Above: Playing badminton daily was the secret behind Ram Jethmalani’s longevity/Photo: ramjethmalanimp.in
The brilliant and feisty lawyer Ram Jethmalani lived life on his own terms. While he was combative and controversial, he was also warm and generous and will be missed by the legal fraternity, friends and clients
By Pradeep Rai
He was a doyen, a stalwart, a brilliant criminal lawyer and more importantly, a generous and loving friend. He was the only person who wore the black robe for almost all important personalities of India. I was a teetotaller but had the privilege to spend many evenings with the one and only Ram Jethmalani. Anyone who spent their evenings with him had to hold a glass even if he was a non-drinker, but I was an exception. I also got many opportunities to appear and travel with him. I used to call him Ram Uncle, and remember with poignancy and fondness how he would take care of all his staff and badminton partners.
He was a veteran legal eagle and a polished senior advocate known for his sharp acumen and argument in court, but in real life, he was as innocent as a child. He used to talk about anything and everything if it was not related to litigation. At the same time, despite being a much respected and revered advocate whom even judges listened to, he had very personal relations with most of his clients too.
Jethmalani was the youngest lawyer and taxpayer in the country. His sharp intellect was seen early in school where he got double promotions and this was a sign of things to come. He entered the legal fraternity much earlier than everybody else and represented many VVIPs (some controversial) and ordinary people and left a mark with his incisive arguments.
Though Jethmalani secured bail for actor Sanjay Dutt in the TADA case related to the Mumbai riots of 1993, he was not on good terms with him. At one point, he had even given a press release saying: “He (Dutt) does not deserve to be a Member of Parliament and any political party that sets him as its candidate is totally impervious to the security to the nation.” However, one day, both of them met accidentally in a lounge in Delhi airport as they were waiting for their respective flights. Suddenly, Jethmalani went to Sanjay and started crying, holding his hand. He said: “Beta, I have caused a lot of injustice to you. I want to apologise to you and your father too, but I am doing this after his death. Please forgive me.” Nobody present there could understand the context he was referring to but it left Sanjay also in tears and he told him: “That was my destiny. I have no malice towards you.” Sanjay then touched his feet. Such was the greatness of Jethmalani that he could ask for forgiveness if he felt that he was in the wrong.
Jethmalani was the defence lawyer for RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav in the fodder scam but he never charged a single penny from him. His primary condition for appearing for him in court was that he should be able to spend some time with him over a drink. Lalu Yadav fondly used to tell him “Chacha” and would say: “Chacha khilate hain, jabardasti pilate hain, aur case bhi jeetate hain (Uncle makes me eat, forces me to drink and then wins the case too.)”
MULAYAM SINGH’S CASE
Jethmalani was convinced by then law minister HR Bhardwaj to appear in a PIL against Mulayam Singh Yadav which was filed by a local Congress worker. After his first appearance in the matter, Amar Singh, a Rajya Sabha MP and SP leader, requested him not to appear in the matter. This was honoured by him. Interestingly, Jethmalani disclosed the entire conspiracy to Mulayam Singh in the presence of more than 15 people.
Besides all his superlative qualities, Ram loved playing badminton and his drink. He was a lady’s man and would also take care of his staff. Such a man comes but once in a lifetime. He will be missed sorely.
PHILOSOPHY OF LIFE
Despite appearing for all kinds of people—politicians, businessmen, film stars and ordinary people—in an array of cases varying from criminal to constitutional matters, Jethmalani had a philosophical bent of mind. He would say: “If the God exists, then the day I die, God will have very tough time because I would like to cross-examine him and question him on many issues such as the death of innocent people and children, the reason for accidents, etc.” He will now have all the time to ask God these questions.
RESIGNATION FROM CABINET
When Jethmalani was the law minister in the Vajpayee cabinet from 1999, he would say that there is a law minister who knows more law than the chief justice of India. The then Chief Justice of India AS Anand would often feel offended by Jethmalani’s remarks. One evening, Brijesh Mishra, the principal secretary, called Jethmalani and asked him to resign or talk to the PM. The celebrated lawyer was then travelling from Mumbai to Pune by car. He told Mishra that there was no point talking to PM and “if this message is being communicated by you, tell him I will resign the moment I find a PCO”. Within 20 minutes, he happily faxed his resignation to the PMO. Thereafter, he did not forgive Justice Anand and wrote a book, Big Egos, Small Men, where he used most of the rediff.com stories which had been written by India Legal’s contributing editor Ramesh Menon.
Although Jethmalani lost the Supreme Court Bar Association election at one time to PH Parekh by a narrow margin, he didn’t forget the people who worked for him. Two lawyers who worked for his election were recommended by him to the BJP president for appointment as Additional Advocate Generals of Haryana despite their close association with the Samajwadi Party.
Parekh, who was six-time president of SCBA also has fond remembrances of Jethmalani. Once when he had gone to the US, he ran out of dollars and called him to borrow a few hundred dollars from him. Jethmalani not only gave him two times the amount he needed, but refused his offer to return the money. Such was his generosity.
When Jethmalani was the law minister during Vajpayee’s tenure, he could have easily recommended his associate Latha Krishnamoorthy for better positions, but he always refrained from doing so because she was closely associated with him.
Jethmalani used to say that he cannot change at this age. He was fond of his Akbar Road house because he had constructed a nice indoor badminton court which was the secret to his fitness. He used to say that for the sake of this house and the badminton court, he has to be in the Rajya Sabha and to remain in the Rajya Sabha, every sixth year he needs to be polite to someone. He would then laugh heartily.
The nation will miss the person who used to address every man as “beta” and every woman as “darling”.
—The writer is a Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court