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Ram Jethmalani – 87 not out

Anil Divan

Presenting him as I know him, wrinkles and scars.



FEARLESS AND FORTHRIGHT: Ram Jethmalani.

On September 14, 2010 the redoubtable Ram Jethmalani completed 87 years of an eventful and picturesque journey. Currently president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, past chairman of the Bar Council of India, Parliamentarian, former Minister, a leading member of the Opposition, author and publicist, Ram is a picture of perennial youth, immeasurable vitality and inexhaustible courage.

I thought I would share with readers of The Hindu some of the high points in his remarkable career, but this article got a little delayed because of the author's indisposition.

This piece is based on a speech made in April 2007 at the time Prime Minister Manmohan Singh released one of Ram's books titled Conscience of a Maverick.

When I was requested to make the speech in April 2007, I asked the organisers whether there were any do's and dont's and the response was that Ram loves the freedom of speech — speak what you like. It is in that spirit — affectionate but not uncritical — that I write these few words.

I recall Oliver Cromwell's famous remarks to his portrait painter, Sir Peter Lely. He said, “Paint me as I am, do not leave the scars and wrinkles.”

I will paint Ram as I know him, wrinkles and scars.

Ram and I share warm affection for each other and we have a penchant for fighting cases involving corruption in high places and mis-governance.

But we agreeably disagree on methods, norms and ethical dimensions. Ram floats on higher thermals in the Elysian fields where the normal rules of behaviour of mere mortals hardly apply.

Ram is fearless and forthright — on occasions, too forthright.

He is irrepressibly audacious with a sense of the dramatic. He has the gift of hitting the headlines but has a warm and golden heart. In politics he has gravitated through the whole spectrum — he believes in what Oliver Goldsmith wrote: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

He wears his heart on his sleeve. He will confront openly and attack directly. He will not stab anyone in the back.

But these strengths and virtues are handicaps in Indian politics. As a result, he is a potent force in the Opposition, but uncomfortable on the treasury benches — and many of his colleagues on the treasury benches become even more uncomfortable in his presence.

Charles de Gaulle the great French President and World War-II hero said: “A good politician never believes what he says and he is very distressed when others believe him.”

Ram believes what he says and says it passionately and emphatically.

Recently he hit the headlines expressing his views on the Kashmir interlocutors that were radically different from those of the political party which brought him to the Rajya Sabha.

But above all Ram is an incomparable and matchless defence lawyer in criminal cases. In the Indira Gandhi assassination case, he won an acquittal for Balbir Singh who had suffered a death sentence.

In the case arising from a terrorist attack on Parliament, Ram won an acquittal for S.A.R. Geelani both from the high court and confirmed by the Supreme Court, even though the accused was awarded a death sentence by the trial court.

Ram fought these cases against the tide of popular opinion. It was a battle in the heroic mould.

There is nothing more rewarding for a lawyer than saving a client's life.

Ram's services as a defence lawyer are sought by powerful political leaders, cutting across party lines. That is his strength and forte.

Today the practice of criminal law is the road to fame and fortune and occasionally a seat in the Rajya Sabha.

During the Emergency (1975-1977), Ram's voice was loud and clear for which an arrest warrant was issued from Kerala. It was stayed by the Bombay High Court when over 300 lawyers led by Nani Palkhivala and including this author appeared for him. However the stay was nullified by the “Habeas Corpus” judgment ( ADM Jabalpur v. Shivkant Shukla) and Ram exiled himself in the United States carrying on his campaign against the Emergency. He returned to fight the elections in 1977 and ousted the serving Law Minister H.R. Gokhale from Bombay in the Lok Sabha Elections, and then started his political career as Parliamentarian, Minister and Opposition leader.

Today we have the blessings of the Right to Information Act (RTI), but it is important to recall that Ram, as the Union Minister of Urban Affairs in 1998, opened the files of his department for public scrutiny. The bureaucracy was stunned and ultimately scuttled it.

Ram has always unwaveringly supported the freedom of speech and expression, the liberty of the media, the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. His writings bear testimony to this unfailing commitment.

The freedom of speech is our priceless heritage. We must all endeavour to preserve it and nourish it.

Ram Jethmalani, is in law, evergreen, ever-energetic, ever enthusiastic, never one to give up and reminds one of evergreen cricketer Sachin Tendulkar. But his style is more in the Sehwag mould — brilliant, spectacular, audacious.

In 2007, I read a report that Ram had applied to the Supreme Court to take up his case early because his astrologer had told him that he might not be available after July. Obviously, he was a false prophet. My advice to Ram is not to believe astrologers and go on to hit a century with frequent sixes.

( The writer is a senior advocate.)

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