Ram Boolchand Jethmalani (14 September 1923 – 8 September 2019) was an Indian lawyer and politician. He served as India’s Union minister of law and justice, as chairman of the Indian Bar Council, and as the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association. He was noted in the Indian legal fraternity for his forte in criminal law and high-profile civil cases.
He was abundant and affectionate as a friend and unforgiving and dreadful as an enemy. He was generous to a fault to his friends and colleagues. He was a true democrat at home or in office. His son could question him at home and his junior in law in office could fault his view of a case or the law. He fought against dictatorship in any form. He did not just love democracy, but lived for it and also by it. He was thrown out of the BJP in 2013 for his open revolt but filed a case against the party to question the decision as illegal and undemocratic. He turned a normal issue of party discipline into an extraordinary question of public law — something unheard of in political history. The BJP had finally to withdraw the suspension and make peace with him.
Hypocrisy was never in his dictionary. He was transparent about his personal habits, enjoyed his life and never pretended to conceal the things he loved to do. Ram was complex at the one end and yet simple at the other. He was highly principled on issues, yet equally compromising on persons. He was rational, but would go in search of the best astrologers.
For many he was an utterly captivating, extraordinary character. For others, he was a source of constant trouble, a man who seemed to represent no moral principles, was politically unscrupulous and an intellectual dilettante. Ram Jethmalani, the most unpredictable of politicians lived a full life and died four days short of his 96th birthday.
There is little that is not known about his personal life. He started studying at Tekchand Pathshala, for which his father had to pay what in those days was a princely sum of Rs 4 a month. He completed school from Sukkur, Pakistan, at the age of 14 after getting several double promotions. His biographer, Susan Adelman writes about Jethmalani’s naughtiness in school: “One day, when he was 14, the principal called all the students to come to the schoolyard at 1 pm. When they asked why, he said: ‘I am going to thrash Ram Jethmalani for ruining the morals of the school’. It seems that Ram had asked the boys in his class what they did at night to amuse themselves in their rooms. They said they would usually read or study, and he said he would teach them something they could do by themselves that would be much more fun.” His father, ignoring his fascination for his grandfather’s vocation, the law, sent him first to study science and then engineering. Jethmalani was miserable. Finally, he joined the SC Shahani Law College in 1939 and graduated as a lawyer at 17 in 1941. He fought and won his case to be permitted to practice law – not at 21 but at 18. It helped that he had got a first class first in law school. He began his law practice at 18..
Ram Jethmalani is arguably the best criminal lawyer in the country. The man has been part of legendary cases that have shaped our legal history. His skills as a trial lawyer are enviable, and is one of the very best at cross-examination of witnesses.As a criminal lawyer myself, I admire Ram Jethmalani, and I respect him for the fact that he represents all kind of clients, regardless of his political affiliations and social background. He has argued cases for people whose political ideology is vastly different from his own, and he has represented people from tremendously different social backgrounds.A criminal lawyer should never turn down a brief, unless he is personally interested in a matter (for example, if the victim or the accused is of his family or otherwise connected to him). As an advocate, it is your duty to represent anyone who is willing and able to pay your fees. You cannot discriminate on the basis of who your client is, and it is unethical to refuse a brief on the ground that the crime is of a heinous nature. You are a lawyer, not a judge…it is not your prerogative to decide whether a person is culpable or not.Ram Jethmalani lives by this credo, as do I and several other criminal lawyers. It is something to be proud of, and it is a shame that more people don’t understand that.Criminal defence lawyers are the cornerstone of the justice system. It is the presence of lawyers like Ram Jethmalani that we can claim to be a country governed by rule of law. It is because of this, we can say with confidence that everyone gets a fair trial… and it is what separates us from barbaric systems with kangaroo courts. Today, the state has to be sure of its case before starting prosecution because they know lawyers in defence will challenge them. It is this which prevents our system from becoming a tyrannical one.
In India, a man is innocent until proven guilty. This is an idea that we have to take seriously. It is said that 9 criminals may be acquitted, but no innocent man should even be convicted. It is the duty of the lawyer to believe to take up the cause of a client who he believes to be innocent.To say that Ram Jethmalani “bats for the wrong people” is a statement unfounded in fact and law. Jethmalani and Palkhivala are the two legends of the Indian bar. Advocates like Jethmalani happen once in a generation. The fact is, he is a phenomenal lawyer. One must remember, he does not defend “criminals”, he defends the accused. There is an important distinction between the two. Also, he is one of the champions of human rights. Jethmalani filed a Writ against the Indira Gandhi Government in the Bombay High Court when the Emergency was declared. He defended the alleged killers of Indira Gandhi and ensured that they were acquitted. When the Supreme Court of India acquits two gentlemen who are accused of killing the Prime Minister, I am sure it put in a lot of thought into it. Had it not been for Jethmalani, those two people would have been executed.The professional life of a lawyer is very difficult. One is often faced with moral dilemna. But as long as the lawyer believes that his client is innocent, he must defend him to the hilt. It is for the prosecution to prove the person’s guilt, and prove it beyond doubt.The image of Jethmalani has been maligned over the years by the populist media. But Jethmalani being Jethmalani doesn’t bother about his image one bit. That’s the beauty of it. And providence will show that Mr. Jethmalani stood up for the “right” people far more often than for the “wrong” ones.
In the interim, he fought for and secured the acquittal of Sanjay Sinh and Amita Kulkarni Modi in the murder of badminton player and Amita Kulkarni’s first husband, Syed Modi; Kehar Singh and Satwant Singh convicted for Indira Gandhi’s assassination were defended by him – and that was one of the cases he lost; former Khalistani secessionist and IPS officer Simranjit Singh Mann; He defended Afzal Guru and continued till his death, to be a lawyer for Asaram Bapu.
Along the way, Jethmalani collected friends, adversaries and political enemies. Whatever his views about them, he never minced his words. There can never be another Ram Jethmalani.
Image Source: Hindustan Times
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