There have been two iconic Rams whom Indians all over the world have known well. One was the Ram of Ayodhya, the other, our Ram of the modern era. He had also attained an iconic status in his life. Ram was banished from Ayodhya due to the intrigues of a Kaikeyi and a Manthara. Our Ram was banished from a party that he had helped to found with others — the BJP. History is still to tell us who the Kaikeyi and Manthara were in his case.
Ram Jethmalani had a brilliant mind which enabled him to complete his law education at the unbelievably young age of 17. The Bombay High Court rules at that time did not permit the enrollment of a lawyer until he attained the age of 18 years. Ram fought against that rule and succeeded in the rule being relaxed for such a brilliant person. He started his practice in the province of Sind, now in Pakistan, in 1940. But when Partition forced him to migrate to Bombay in 1947, he had to start all over. He set up an office in a garage in Bombay and worked hard waiting for his break. This came in the shape of the now famous Nanavati case in which Nanavati, a well-known naval officer, was accused of shooting down Prem Ahuja, his wife’s lover. Ram assisted the senior prosecutor on behalf of the Ahuja family and made his name. He never looked back since then and became the best-known criminal lawyer of the Bombay High Court.
It is, however, a myth that he was the most astute criminal lawyer. Having watched him for many decades, I can vouchsafe that he was an equally astute constitutional lawyer as well as a civil lawyer.
Perhaps, he would have only continued to remain known as the most successful criminal lawyer of the Bombay High Court, not at all known outside Bombay, but, according to his own statement, for something that I did in 1975, which changed the course of his life.
While speaking at the celebration of my 90th birthday in November 2015, he made this startling revelation. I first wondered as to what he meant by that, but he proceeded to explain that it was my winning the election case against Indira Gandhi in 1975 in the Allahabad High Court, which resulted in the proclamation of the Emergency, which had changed the course of his life. Ram severely criticised this declaration of Emergency in a meeting of the Bombay High Court Bar Association, where I happened to be present. A warrant was issued for Ram’s arrest and Bombay lawyers filed a habeas corpus petition in which they secured temporary relief against his arrest. How Ram managed to escape from India is a story which will be told for generations. He went to the US and taught law in prestigious law colleges. When the Emergency was over in 1977, he returned to India as a hero and there was a clamour in Bombay for his contesting the Lok Sabha elections against Mrs Gandhi’s law minister, H R Gokhale. I campaigned for him in the lanes and bylanes of Bombay for three days and three nights. After getting elected, he had to migrate to Delhi as a Member of Parliament. This was how my actions of 1975 had changed the course of his life. It was in Delhi as an MP that he came to be known all over India and abroad. He remained in Parliament almost continuously till his death. Even when he died he was still an MP.
Ram experienced a number of tragedies in his life. One by one his two wives died. His daughter Rani, a lawyer, also died after a liver transplant. The biggest shock to him was when one of his sons died three years ago, which he was unable to cope with. A few months back I visited him at his home and was sad to discover that, though he looked healthy, he was suffering from dementia.
Apart from having a brilliant mind, Ram was a very hard-working professional. Very few lawyers make good parliamentarians, but Ram was an exception. His courage at the time of the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi in 1984 was truly remarkable. Many of us had gone to the riot-affected areas to rescue Sikhs trapped there and Ram was one of us. When the hostile crowd wanted to attack us he came out of the car, stood in the middle of the road and told the hostile crowd who he was and told them to go ahead if they still wanted to attack.
What kept him physically and mentally healthy for such a long time that he could practice for more than 75 years was his love for badminton. He was an enthusiastic badminton player and had a world-class badminton court built at his official residence at 2 Akbar Road at his own cost. He was a founder member of our Committee on Judicial Accountability and vigorously participated in all the campaigns against judicial corruption.
Ram had made a beautiful speech while releasing my memoirs, Courting Destiny, in November 2008. I wish someday some scholar would produce a biography of Ram that I believe could be titled, “Courting Controversies”.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 11, 2019 under the title ‘He held his own’. The writer is a former Union law minister.
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