Today, I remember my mentor and legend, Ram Boolchand Jethmalani (September 14, 1923- September 8, 2019) for his fearless, timeless and unfading contributions in the making of the legal jurisprudence of India.
The legendary criminal lawyer and scholarly jurist may not be physically present with us today, but his voice still echoes as part of judicial precedents, which are a gift of his constant efforts to make this world a better place. He was internationally known and loved by students, the Bar, and the Bench for his brilliance, grace and humour. A friend and mentor to his juniors, Ram Jethmalani befriended everyone he met. He was against nepotism and equally promoted all in the legal profession.
He was fearless, and believed in the basic principle of law that each and every person deserves a defence. This belief to some extent also explains the various cases he fought irrespective of the approval of the society at large. He once said,
“I decide according to my conscience who to defend. A lawyer who refuses to defend a person on the ground that people believe him to be guilty is himself guilty of professional misconduct.”
The battle for repatriation for Black Money was formally initiated by Ram Jethmalani through a writ petition in the year 2009. And he fearlessly pursued the same by voicing his views through his official blog. In. April 2015, he wrote,
“Whether it was the previous government or the present one, my battle for the return of our national wealth illegally parked in foreign banks, estimated to be around US $1,500 billion, equivalent to Rupees 90 lakh crores, back to our national coffers continues unabated. My battle arises out of absolute moral compulsion, and I believe it would be a betrayal of the Indian nation if I do not persist with it, even though it has become more and more a lone battle.”
His struggle for the repatriation of Black Money in the interest and benefit of the public at large will be remembered by generations to come.
Though he was one of India's highest-paid lawyers, he was known to help those in need by taking up cases pro bono.During the Asaram Bapu hearing, he once said,
“My practice is of a different kind from other lawyers. I make tons of money at the Bar, but I do it from 10% of my clients. Mr. Bapu is in the 10%."
Similarly, he said,
“Yes, I am charging Jayalalithaa. But I fight many cases pro bono. All in all, I make money from 10% of my clients."
He was one of a kind and will be remembered for his determination to speak for the concerns of the general public. During the 2016 protest that was staged at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi by Armed Forces veterans when the Central government went back on its promises on One Rank One Pension (OROP), Jethmalani said,
"I am 93-years-old and I can die any day, but I assure you that it will not happen before I get you justice from Supreme Court."
He in fact fought for the benefit of the veterans without accepting any remuneration for the same.
There is an endless list of achievements and no words can be enough to define his decades of unconditional service for the benefit of the common man. He may have been the most unpredictable lawyer as far as his selection of cases was concerned, but he would put in long hours of hard work in everything he did. Ram Jethmalani, badminton and his evening drink were inseparable from one another.
At a time when judicial decisions are becoming a subject of media trial, his comments on the importance of the judiciary are noteworthy. In his open letter to Justice CS Karnan, former judge of the Calcutta High Court, he said,
“In this corruption-dominated country our judiciary is the only protection. Do not destroy or even weaken it.”
I have tried to follow his principles and teachings in my legal practice. I will quote him from his own book, Ram Jethmalani: Maverick, Unchanged, where he said,
“I do not claim to be infallible but even my most trenchant critics would not deny that I speak and act out of personal conviction. I write also to stir debate and have the humility to retract my views when bested in such debates. If that makes me a maverick, I confess I relish the epithet. In the meantime, I proudly remain ‘unchanged and unrepentant’.”
And he shall always remain the unchanged, unrepentant maverick of the Indian judicial system.
The author was a chamber junior to Mr. Ram Jethmalani, and is presently Additional Advocate General (Chhattisgarh) at the Supreme Court of India.