In an age of courtiers, panegyrics stand discredited. This tribute to Ram Jethmalani is however of simple honesty. It is not the reverence of the undiscriminating, which constitutes Ram Jethmalani’s fame. It is his singularity, which makes him unique. Jethmalani never fit into standard genre boundaries and lived outside all known categorisations. The mould was broken when God made Ram Jethmalani.
I have never quite understood why Ram Jethmalani was called a maverick though he himself was quite comfortable with that title. The preferred title for Jethmalani ought to be free spirited who was uncompromisingly independent, exuberantly uninhibited and wholly unapologetic about being himself always living a life with a vitality energy and enthusiasm which surpassed the conventional limits of what is perceived to be human capacity. He did his best and met life honestly.
A prodigy who was a matriculate at 13 and had a law degree when he was 17, Ram Jethmalani showcased his wizardry throughout his life and achieved a near mythical status in the country. He was the archetypal lawyer synonymous with perfection in law and consummate advocacy whose name became a sobriquet for any smart lawyer and the name could be heard in courts across the country as a tag or label complimenting or deriding another lawyer’s view on law or performance in court. Much like Publius is the pseudonym for Hamilton, Madison and Jay, the authors of The Federalist Papers, Ram Jethmalani is the collective name lay people attribute to lawyers embodying as he did the quintessence of the legal profession.
The cases Ram Jethmalani handled were a legion. He, like Clarence Darrow, believed that lost cases are the only ones worth fighting for. And while an entire galaxy of leaders and opinion-makers engaged his services, he did not exhaust his energy fighting for the well-groomed elite and has famously defended even those incapable of affording his fees where he was convinced of the issue’s worth. He also reconciled the contradiction between his rallying against corrupt politicians in public life while defending them in court by saying that the responsibility to expose corruption to sunlight cannot deny even the corrupt to proper representation in court. His reputation was that of a fiery litigator, relentless in court, boldly making a point and arguing it passionately. His exchanges with the Bench were never mundane. They were often laced with biting critical remarks made in a wry caustic manner with examples strewn from pages of history of which he played an active part. There was always a charm to the proceedings which had an originality to them stamped by Ram Jethmalani’s style. The arguments were not for the fainthearted and were a sharp break from the mundane court-room proceedings which both preceded and followed. The banal or common place was not Ram Jethmalani. He was like fresh air which revitalised the court.
It would be a disservice to Ram Jethmalani to describe him as only a lawyer. He was a protean multifaceted personality capable of turning easily from one to another of various tasks and fields of endeavour. He was a teacher, Professor Emeritus of Symbiosis Law School. He was a member of the Rajya Sabha six times and twice a member of the Lok Sabha. It is worth mentioning when the National Judicial Appointments Commission Act was passed with near unanimity in both houses of Parliament, it was Jethmalani who abstained from casting his vote. He has been a minister at different times of Law and Urban Development. He assumed the role of a litigant to have a Special Investigation Team constituted to probe illegal activities like tax evasion and money-laundering. He was the chairperson of the weekly newspaper Sunday Guardian. Very few lawyers are activists. Jethmalani thus challenged the existing elements of the social and political system adopting a wide range of actions to embody all forms of activism from demonstrative to mandate building to petitioning. He was yet never a part of what is derided as Activism Industry and while pursuing his convictions was never a part of any outsourced operations.
Jethmalani loved his drink and ice-cream. He called alcohol the “elixir of life provided you know how to control it and it does not take control of your life”. He continued the routine till almost up to his death. Just the good, and not the bad and ugly of life seemed to touch Jethmalani who died just a week before his 96th birthday following his routine almost till the end. Talking of his birthdays, on his 90th he celebrated first in Mumbai and then flew to Delhi to celebrate the day in the city. Age never sapped his energy nor rust his enthusiasm. Life had a buoyancy around him and he lived it with elan.
Jethmalani had his hits but also a few misses. He had to resign as a minister, contested unsuccessfully against Vajpayee from Lucknow, was expelled from the party, and found himself in an embarrassing bind in Kejriwal defamation case. These incidents only shows he was human. But he was no ordinary human. He did not for a bit of peace or quiet deny his own experience or convictions. He remained outside time when he was alive and belongs to eternity in death.
Additional Solicitor General and senior advocate in the Supreme Court