for him! He started his practice in Karachi in Pakistan as till 1947 there was no Pakistan but only India before moving to Mumbai post-partition!

Interestingly enough, Ram Jethamalani did not graduate in law but only obtained a two-year diploma - a condensed course introduced by Bombay University in 1939! Despite having spent six years at the bar in Sindh, he had to qualify the Bombay bar once his family moved there after partition which he did with excellence! Among the highest paid criminal lawyers in the country, Ram Jethamalani got his first shot at fame that is rightly called his first big break in 1969 when he was a part of the team of lawyers that engaged in the famous Naval Commander KM Nanvati case. He appeared for Prem Ahuja, the man killed by Naval Commander KM Nanavati. Ahuja's sister roped in Jethmalani. Though he did not appear in the trial court after Nanavati was let off by the jury and the Judge referred the case to the Bombay High Court. He assisted the public prosecutor for Maharashtra - YV Chandrachud who later became the longest serving Chief Justice of India as a prosecution lawyer in this case and secured a conviction for Nanavati.

It cannot be dismissed lightly that during the Emergency imposed by the then PM late Mrs Indira Gandhi, he in his capacity as the Chairman of the Bar Council of India mobilized lawyers against the government. As a consequence, arrest warrant was issued against him! A group of around 300 lawyers led by legendary Constitutional and tax law expert Nani Palkhiwala who refused to become Judge of Supreme Court at the age of just 32 as he was most happy and satisfied being a lawyer along with former Attorney General Soli J Sorabjee appeared before the Bombay High Court and succeeded in securing a stay on the arrest warrant issued against him! He was never afraid of anything and never shied away from speaking even against the most powerful whenever he felt that they were wrong! This was what distinguished Ram Jethmalani from the rest of the crowd!

It is well known that Ram Jethmalani never shied away from defending even terrorists as he felt that they are innocent until they are finally convicted by the top court and all their legal remedies stood exhausted! It was Ram Jethmalani who defended the men charged with assassinating Indira Gandhi as well as the accused in the killing of Rajiv Gandhi seven years later. It was Ram Jethmalani who said that he was not bothered about BJP expelling him for his decision to represent Mrs Indira Gandhi's killing which led to the acquittal of one of the accused Balbir Singh who was given the death sentence!

It cannot be ignored that he defended the likes of Harshad Mehta, Ketan Parekh, underworld don Haji Mastan and even political leaders like LK Advani and Amit Shah among others. He headed Manu Sharma's defence in the Jessica Lal murder's case and saved him from death penalty by arguing exceptionally well! His daughter - Rani Jethmalani was not happy with this but he said without mincing any words that for him what matters most is his duty which he owes to the legal profession to represent any client who approaches him with a lot of hope!

It was Ram Jethmalani who was never afraid of even Judges! He lost no opportunity to convey his point in simple and straight language! He never forgot to remind Judges that they had not even started their legal careers when he was already a senior lawyer. Very rightly so! Who can deny that Ram Jethmalani dominated for more than seven decades in legal profession single handedly and even his worst critics were gracious enough to always concede this!

It must be recalled here that once while arguing well after normal court hours his petition to bring back black money, Jethmalani noticed that the Judges along with CJI sneaked a peek at the clock. He lost no time in promptly addressing the then Chief Justice of India, saying that, 'You tired? Your Lordships are half my age.” Such was the physical fitness and hard working nature of his! How can this not be admired by anyone?

It must also be recalled here that he did not shy away to even write admonishing letter to the Madras High Court Judge - CS Karnan who was facing contempt of court which was the first in history by a sitting High Court Judge for misconduct explaining that he felt that the dignity of an institution could not be overawed by the idiosyncrasies of one man. In his letter, Jethamalani told CS Karnan that he was writing as a 'senior member of the Bar and living in the departure lounge of God's airport.” He rightly advised him to apologize to the Supreme Court but Karnan did not pay heed and had to go to prison as a consequence! Jethmalani signed off with 'If you do not know the enormity of your madness, do meet me and I might put some sense in your head.”

It must be also recalled that did not falter to call the National Judicial Appointments Commission which gave primacy to the government in judicial appointments to constitutional courts as an 'evil absurdity”. We have seen that how it was finally struck down by the Apex Court! It is the government which is responsible for not paying heed to what he said so plainly!

When he was faced with barbs and uncomfortable questions about his role as a defence lawyer for the powerful, he remained indifferent and said confidently and calmly that, 'He was serving the law as an officer of the court. The law allowed the accused to put forward his best defence. It was up to the courts to declare a person guilty.”

Ram Jethmalani had even ventured into politics. It is well known that he contested the Bombay North West seat in the Lok Sabha in 1977 and won by a huge margin! He was twice elected to the Lok Sabha from Bombay. In 1988 he was returned as a Rajya Sabha member with the help of Ramakrishna Hegde and Ramnath Goenke. It was he who pioneered the trend for senior lawyers contributing their best to Parliament by entering through Rajya Sabha! He was also the Union Law Minister when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was Prime Minister!

No doubt, his passing away has left a void which can never be filled by anyone! The former PM Dr Manmohan Singh rightly said that, 'In his death India has lost an eminent jurist, an able administrator and a seasoned parliamentarian.” Solicitor General Tushar Mehta also rightly said that, 'With the passing away of Ram Jethmalani, the country has lost a ‘giant of a man' who was a rare combination of constitutional expertise, razor-sharp understanding of criminal law and a ‘roaring tiger' when it comes to defending his clients.” Also, British-Indian industrialist Gopichand Hinduja too rightly said that, 'India is yet to see a better criminal lawyer than Ram Jethmalani. He was well respected not only by the Judiciary but also by the legal fraternity…Courageous to the core, he undertook many legal struggles against the high and mighty. He was a saviour of democracy in the truest sense.” Sanjay Hegde who is also a senior and an eminent Supreme Court lawyer paid his rich tributes by aptly saying that, 'While we mourn Ram Jethmalani's passing away, 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!” His contribution to the legal profession can never be described fully in words! He defended Lalu Prasad Yadav, Karnataka CM BS Yediyurappa, former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister late J Jayalalithaa among many others! He is an inspiration and an example worth emulating for every lawyer and every person who wants to achieve something in life! He was an extraordinary lawyer who pulled no punches and fought hard for all his clients with full vigour always! Words cannot be enough to describe his priceless contribution which he rendered in his various capacities as a lawyer, as a politician and as a Minister among others!

Undoubtedly, he has died but only after giving his best to society! He has lived his life to the fullest! He is survived by his son Mahesh Jethmalani who too is a renowned senior Supreme Court lawyer who has dabbled in politics also very well! He has a daughter who lives in US. His other daughter - Rani Jethmalani pre-deceased him in 2011 at age of just 52 which had shaken him even though he never showed this to anyone in public! May his departed soul rest in peace!


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Sanjeev Sirohi 
on 26 September 2019
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