Ram Jethmalani: Consummate lawyer who lit up every courtroom he graced

Senior advocate Ram Jethmalani
If courtrooms in the Indian sub-continent, had a precocious problem child, it was Ram Jethmalani. He qualified as a lawyer at 17 and at 18 was admitted to the Sindh Bar by a special dispensation from the Chief Justice. He had a successsful legal career of 78 years as he continued to contribute till almost his end, just short of his 96th birthday. This achievement is unlikely to be matched anywhere in the world.

A Sindhi from Shikarpur, he started his legal career in Karachi, with A K Brohi. Brohi later rose to became the law minister of Pakistan. In his young days, Jethmalani even saw M. A. Jinnah argue a case. Like many a Sindhi, partitionn uprooted him. He had to leave his flourishing practice in Karachi as he moved to Bombay and its not easily welcoming bar. It was his talent that helped him establish a flourishing practice once again. The Nanavaty murder trial is the case that not only gripped the country but also brought an end to jury trials in India and Jethmalani had a watching brief for the deceased Prem Ahuja's family. Emergency saw him in self-exile, immediately after the Supreme Court's infamous judgment in the habeas corpus case.

Jethmalani returned to India soon after and was twice elected to the Lok Sabha from Bombay. A defeat in the 1984 wave election ended his Lok Sabha stint and a long one in the Rajya Sabha began. Jethmalani started the trend of Senior Advocates being repaid for court appearances in the form of Rajya Sabha seats and every six years he found a seat from a different state. For him, his independence was too important and it was hard to bind him, as his party discovered. 

Whether it was politics or the courtroom, Jethmalani was never one to shy away from a fight, howsoever unpopular his stand was. This was clear when he managed acquittal for Balbir Singh in the Indira Gandhi assassination case from the Supreme Court. Even in the Parliament attack case, he appeared and secured acquittals for a few but couldn't prevent Afzal Guru's execution.

I chose to join my senior, the late G Ramaswamy, (GR to one and all) because of what Ram Jethmalani said of him. He said, that if he had a personal problem in criminal law, he would consult G R. In my years with G R , Mr Jethmalani did not need that personal consultation, but I did see another legend, the late Mr Asoke Sen come to G R when the trial court framed charges in the Jain Hawala case. 

Ram Jethmalani had his contribution to that case as well. He had advised the petitioner Vineet Narain, when the police refused to investigate the transactions recorded in the Jain diaries. Ram also put an effective end to the prosecution in that case, when subsequently, he appeared for Mr L K Advani who had also been chargesheeted. He argued before the Delhi High Court, that the diaries were not books of account maintained in the regular course of business, and hence could not be relied on, under the Indian Evidence Act. Ram was thus both the Brahma - the preceptor, and Shiva - the destroyer of the same case. In between Ram played his Vishnu avatar, as one firmly espoused to Lakshmi the goddess of wealth.

This was classic Ram Jethmalani. He had done the same thing with the Bofors case as well. He had built up public pressure for a full  investigation. Teaming up with the exposes carried by N Ram and his team at The Hindu. The country was enthralled by the anti-corruption crusade a few years ago. Ram had done it nearly 20 years ago with his ten daily questions on the Bofors scandal to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. 

When Rajiv Gandhi lost power, Ram Jethmalani saw to it that V P Singh was safely ensconced as Prime Minister, by sitting on dharma outside Chandrashekar’s house. Even a physical assault by Chandrashekar’s supporters did not deter him. It was quintessential Ram Jethmalani when he defended the Hindujas in the court, for their participation in the same Bofors case. He managed to get them off the hook, by a series of manoeuvres, including bail on condition that one of the Hinduja brothers, always remained in India, while the other two travelled abroad.

What made him the ultimate  lawyer, was his courage, that he possessed in abundance. To that first requirement of the advocate, he added discipline. He could party till 3 am but yet wake up for badminton at 6 am in the morning. His powers of concentration upon the documents and the brief, when he sat alone at his desk, flowed in the courtroom into absolute clarity of thought and felicity of expression. His path in court was invariably one of persuasion, that was almost seduction. His incandescent presence lit up every courtroom that he graced. That light has gone out of our lives, but it's  warm glow will long persist.

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.

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