The first & the last time I got to meet Ram Jethmalani, a matchless criminal lawyer, was sometime in the summer of 2016. At that point in time, I was interning under another celebrated public interest lawyer Prashant Bhushan.
I went to meet Mr. Jethmalani with two of Mr. Bhushan’s junior at the former’s famous residence at 2 Akbar Road, New Delhi. Both of these legal eagles had to discuss some cases at hand. For around an hour, I was there with Mr. Jethmalani sitting beside him listening to the discussion between both the maverick lawyers.
As we entered Mr. Jethmalani’s house, I found him sitting in the chair and reading a legal text, perhaps a book of Criminal jurisprudence, gripped with both his hands, at his study table under the light of a table lamp, focusing completely on the pages of the book. The deeper than deep attention with which he was reading the book at an aged post 90, had the potential to embarrass any hardworking young student. He greeted us with an acquainted pleasant smile at his face. The intellectual halo around his head seemed visible.
As the discussion on the case got over, Mr. Jethmalani whimpered to Mr. Bhushan, “Prashant, I really regret supporting him. I had never thought that I may have to regret it later. He has not just betrayed me but the whole nation.” Mr. Jethmalani was referring to his staunch support given to the then BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi before the 2014 general election.
During the course of the conversation, he also went on to discuss the names of some corrupt leaders. To his list, when I added the name of a particular leader, whom I considered corrupt in my opinion, he smilingly countered me saying, ‘Beta, but, I don’t think, we have any positive evidence about his corruption.’ I nodded in an identical smile. This reflected one of the fundamental characteristics of his personality, that he hardly took a position against someone or something unless he was acquainted with proper facts and information regarding someone’s culpability.
Ram Jethmalani had extensively battled for Narendra Modi to become the Prime Minister of India during 2014 general elections campaigns. He had played an instrumental role in mainstreaming Modi in an intellectual elite circle of Lutyens’ Delhi. From all platforms possible, he had vociferously stood for Narendra Modi to become the Indian Prime Minister.
In an interview given to the Bar & Bench in March 2011, upon a question asked about the good prime ministerial candidate for the Country, he had said, “I have already said this at two public meetings. In one meeting, I said, “All of these potential prime ministers put together are inferior to me,” then I paused for a second and said, “Except one and that is Narendra Modi.”
He had famously penned a letter to his colleagues at the Bar stating that he was convinced that, “Narendra Modi is an incarnation of hope for the bright future” and that Modi is, “the only solution of all the ills that ail the nation.”
But soon, seeing no progress on BJP’s prominent poll promise of bringing black money back and particularly after Amit Shah’s infamous Jumla remark about it, he got completely disenchanted with the Modi government. He had gone on to publicly accept that he had become a victim of the fraud promoting Narendra Modi. He even apologized to the people several times for his earlier support to him. At one time, he even went on to say that the only aim left in his life is to get rid of Modi. However, he left with his dream unfulfilled.
I have often admired Jethmalani for two of his beautiful personality traits. The first being the unpredictability of his opinions and the second being his indomitable courage. He never shied away from taking unpopular stands, be it in his political opinions or be it in choosing his clients to defend. It is needless to reiterate here the list of the notorious criminals he has unapologetically represented in the Courts. He was once quoted as saying, ‘When I see a smuggler come into my office, it’s my duty to relieve him of his money.’ He often used to say, ‘I may be a sinner in many other ways but I have sinned with a Clean Conscience.’
From my readings of his public life, I have arrived at an important observation. Though he had hardly any issue with his political or ideological dissenters, he hardly pardoned the ungrateful persons in his life. From L.K Advani to Narendra Modi to Arun Jaitely, all fall in his list of ungrateful, and thus a subject of his diatribe.
Jethmalani was not taking up LK Advani’s hawala case. In the session, Court charges had been framed against Advani where he was represented by Arun Jaitely as his lawyer. It means that Arun Jaitely had failed in convincing the Session Court that there were no real charges against Advani.
Post-framing of charges, both of them (Advani & Jaitely) approached Jethmalani with a plea to take up his case for which he outrightly refused. He says in an interview to Scroll.in that both of them again paid a visit to him after a week where Advani, according to Jethmalani, said that if he doesn’t take up his case, he would resign from politics altogether and that Jethmalani would be responsible for it. Ram reveals in the same interview that, ‘Advani did a kind of Satyagraha in his house.’
