Remembering Ram Jethmalani

It is time for us to behave like a self-respecting nation instead of encouraging spurious politeness and wasted hospitality. We have had enough of this futility during the last few decades. It is now time for India to reclaim her lost pride

Maverick Unchanged, Unrepentant

As an idealist and an aspiring human rights advocate, it’s a bit of a shock to my delicate sensibilities to go through the late Ram Jethmalani‘s portfolio. When I was in law school, I remember a whole semester of criminal law spent referring to his cases and studying his arguments. Everyone knew what an absolute legend he was. But when you look at his professional career in its entirety, you have to marvel at what a controversial figure he was.

Let me make this clear: I want to be a public prosecutor one day. There’s nothing more I’d like, than to wear a velvet-lined black coat over a neatly pressed Vero Moda white shirt, pinstriped black trousers and block-heeled shoes, at the Sessions Court, cross-examining a wife-beater or a child-molester, armed with a copy of the Indian Evidence Act. At present, I’m a legal consultant who works with Non-Profit Organisations, advocates, police officers, social workers and psychologists, advising and counselling clients. I’m an activist who helps women deal with sexual harassment, domestic violence and abuse. I spent five years of law school, awe-inspired by men like Mr. Jethmalani yet petrified at the thought of coming up against a defence attorney like him one day. I couldn’t admire this man more and yet, I’m not quite sure I understand him. In fact, I begin this article with a certain amount of prejudice. This, I see, not as a judgement on his character but rather a failure of mine.

Ram Jethmalani was the quintessential Devil’s Advocate. The cases he went for were complex, hard-to-win and fascinating. He completed his law degree by the time he was 17 and by 18, he was arguing his first case to be admitted to the legal profession despite the age limit being set at 21. He must’ve been pretty darn good even as a young lad because the Court acquiesced. I’m not sure he ever was, as people call it, green about the gills.

He started a firm in Karachi, Pakistan, before riots broke out during Partition and he was forced to flee to India in 1948, where he arrived as a refugee. His first ever case was a petition against the Bombay Refugees Act which allowed for refugees to be detained, sequestered and questioned at any time. Jethmalani contended that the Act was unconstitutional because it treated refugees in an inhumane manner; he won.

He rose to fame as one of the advisory lawyers on the prosecution team in the Nanavati case in 1959, where a Naval Commander was tried and convicted for the murder of his wife’s lover. But it was during the Emergency Era (1975-1977) under the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, that Mr. Jethmalani truly came to be recognised as a beacon of hope. He was a great orator and his courage in the face of an authoritarian government was evident through the incinerating speeches he gave, denigrating the suspension of Democracy and its blatant disregard for people’s rights. He was invited to a seminar once and his lecture quickly turned into a scathing review of the Emergency Declaration. By the end of the lecture, he’d earned an arrest warrant, one which he was quick to escape and later challenge in Court.

Indira Gandhi left behind several legacies—dynastic rule, economic control through populism—such as, bank nationalisation, Garibi Hatao and the 20-point programme—but most importantly, she left behind a centralised institutionalisation of political corruption that has matured into another Frankenstein, devouring the nation and the poor of India.

During what was one of the darkest periods of Indian history post-independence, the draconic Maintenance of Internal Security Act was probably the most appalling feature of the administration. Under the Act, any citizen could be detained, arrested, wiretapped and his property subject to search and seizure without a warrant. The idea of it being an aggressive counter-terrorism tactic was a cover-up for what the Congress Government was really after: To quash dissent. Basically it was a ploy to destroy the right to freedom of speech which included, the right to criticise your own government.

A petition signed by nearly 300 lawyers was circulated and Mr. Jethmalani was granted interim relief; an injunction was ordered staying the arrest. At the advice of a friend, he decided to leave the country and sought political asylum in the United States. He continued his vociferous attacks on the dictatorial policies of the government while travelling overseas which brought worldwide attention to the crisis in India and the government came under heavy scrutiny. The Emergency was ultimately lifted. After his return to India, he went on to serve as the Union Minister for Law and the Minister for Urban Development.

