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Ram Jethmalani brought empathy and passion to every case, every cause he fought for

Ram Jethmalani belonged to many parties and to no one as well, for he was robustly independent in thought and action.

Written by Upendra Baxi |
Updated: September 9, 2019 9:50:15 am
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How does one pay tribute to a dear friend, a sagacious political leader and a juristic colossus? As a friend, he knew how to quietly stand by you in a public cause. There was not a single social action matter where he declined legal consultation or appearance, thus lending his energetic assistance to socially worthy causes. In response to a question on where these wellsprings of empathy flowed from, he narrated the story of his early life as a Partition refugee, restarting his legal practice in a Bombay garage. Unmerited social suffering of others and denial of human dignity mattered most to him and moved him to social and legal action. My friendship with him was based on these constitutional values and virtues.

I had heard of him in Bombay, where I studied law, but it was his daughter, Rani Jethmalani, who brought us closer. I discovered a doting father in him, and he was such till the very end of Rani’s life, which ended with her untimely demise in December 2011. Rani, too, adored her father but valiantly differed from him on feminist grounds. I was often an arbiter of many a discord between them. But nothing disturbed the strong foundations of affection between them. I still recall Ram at St John’s hospital, London, where, in the antechamber, he would immerse himself for hours in an audio tape of Japji Sahib, praying for her in a liver transplant situation. When I visited Ram to offer my condolences, he told me how Baba Ramdev revived her for two days and Rani spent those two days meeting friends and shopping just before she died. The figure of a secular Ram praying is forever etched in my consciousness as an affirmation of faith in private life being consistent with secularity in the public sphere.

Ram is also, in a way, responsible for my being known as “Professor of Canine Jurisprudence”. Ram asked, in The Indian Express, 10 questions on Bofors, which Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi did not reply to. When, as MP, he asked the PM why he did not respond, the PM said that he does not respond to every dog that barks! Whereupon Ram thundered: “Mr Prime Minister, I am no ordinary dog, but I am a watchdog of democracy.” I wrote an article in Mainstream, greeting the birth of a properly Indian school of jurisprudence! I received many queries from European professors asking for more enlightenment on this new school, all of them addressed to me as “Professor of Canine Jurisprudence, University of Delhi”!

Ram and I shared a common passion: Private international law. He was exceptionally well-informed about this area, and I had virtually invented this field in my doctoral studies at Berkeley. Probably, he dovetailed his interests when teaching courses on comparative constitutional law at the Michigan Law University during the Emergency. I still recall his stoic fortitude (his Bombay House being unfruitfully raided in the early days of the Emergency), his heroic resistance and reading blank (censored) lines in the editorials he penned for the Journal of the Bar Council of India, his dramatic escape to Michigan, where he did a lot of human rights advocacy, and his triumphant return to Indian law and politics.

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Ram belonged to many parties and to no one as well, for he was robustly independent in thought and action. Rani and I requested him several times to tape conversations on cross examination, evidence, and Indian criminal law and procedure, but that alas was never to be, and we have, in his sad demise, lost a treasure trove of forensic memory.

Even so, the National Law School at Bangalore (and indirectly elsewhere) is a momentous monument to his tireless work, innovating further on modern Indian legal education. As the Chair of the Indian Bar Council (with able help from others, specially Justice M N Mathur of the Rajasthan High Court and V Raja Reddy, Senior Advocate, the Supreme Court and the Managing Trustee of the Council) he steadfastly pursued this vision. He invited me in as Director-Designate (which I remained for 13 long years) and helped me at every step in this long journey.

He enthused his friend, Ramakrishna Hegde, to adopt this idea. The chief minister enthusiastically did so with the offer of temporary premises in the Central Engineering College in central Bengaluru and then, at the University of Karnataka with a large amount of land (now shrivelled to 17 acres). Hegde was also amenable to our suggestion to pass an ordinance, which Ram, Raja and I soon drafted. It was then promulgated and before it was finally enacted, there was a murmur of protest by many universities in the state and legislators at the design which made the Chief Justice of India the Visitor rather than the Governor. This deliberate departure was insufficiently appreciated.

The idea of a National Law School beyond the effective control of the state under whose legislative authority the law was enacted was very new, although care was taken that in constituting the various authorities of the university, the state was adequately represented. What impressed me all through was Ram’s respect for the dignity of legal academics. Probably, this came naturally to him because he himself embodied the academic spirit that magnificently drifted into legal practice.

Ram would have said with the poet Walter Savage Landor that: I strove with none, for none was worth my strife./ Nature I loved and, next to Nature, Art:/ I warm’d both hands before the fire of life;/ It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

Ram was fond of saying that he was in the lounge, waiting for his name to be called from the high abode. Now it has. We may merely substitute the word “law” for “art” in the second line of the poem, and salute well-beloved Ram because he loved the law and made us love it, too.

This article first appeared in the print edition on September 9, 2019 under the title “He loved the law”. The writer is professor of law, University of Warwick and former vice chancellor of Universities of South Gujarat and Delhi

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