The legal fraternity recently lost one of its most illustrious exponents – the outspoken, unapologetic Ram Jethmalani. Throughout a career spanning more than seven decades, Jethmalani developed a reputation as being the patron saint of lost causes, the defender of the indefensible, and the enfant terrible of the legal profession.
While he may have divided the court of public opinion on some aspects, no one can deny his talent as a criminal lawyer. And like many talents, his was awoken at a young age.
To get a glimpse into the early days of Ram Jethmalani the lawyer, we turn the clock as far back as 1940, when a 17-year-old obtained his law degree from Shahani Law College in Karachi.
A precocious talent, Jethmalani received double and triple promotions in school, and ended up graduating at a very young age.
But much like most of his career as a lawyer, Jethmalani’s very entry into the legal profession was marked by controversy.
His very first case was before the Sindh High Court, where as a teenager, he defended his right to practice as a lawyer.
“When I applied to become a lawyer, they confronted me with a rule saying that I had to be 21 years of age. Fortunately, I came to find out that the rule came into existence when I was already in the law college. So, I went and argued my own case without any assistance before the English judge, Sir Godfrey Davis (who was then Chief Justice of the Sindh High Court). I told him that it was a retrospective application of the law, and that I stood first in the Bombay University (LL.B. programme). I also told him that my father would not have sent me to law college if he knew that I wouldn’t be allowed to support my family for four years. So, he told me,
‘Young man, don’t worry about it. I will do something for you’.
He [Sir Davis] then told the Bar Council to make room for exceptions whenever they make a rule. So he made them amend the rules and introduce an exception, and told me to apply under this exception. A resolution was then passed that I would be enrolled at the age of eighteen.”
He went on to practice under AK Brohi, who would later go on to become Minister of Law and Justice of Pakistan. In 1947, Jethmalani was faced with the difficult prospect of staying in Sindh as a Hindu. At the time of Partition, Brohi advised him to leave for India.
“Never did a Hindu-Muslim riot take place in Sindh; we were all living in peace. But Brohi told me that he couldn’t bear the responsibility of my safety during the time.”
And so, Ram Jethmalani landed up in Bombay, where he would face another challenge. He says,
“At that time, Morarji Desai was Chief Minister of Maharashtra. He passed some silly law called the Bombay Refugees Act, which was meant to throw out people who had come from Pakistan. We were shifted from one camp to another as if we were convicts.
Again, without the assistance of any lawyer, I challenged this Act in the Bombay High Court and won.”
With this victory, the corridors of the Bombay High Court were abuzz with whispers about the rookie who had come in from Sindh. Jethmalani, of course, loved the attention he was getting.
But he would really shoot to the limelight a couple of years later, courtesy the Nanavati case. Reminiscing those days, Jethmalani says,
“I had a very small role to play in that case; I was merely assisting the Public Prosecutor, who was not a very brilliant guy. But he worked hard with me. I was engaged by the sister of the deceased.”
At one point, Jethmalani refused to be part of the case, after the PP rubbed him the wrong way.
“Back then, there used to be trial by jury. To my surprise, he [the Public Prosecutor] delivered an address to the jury which had no resemblance to the address I had written for him. I thought it to be a great betrayal, and refused to come for the trial the next day.
On the third or fourth day, he came to my house and apologised. He told me that he (Nanavati) agreed to plead guilty to a charge of culpable homicide, and that an arrangement had been made with the jurors. But they then changed their mind and started fighting for an acquittal. Then, Mamie Ahuja (sister of the deceased) asked me to appear in the case.”
The trial court would eventually hold Nanavati not guilty of murder. Says Jethmalani,
“They had managed the jury of nine jurors; eight they had won over, one they could not. Fortunately, a verdict of 8:1 was not binding on the judge. But, he had no power dispose of the case, contrary to the majority verdict. He had to refer the matter to the High Court.”
In the Bombay High Court, he would work with YV Chandrachud – who would go on to become Chief Justice of India – as part of the prosecution. It was one of two significant encounters he would have with the would-be CJI.
“He was more of a civil lawyer, but once he understood a point of law, he was a very impressive lawyer. I told him that the judge has committed mistakes in order to help the prosecution. When a judge has committed a mistake of law, then the verdict of the majority is not binding. The High Court accepted this argument and sentenced Nanavati to life imprisonment. They appealed in the Supreme Court and lost again.”
The Nanavati case gave him a platform to stamp his mark on the legal profession. He would almost make it a habit to defend those that were already deemed guilty by the public. And while he charged astronomical fees during his heyday, he also did quite a few matters pro bono.
His contribution to the cause of lawyers was on display during the Emergency, when he was Chairman of the Bar Council of India. He would go on to appear before the Supreme Court in the famous case of ADM Jabalpur v. SS Shukla & ors. Recalling those days, he says,
“There was a warrant our for my arrest during the Emergency. Nine high courts had decided that high courts were not powerless to uphold human liberties during the Emergency. But then, they managed the Supreme Court also.
I told them that I was not appearing for just one client, but for thousands of innocent people who were thrown into Mrs. Gandhi’s jails.”
Jethmalani remembers a particular argument he made before the Bench headed by Chief Justice AN Ray. Also part of the Bench was now Justice YV Chandrachud.
“I remember making a particular argument taking the example of Ghana. The Chief Justice of that place helped the government draft a law. And when the law came into force, the Chief Justice was the first to be picked up. For two years, nobody heard of him. Then, there was a cryptic announcement that he died of natural causes.”
In his inimitable audacious style, he used this example to warn the Bench,
“That is a fate that awaits you, Mr. Chief Justice. So, I am appearing for you too!”
Jethmalani would go on to dabble in politics, albeit sporadically. He would play a role in helping Narendra Modi come to power in 2014. However, a change of heart would follow, with Jethmalani publicly criticising Modi for his policies. In fact, he attributed his resignation from the legal profession in 2017 to a desire to “make things right”.
“I have one goal only – to get rid of the corrupt government which I helped get power. Now I am feeling guilty and feel that I have to make things right. I am fighting a big battle against Modi and his crooked ministers.”
Excerpts from an interaction with Ram Jethmalani in October 2017.