When Indira Gandhi was murdered, he agreed to defend two of her assassins, a challenge he took on knowing well that he was painting a target across his back. He was so fervent about his brief that he managed to successfully get one of the accused acquitted while the other one was sentenced to death.

Humanity will continue to produce evil men who mesmerize others of lesser education and lower understanding by taking away from them their critical faculties of constantly examining and evaluating their political leaders. Democracy is like a swimming pool. If you do not periodically change the water, it will almost certainly turn into a stinking cesspool.

His arguments in Court were usually, what many believed, devious. While defending the assassin of Rajiv Gandhi, he proposed that the suicide bomb attack on the former Prime Minister should not be perceived as an attack against India itself. Many would disagree with that statement. From a legal standpoint though, he was urging the Court to look at the event itself, not, the outrage it provoked.

As the Chairman of the Bar Council of India, he did a lot for the rights of the accused. It seems that this was his greatest contribution to the law: ensuring the rights of the accused, specifically the right to be defended by a lawyer who was bound to represent his client to the best of his ability. No matter what the charge.

There were moments when he was willing to go where others wouldn’t dare, like stepping on to no-man’s land. In a hate speech case, he made the distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva, a political bombshell. While defending Bal Thakeray, the late Shiv Sena leader, Mr. Jethmalani pointed out that Hindutva, a word which had been given an erroneous meaning in this case, actually meant Hindu culture originating from Hindustan.

The word ‘Hindu’, however, was derived from the Indus river, where a section of the Aryan race emigrating from Central Asia eventually settled. The Persians were the first to refer to them as ‘Hindus’. The zaniest and yet most profound section of that argument was Jethmalani’s definition of Hinduism.

When we think of the Hindu religion, we find it difficult, if not impossible, to define Hindu religion or even adequately describe it. Unlike other religions in the world, the Hindu religion does not claim any one prophet; it does not worship any one God; it does not subscribe to any one dogma; it does not believe in any one philosophic concept; it does not follow any one set of religious rites or performances; in fact, it does not appear to satisfy the narrow traditional features of any religion or creed. It may broadly be described as a way of life and nothing more . . .

When you look at the cases he took on, defending murderers, corrupt politicians, lascivious saints and shady businessmen, I’m sure you’re thinking what I’m thinking: All that wasted talent. That brilliant mind, that astounding acumen, that formidable voice, fighting for the rights of the accused. Why not prosecute those who were accused of heinous crimes? Why defend them?

Sometimes, you feel a kinship with someone for reasons that are beyond comprehension. Sometimes, a renegade can become a mentor in inexplicable ways. And sometimes, movies can give you the wrong idea about litigation. Evidence can be destroyed, facts can be dismissed, testimonies can be twisted and witnesses can be manipulated. And no, I’m not talking about the defense. I’m talking about the prosecution. In the overzealous pursuit of criminals, in the heat of vengeance, in the practice of a noble ideology that claims to deliver justice, things can go wrong. Ram Jethmalani understood that while prosecuting criminals requires passion, defending the accused needs compassion.

When I heard the news of his passing away, I tried to imagine what I’d have wanted to ask him, had he been alive. Only one question came to mind.

“Why defend the accused? What if they’ve actually done it?”

“What if they haven’t? Isn’t that for the Court to decide?” He responded, in my head.

“Regardless of that, why would you do it?” I persisted.

I had a mental image of him, with a twinkle in his eye and that cheeky grin.

“If you’d been accused of a crime that you hadn’t committed, wouldn’t you want me as your lawyer?”

I started this article with some prejudice, I now end it with respect. What I’ve learnt from Ram Jethmalani, is this: it pays to have balls. You can actually make a living out of sheer audacity, tenacity and lateral thinking. Does that mean I’m going to start defending criminals now? No, don’t ask me that. The horse has just been broken, don’t expect it to gallop. I may never have the gumption to do what he did, but I can learn to have honour in what I do.

Oh I still want to be a prosecutor someday. But you can bet on one thing.

I’ll be as smart as a defence lawyer.