Ram Jethmalani, bulwark of criminal defence law, passes away at 96
A force to be reckoned with, he had a voice that boomed out of a deceptively frail body, and his very stride through the halls of the Supreme Court garnered fear and grudging respect.
Senior Advocate, former Union Law Minister, and former Chairman of the Bar Council of India, Ram Jethmalani passed away on Sunday morning.
He would have turned 96 in six days.
Ram Boolchand Jethmalani was a high profile criminal defence lawyer, known to be the highest paid lawyer in the Supreme Court of India.
He rose to fame in 1961 with his role as part of the prosecutorial team of the Nanavati case - despite strong public and jury support for Nanavati, known to be the killer at the time, his contribution to the case ensured a guilty verdict.
When Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency in 1975, Jethmalani was on a team of 12 lawyers who protested the unlawful detention of journalists and political activists, in the famous Habeas Corpus case.
Led by Shanti Bhushan, they argued against the abrogation of fundamental rights during a state of Emergency. Jethmalani stood before the highest court in the land, and said: “The free world is watching to see how a great court reacts and conducts itself in the face of supreme tragedy”.
His stirring words on democracy aside, it was this very articulate eloquence that allowed him to work on what made him most notorious - his defence of a large number of controversial criminal cases. He defended Manu Sharma in the Jessical Lal murder case, Amit Shah in the fake encounter cases, Jayalalithaa in the assets case, Asaram Bapu in a rape case, BS Yeddyurappa in the illegal mining case, Kanimozhi in the 2G scam case, and so many more. He also defended both Indira Gandhi’s and Rajiv Gandhi’s assassins.
His political leanings were always towards the right, and he was an active member of the BJP. However, his personality always rang true, louder than any political party affiliation. He recently called the Modi regime a ‘calamity’, but has also always been vocal about the disaster that is dynasty politics in India. He has expressly asked Rahul Gandhi to step away from politics. In his autobiography, titled ‘Ram Jethmalani Maverick Unchanged, Unrepentant’, he wrote, “The essence of a democracy is not controlling governance and the national exchequer through cobbled up numbers, as has been the UPA’s fig leaf for staying in power, but through fulfilling the aspirations and ensuring the well being of the people through enlightened, responsible and accountable actions of elected representatives.”
He then went on to write, “Indira Gandhi left behind several legacies—dynastic rule, economic control through populism—such as, bank nationalisation, Garibi Hatao and the 20-point programme—but most importantly, she left behind a centralised institutionalisation of political corruption that has matured into another Frankenstein, devouring the nation and the poor of India.”
His stance on professional ethics was always a flash point of debate. He was infamously quoted as saying, “When I see a man come into my office with his pockets bulging with smuggling money, I consider it my duty to relieve him of his wealth.” His irascible humour and wit often came out as acerbic comments made even to sitting judges, who were often his juniors. A force to be reckoned with, he had a voice that boomed out of a deceptively frail body, and his very stride through the halls of the Supreme Court garnered fear and grudging respect.
He addressed my class once, at Jindal Global Law School. He told us how the legal profession was his longest standing love. He knew he wanted to be a lawyer at an extremely young age, and secured his degree in law at the age of 17. At the time, the minimum age to practice law was 21; but he managed to secure an exception to begin his practice at the age of 18. He told us, waiting that one year - from 17 to 18 - was almost intolerable to him; the call of the profession was incessant. He joked that this gave him the distinction of having been the youngest member of the Bar then, and the oldest member of the Bar now.
Speaking to an audience packed with impressionable law students, he ended his speech on a point that created deafening uproar. When asked about the ethics of criminal defence, he said, “As a criminal defence lawyer, do not ask your client if he is guilty. It doesn’t matter. Instead, assume he is. And then defend him because he is. Think like a criminal, and that is the only way you will be able to defend your criminal client.”
As the auditorium erupted in shouts of protest, questions, and cheers, he took a minute to look at all of us. I could feel his gaze - as sharp as a hawk's - take us all in, and I could feel that he was evaluating the future of the fraternity he dedicated his life to. And then, quietly, bowing his head, he made his exit.
As in life, in death.
Ram Jethmalani stirred strong emotions throughout the legal profession. He never made it easy to like him, but we had no choice but to respect him.