Facing irresistible pressure from all corners, (Advani’s wife was Jethmalani’s Rakhi sister) Jethmalani ultimately took up the case for free and got the charges against Advani quashed from the High Court. When the government went in appeal before the Supreme Court against the High Court verdict, Jethmalani fought to get the High Court’s judgment sustained. What pained and enraged Jethmalani was that Advani just gives a one-line reference to him in his 985 paged autobiography titled ‘My Country My Life’. He just writes, “Ram Jethmalani is born in Shikarpur [in Sindh, Pakistan].” Advani, as per Jethmalani, was a party to his expulsion from BJP, along with Sushma Swaraj, Nitin Gadkari, and Arun Jaitely. The same Arun Jaitely who once used to carry Jethmalani’s coat in his younger days of legal practice. This is why he could never forgive the duo till his last breath. In case of Ram’s resentment with Narendra Modi too, Modi’s ungrateful behavior is expected to have played a crucial role. After Modi’s 2014 victory, Jethmalani wrote an article congratulating PM Modi on his electoral success saying he needs nothing from him except the fulfillment of his promises made to the people of India. “Do you know Modi did not have the courtesy to pick up the phone to thank me even once? What does it show? To me, it shows he is non-human, to say the least. Till today, the man hasn’t spoken to me”, says Ram Jethmalani in his interview to the Scroll.in, published in December 2015.
Though I have often admired Ram Jethmalani for his immense courage and versatile opinions, at times, I have blatantly disagreed with him too on many issues and occasions. For instance, when he decided to enter Rajyasabha with the help of Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD, I strongly censured him for his decision which I considered to be a kind of moral murkiness. I believed that a man so enthusiastically fighting to bring black money back to our Country should not enter Rajyasaha on the political patronage of a leader considered to be an epitome of corruption in national politics.
My denouncement of him led few of my good friends who were sympathetic and close to Mr. Jethmalani to unfriend me on Facebook. I know that I am too little a person for Jethmalani to have any weight of my opinion in his eyes, but I am sure that had Jethmalani himself read my criticism of him, in all probability, he would not have got infuriated at me. This is not just my assumption but a belief backed by facts.
Nandita Haksar, a well-known human rights lawyer had once called Ram Jethmalani a fascist at his face during one of his public lectures at NLSUI Bangalore. She recounts in one of her recent pieces for the Scroll.in that, “I stood up and called Jethmalani a fascist and walked out of the meeting hoping others would follow, but none did. The next day, I saw Jethmalani at the National Law School, where I was teaching. He smiled and said hello with a twinkle in his eye. Despite all my reservations, I felt respect for him at that moment.”
Nandita, later on, worked on many important cases with Ram Jethmalani, the most important of them being the case related to SAR Geelani, the then accused in the Parliament attack case, who later got acquitted from the Supreme Court of India.
There are many episodes such as this one can go on narrating about. As I have mentioned in this piece above that how he whimpered to Prashant Bhushan in 2016 about his remorse for extending support to Modi, but, do you know how he had reacted to Prashant Bhushan’s choice of his prime ministerial candidate in 2014? This is what he had said in one of his interviews given to Bar & Bench in March 2014 –
When AAP party was formed, I welcomed its formation publicly and I sent my humble financial contribution running into lakhs. Later, I had a meeting with my friend and colleague Prashant Bhushan who told me that he would prefer Rahul Gandhi to be the PM rather than Modi. I was shocked, and then I wrote a letter to Kejriwal, in which I said, “This is what I have heard from your founding father. Is the policy of your party that you want to support Rahul? I am dismayed and I am waiting for you to assure me that this is not your party’s policy.”
So, do you see, same Jethmalani vehemently disagreeing with Prashant Bhushan at one point of time and the same Jethmalani communicating his regret to the same man about the same issue at a different point of time?
Ram Jethmalani had supported AAP at the time of its formation. He had even financially contributed to the Party. But in 2014, he went on to call Arvind Kejriwal a loafer and a liar, only to later agree to legally represent him in the Court in a defamation case filed by Arun Jaitely in 2015, and then again to quit representing him suggesting him to be a liar.
This is a kind of versatility, flexibility and unpredictability in his thought process that I loved the most. He always listened to his own Conscience and did what he thought to be right in his opinion. To my understanding, he was not a prisoner of even his opinions. It was like a snaking river in a mountainous route.
Most importantly, he never considered his dissenters as his personal enemies. He never permitted political or ideological differences with people to create any sort of impact on his personal relationships with the persons. Many things made Ram Jethmalani what he was & what he stood for. To my understanding, he was a man of multiple layers. This is what his staunch supporters and associates need to learn from his life and legacy. But, then I wonder why No Gandhian has been able to become Gandhi till date?
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