NEW DELHI :
Eminent jurist and former parliamentarian Ram Jethmalani, known as one of India’s top criminal lawyers, died Sunday aged 95, leaving behind fame, controversies, and a history of cases that set legal precedents.
Born on 14 September 1923, Jethmalani completed his law degree in Karachi, before arriving in India in 1962, where he would put his legal acumen and maverick skills to great use. He appeared for the prosecution in the sensational Nanavati murder trial of 1962—a love triangle where a naval officer was tried for the murder of his wife’s alleged lover, earning himself a place on India’s legal map. As the chairman of the Bar Association of India, he rose to fame in 1975, opposing the Emergency imposed by the then prime minister Indira Gandhi.
In 1977, Jethmalani contested and won the Bombay north-west Lok Sabha seat, backed by the Bharatiya Jana Sangh. He retained it in the next election in 1980 as well, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was born out of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh. Jethmalani became a member of Rajya Sabha for the first time in 1988 and later went on to become Union law minister in 1996 under former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He was law minister twice more, in 1998 and 1999 when Vajpayee won prime ministership. Jethmalani later took on Vajpayee in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections from Lucknow, but lost.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted on Sunday, “In the passing away of Shri Ram Jethmalani Ji, India has lost an exceptional lawyer and iconic public figure who made rich contributions both in the Court and Parliament. He was witty, courageous and never shied away from boldly expressing himself on any subject. One of the best aspects of Shri Ram Jethmalani Ji was the ability to speak his mind. And, he did so without any fear. During the dark days of the Emergency, his fortitude and fight for public liberties will be remembered. Helping the needy was an integral part of his persona."
Even in the cases of deterministic legal principles, Jethmalani kept everyone guessing with his unpredictability. It was his strength as a lawyer that his clients and the opposite party could never trust him merely with traditional recourse available in law. Among his controversial cases was one where he argued to differentiate between Hindutva and Hinduism, while arguing for Bal Thackeray in a hate speech case.
Jethmalani’s career was marked by high-profile cases and confrontations with some of the most powerful people in the country. With unique techniques of cross-examining witnesses, he repeatedly proved his mettle in the court room, which made him one of the highest-paid lawyers in the country.
In his biography The Rebel: A Biography of Ram Jethmalani by Susan Adelman, a close friend of Jethmalani for 40 years, he is 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 biography says 90% of his cases were pro bono but in the remaining 10% he would make a fortune by defending the rich and the powerful. In his biography, he has confessed that he would actually visit crime scenes to makes notes. He believed that relying on the story of the client and legal texts was not enough, but practical research was an essential part to prepare a legal brief. After more than seven decades as a lawyer, Jethmalani announced his retirement from the legal profession in September 2017.
Prathma Sharma and Gyan Varma contributed to this story.