On Ram Jethmalani’s departure to God’s lounge, memories, dating four decades, crowd the mind. The early, heady days in the aftermath of the Emergency, an election fought hard resulting in victory; the failed Janata Party experiment, one more election won after the rebirth of the erstwhile Jana Sangh as the BJP; the loss to Sunil Dutt in the elections after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the only time I witnessed him alone and dejected; and, his son Mahesh’s and my foray into legal journalism. And so the years passed by, with one battle after another. He was enriched by myriad experiences, political and legal, till his last few months when he lost the will to live. For a man who conquered life and triumphed over its every aspect, it was tragic to witness him in the winter of his life.
Ram Jethmalani defied and abhorred compartmentalisation. He wasn’t just an eminent counsel practising at all levels of the Indian judiciary, from the magistrate’s court to the Supreme Court, he was also an advocate of public causes and a politician of eminence. He wasn’t just the country’s best criminal lawyer, one you would trust with your life as so many of his clients undoubtedly did, but also a master of constitutional, civil and commercial law. His mastery over the Evidence Act was at par, if not better, than with the best in the world of international law practice. He was possessed of a gargantuan intellect, an elephantine memory, with the innate ability to seize the moment in court. In that, he stood out amongst his distinguished contemporaries.
I was fortunate to witness a live example of his intellectual capacity. The Bombay High Court was seized of a complex company law matter. Ram had arrived in Delhi on Tuesday morning from Detroit and was on his legs in the Supreme Court for most of the day. In the evening, he was persuaded to appear the next morning in Mumbai. At 11 am, he strode into court and produced a masterly performance over the next three hours without recourse to a single piece of paper, resulting in a positive verdict.
He was, however, no pure practitioneer of the law. To him, his proficiency in law and his reputation were stepping stones to a greater calling, that of working for the larger public good defined by his beliefs in the freedom of the individual and institutions, probity in public life and an unending battle against corruption in high places. His 10 questions to the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in this newspaper were legendary. The late prime minister compared him to a barking dog and his riposte was that he was a bulldog defending democratic processes, hence the questions day after day.
His political inclinations, of course, veered to the right. But he was steeped in the finest secular traditions, immersed in the Guru Granth Sahib and Sikhism, which he believed was his creed, as well as Urdu literature, a fine synthesis of all cultures.
What also epitomised Jethmalani was his fierce courage and scant regard for his personal safety. His finest and defining moment may be his opposition to Indira Gandhi during the Emergency, appearing for political detenues and arguing for civil liberties, in the case of ADM Jabalpur vs SS Shukla, wherein the court held that Article 21 could be suspended during an Emergency threatening the very concept of Right to Life. The irrepressible Jethmalani had earlier addressed the local bar at Palakkad in Kerala, tearing into Mrs Gandhi and her dictatorial politics, and an arrest warrant was issued against him. He sought refuge in the US, attacking Mrs Gandhi’s oppressive policies from foreign soil. It is now a matter of history that the Emergency was lifted and Jethmalani returned to contest and win the elections against H R Gokhale, the law minister, who was one of the architects of the Emergency.
But the greater test of his indomitable courage and one which was fraught with grave personal danger was his defence of the conspirators in Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Kehar Singh and Balbir Singh. So tenaciously did he persevere through a tortuous legal process, that he managed the acquittal of Balbir Singh, with Kehar Singh not being so fortunate. Passions were high, he had to resign from the BJP, but so strong was his belief that every accused required the benefit of a strong defence, that he sacrificed his fees and time for a cause he believed in. His espousal of the cause did not stop here. He firmly believed that the moderate Harcharan Singh Longowal held the key to a peaceful solution to the Punjab crisis and was instrumental in facilitating the Longowal-Rajiv Gandhi accord.
Jethmalani also defended IPS officer Simaranjit Singh Mann. Miffed at Mann’s recalcitrance to follow the path laid down by him, Jethmalani called a press conference in his Harishchandra Mathur lane abode in Delhi, and denounced Mann as a lunatic, an act beyond intrepid in those times.
Jethmalani also possessed an extreme generosity of spirit, also of the intoxicating kind. He had tried to impress upon Morarji Desai the efficacy of his libations — each failed to convert the other. Jethmalani’s home, hearth, bar and table were always open to his friends. Often, vehement disagreements would dissolve in the evening over a drink. He harboured no deep resentment against anybody. Towards the end, there was a rapprochement with even Arun Jaitley, due to the mediation of his son Mahesh. They buried their past differences, and ensured that in the twilight of their lives there were no regrets.
God made Jethmalani, then broke the mould.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 17, 2019 under the title ‘Breaker of the mould’. The writer is chairman and managing director of Spenta Multimedia Pvt Ltd.