In fond memory of the legend: A tribute from his student

It’s two years since we heard the stentorian voice of Mr. Ram Jethmalani echoing through the halls of the court room. His legal career started before the partition that created modern India and Pakistan and it spanned the entire history of post-colonial India. From representing stock broker Harshad Mehta to being L.K. Advani’s defence lawyer […]

It’s two years since we heard the stentorian voice of Mr. Ram Jethmalani echoing through the halls of the court room. His legal career started before the partition that created modern India and Pakistan and it spanned the entire history of post-colonial India. From representing stock broker Harshad Mehta to being L.K. Advani’s defence lawyer in the Hawala scam, he appeared for a number of high profile clients and attained notable victories. He left behind a legacy of cases that became landmark judgments and set legal precedents, some notable ones being the Nanavati, Hindutva, Mandal cases and the Black Money case. Dynamism and fearlessness were his hallmarks. He has also been a lifetime legal educator and played a major role in initiating the National Law Schools of India.

He began his practice in 1948, one year after the modern country of India was born. The story was Ram Jethmalani’s career is also the story of India. The milestone of India’s politics and history have shaped his career and many of the milestones of his career have left their imprint on the history of India.

Known for his fearlessness before the Courts of Law, Shri Ram Jethmalani was vocal on public issues and came to be acclaimed as a jurist of great erudition and intellect. A man with an indefatigable spirit for defending the rights of fellow citizens. He used to say that 90% of my cases are still pro bono. He was also an advocate of public causes.

My first experience of accompanying him to the court room has an everlasting imprint of the greatness of his personality. When he entered the court premises, every lawyer who saw him, even if from a distance, rushed to him to either shake hands or touch his feet. Having personally witnessed him standing upright straight for 4 hours and arguing even at the age of 90, couldn’t reflect a better example of devotion a lawyer could have for a client. he energy with which he would argue a matter was also because of an extremely healthy routine that he followed all his life and also the small and short meals, which he used to have. He followed the wag’s dictum with great discipline- breakfast like a King; lunch like a Prince and dinner like a pauper.

In his eyes, there was nothing more sacrosanct for a criminal lawyer than entering every case with an unprejudiced and impartial mind, and defending the hallmark of the presumption of innocence, he said:

“I decide according to my conscience who to defend. A lawyer who refuses to defend a person on the grounds that people believe him to be guilty is himself guilty of professional misconduct.”

Days went by and while my association continued with his chamber, I saw in him a role model and a mentor. Words are not enough to describe this fearless, courageous, outspoken and unapologetic personality. To say that he led an illustrious life, would be an understatement. I fondly remember the day, when he gave a copy of his biography “Maverick, Unchanged, Unrepentant” with a note which read “…If you have chosen this profession, be prepared to put in relentless amount of effort and hard word. There is no substitute to hard work and there is absolute delight in putting your best efforts in what you are doing.” These words motivated me when I started my journey as a young lawyer and will continue to be the guiding light for the years to come.

There is absolutely no denial to the kind of hard work he used to put in each day and the number of hours he used to spend on a single brief. Even on a non-working day, he used to sit at his table at 10:30 A.M. straight upto 8:00 P.M., when he used to get up for his evening drink. Even when he had to judge a moot court, I remember seeing his moot problem with numerous yellow markers affixed to it. His devotion towards his work was unmatchable.

While we are stuck in four walls of our houses for the last one and a half year and have been restricted to virtual hearings, every young lawyer can look back at the ideologies, principles and practices followed by Mr. Ram Jethmalani, which have a major role to play even in the present virtual set up. The foremost being his devotion towards the profession. I fondly remember the way of his reading and marking the brief (pertinently with red ink) and also separately making notes in his small diary. Whether it is the questions for cross examination or his personal notes for reference, he would make a note of everything in his diary. He also used to emphasize on the importance of reading the judgements, which is one of the most important practices which the young lawyers can adopt.

In the last one and a half years, we have witnessed instances wherein Supreme Court has taken suo moto cognizance of the Covid situation. We have also seen public causes including those of doctors, migrant labourers, students etc being dealt by the Apex Court, during the pandemic. It’s important that we have public spirited lawyers like Mr. Jethmalani who are accessible for public causes.

Throughout his life he refused to remain silent and always spoke from his conviction. He said that, “I have not learnt the lesson of silence. My teachers and professors whom I revere taught me exactly the opposite. Silence is no different from being a conspirator and truth must be loudly trumpeted from the housetops.”

As law students and young legal professionals across India continue to adapt and cope with the current landscape of the legal profession in light of the covid-19 pandemic, Ram Jethmalani’s legacy and his penchant for finding the silver lining in every adversity must remain a source of constant motivation and drive. While the new normal of virtual hearings, online cross examinations and e-filing continues to present new and unpredicted challenges, the path to continuous growth and development in the legal paradigm for any budding lawyer, according to Mr. Jethmalani, is in finding the zest and passion for the law. He often used to claim that going threadbare through a case file and observing court proceedings are irreplaceable learning experiences for anyone trying to learn the trade of being a lawyer and will end up teaching you more than any course or lecture ever will.

He strongly advocated for a robust legal system, and famously said:

“The Supreme Court and in fact, every court, is to be on the side of the common man, who needs constant protection against executive insolence, corruption, incompetence. Tension between judiciary and executive is a welcome sign. The so-called harmony between the two may be at the cost of constitutional democracy itself.

While I am supporter of judicial activism and all my life I have fought for independence and glory of the judiciary, I will not surrender any executive privilege to please a judge, even if he happens to be the highest.”

Carrying forward his skills as a legal luminary and his eloquence on matters of great public relevance, Shri Jethmalani also went on to serve both Houses of Parliament, and he did so with great distinction. He continued to lead an active public life in his evening years, as he remained a Rajya Sabha Member till his demise. He has indubitably earned respect and reverence in greatest measure, till his last breath.

Shri Ram Jethmalani also distinguished himself as a prolific writer, writing several books and articles on legal issues. He was a regular contributor to national dailies and weeklies, on matters of great public importance and value, besides writing on legal issues regularly for the Law Journals. In his demise, India has lost an eminent jurist, an able administrator and a seasoned parliamentarian. He was indeed a grand master of the rules of evidence and cross-examination. His creative questions often offered to the great amusement of the court.

It’s been two years since we lost him, but still we can feel the emptiness in the courtroom corridors. I have no words to thank him for the role he has played in my life as a mentor, role model and an inspiration. Although he is not with us anymore but his principles and his teachings have been and will continue to guide us for the years to come.