Ram Jethmalani has never minced his words. So it came as no surprise that even as he announced his retirement from the legal profession after more than seven decades, he seized the chance to slam the government, calling it a “calamity”.
It was at a function organized by the apex bar body, the Bar Council of India, to felicitate the new Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra that Jethamalani announced his retirement. He added, however, that he wants to “combat the corrupt politicians that have been brought into positions of power…”
Jethmalani’s career has been marked by high-profile cases and run-ins with some of the most powerful people in the country. Known as a criminal lawyer, particularly his techniques of cross-examination of witnesses, Jethmalani repeatedly proved his mettle in the court-room, making him one of the highest-paid lawyers in the country. In 2015 Legally India— a legal news website—conducted interviews with law firm partners and advocates to determine how much lawyers charge per hearing—Jethamalani came with a hefty price tag of Rs25 lakh. Mint wrote at the time, “Jethmalani can afford to price himself out of the market for all but the most affluent clients because a majority of the cases he does take up these days, he handles pro bono.”
Jethmalani’s spectacular journey began, at least in India, in the 1950s when he became involved in the famous Nanavati murder case of 1962 —a love-triangle where a naval officer was tried for the murder of his wife’s alleged lover. But Jethmalani wasn’t representing either one of the sides—he was a young lawyer, starting out at that point of time and had been picked up by Mamie Ahuja, sister of Prem Ahuja, the man who had been shot dead, to look after the interests of her brother. This was a “watching brief”. It helped him establish himself in Bombay where he had moved from Karachi after partition (He was a partner in a law firm in Karachi).
The Nanavati case put him on a legal journey that would overlap with politics and events. From Haji Mastan to the assassins of Indira Gandhi and from Rajiv Gandhi to L.K. Advani, Jethmalani has represented people from all walks of life, especially those who would find themselves on the wrong side of history.
“He is an outstandingly brilliant man. His in-depth understanding of the philosophy of criminal law, evidence, reading of the Constitution and his ability to dissect and analyse any situation is exceptional. I don’t think that we will have another Jethmalani. I believe he is the only lawyer in India who can cross-examine in a trial court, argue constitutional questions of law in the Supreme Court and show his mastery in civil law on the same day,” said Siddharth Luthra, a senior advocate specializing in criminal law.
Jethmalani, who served as the Union minister for law in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government from 1999 to 2000, started dabbling in politics as early as 1971. He contested his first election as an independent candidate from Ulhasnagar in Maharashtra but lost. As chairman of the Bar Association during the Emergency, Jethmalani was strongly critical of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, earning him an arrest warrant. In spite of large-scale protests by lawyers, Jethmalani had to leave India (he went to Canada). But he didn’t give up on India. Once the Emergency was over, he secured a Lok Sabha seat for himself from Bombay in the 1977 general elections. Although a Bharatiya Janata Party member, in 2004 he decided to contest against Vajpayee from Lucknow—the decision may have had something to do with his removal as law minister.
It’s been a love-hate relationship with the party. It welcomed him back in the fold in 2010 with a Rajya Sabha ticket from Rajasthan but expelled him three years later for anti-party remarks. Clearly the acrimony, as evinced by his recent statements, continues.
“It was back in 1993, when Jethmalani first expressed a desire to retire from practising as an advocate. Despite this, he has continued to be part of the legal system for the last 25 years. I won’t be surprised—and will be delighted—if he is back again to enrich the bar and bench for years to come,” said senior advocate Sanjay Hedge
As carried in LM on 11/9/2017