NEW DELHI: “I am now an old man living in God’s waiting lounge.” This is how eminent jurist Ram Boolchand Jethmalani chose to describe himself on September 8, 2017 while announcing his retirement.
Exactly two years later, on Sunday morning, lawyer-politician Jethmalani (95) breathed his last at his Delhi residence after being under constant medical care for the last two weeks.
A rebel by nature, he was variously seen as outspoken and a maverick. Controversy was his middle name and he didn’t mince words even against the judiciary. Jethmalani was seen as the beacon of criminal law and was among India’s highest paid advocates.
In a series of tweets, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose candidature Jethmalani had endorsed in the run-up to the 2014 Parliamentary elections, called him an “exceptional lawyer and iconic public figure... He was witty, courageous and never shied away from boldly expressing himself on any subject.”
The genius that he was, Jethmalani had many firsts to his credit. He became the first and the only lawyer to be allowed to practice at the age of 18 when the minimum age to practice law was 21. He held the distinction of being not just the youngest but also the oldest member of the Bar. He was 17 when he secured a law degree from the SC Shahani Law College in Karachi. Born in Sikarpur, Sindh on September 14, 1923, Jethmalani was a Partition refugee. In his legal career spanning more than seven decades, he represented many of the biggest names—from senior politicians to controversial businessmen and political assassins—in court.
“His boldness set him apart as one of the finest lawyers that the country has had and his passing away is also a loss to Parliament and to the country as a whole,” recalled Attorney General K K Venugopal.
Jethmalani’s political career was not as illustrious but had many flavours. He had a roller-coaster of a relationship with the BJP. At various points in his career he defended various BJP leaders, including the present Union Home Minister Amit Shah and L K Advani.
His sharp criticism of Emergency and former PM Indira Gandhi saw him winning his maiden Lok Sabha elections from Mumbai in 1997. He was also elected, in turns, to both Houses of Parliament on a BJP ticket, and reached the high point in his political career when he was included in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led Union Cabinet in 1998 and then again in October 1999.
Jethmalani, who enjoyed a good rapport with Advani, had taken on Vajpayee in 2004 Lok Sabha elections from Lucknow as an Independent. His love and hate relationship with the BJP marked his four decades in politics. During 2012-13, he was a strong pro-Narendra Modi voice amid debate within the party on the leadership issue.
In 2013, he shot off a letter to Advani, alleging corruption by some BJP leaders when he was serving his Rajya Sabha term. Subsequently, the BJP suspended him from the party. The feisty veteran then slapped defamation case against the BJP, which ended in 2018 — five years after he was expelled from the party for — after a mutual agreement as part of an out of court settlement.