Ram Jethmalani's tryst with criminal law started at the age of 17 and he practiced it for nearly 80 years, with his dying words being "I wish good for the country". Known to speak his mind with unflinching courage, he grew to be a lonely crusader against black money and corruption, and one of the strongest dissidents of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Here are 12 memorable moments from the life of a man who always said as he saw it.
1 Jethmalani on defending rape-accused godman Asaram Bapu: When Jethmalani was asked during an interview with the Wall Street Journal if he had accepted Bapu as his client because the latter paid him well, the barrister had replied: "Of course, naturally." In true criminal defence lawyer style, Jethmalani refused to pass judgement on Bapu, saying, "It is not an open-and-shut case by any chance. What happened in that room is only between Bapu and she (the minor victim)." In a TV interview, Jethmalani cited the lawyers' equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath: “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."
2 Jethmalani on why he charged the moon: India's highest-paid lawyer had said that he charged a fee to only those who could afford it. "I fix it depending on the client's capacity to pay. If Kejriwal tomorrow says he cannot afford my fee, I will still do his case," Jethmalani said, referring to the fact that although he had agreed to take on the defamation case filed by Arun Jaitley against Arvind Kejriwal for Rs 1, he still went ahead and asked the Delhi CM to cough up for availing his services. According to Legally India, Jethmalani charged more than Rs 25 lakh for each of his court appearances but took several pro bono cases. He said to WSJ: "My practice is of a different kind from other lawyers. I make tons of money at the bar, but I do it from 10% of my clients. Mr. Bapu (Asaram) is in the 10%."
3 When Jethmalani defended LK Advani on account of his wife: The lawyer never shied away from taking credit for getting the chargesheet against LK Advani quashed in the hawala scam. He had revealed that he did it only because Advani's wife Kamla was his rakhi sister (she died in 2016) and that he resisted initially as Jaitley was Advani's first choice as lawyer. Jethmalani's relationship with Advani later soured as he blamed the latter for not withholding his expulsion from the BJP. He had also defended another BJP veteran Amit Shah free of cost in the 2005 Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case.
4 Jethmalani on why he felt his bill sent to Kejriwal was reasonable: The lawyer, who had charged Arvind Kejriwal Rs 3.8 crores, said that he had actually given his client a discount. "I have not asked for the retainer fee I normally charge my other clients. I have also reduced the fee for each appearance in court. Moreover, I have not charged him a penny for the elaborate conferences prior to each hearing in the trial court," he said.
5 Jethmalani on why he was the unhappiest man in India: Three years after the 2014 elections, a totally disillusioned Jethmalani expressed his disappointment with the Modi government. "I worked for the prime minister from 2011. When the election results were announced, I used to write my weekly piece in The Sunday Guardian. My first paragraph in that was ‘Dear Mr Modi, Congratulations on your spectacular success. I am very proud that I have some very small contribution to make to your success but I am writing this only to tell you that so far as I am concerned I am living in the departure lounge of God’s airport. I want nothing from you and nothing means nothing in return. Now please fulfill your promises to the people of India.' ...I do not wish to sound cankerous but I must confess to you that today I am the unhappiest man in this country,” Jethmalani had recalled during the launch of Shweta Bansal’s book Courting Politics, in 2017. He lamented, "I am unhappy because not one promise has been fulfilled to the people of India. I am in deep agony and have a sense of disappointment."
6 When Jethmalani paid Rs 13 lakhs to Indian Express for an ad asking the government 12 questions on the black money issue: In the paid half-page ad cum column on April 28, 2015 addressed to Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, Jethmalani had asked: "Was the statement of the new BJP President, Amit Shah, that the promise of repatriation of black money a mere election 'jumla' made with your (Jaitley) concurrence? You have never disowned it and neither has anyone else in the government. This is confession in my opinion of an intentional fraud on the nation." Jethmalani had expressed his intention behind the piece titled: 'My frustration about repatriation of black money and contempt for this unpardonable betrayal' with this blurb: "My battle arises out of a moral compulsion, and I believe it would be a betrayal of the Indian nation if I do not persist with it, even though it has become more and more a lone battle."
7 When Jethmalani said sorry for supporting Modi: Jethmalani, who was the lead petitioner in the black money case during the previous UPA regime in the Supreme Court where he had argued for bringing back illegal money stashed in foreign banks, later regretted hailing PM Modi. "The one promise he (Modi) had made was that Rs 90 lakh crore of black money was concealed in foreign banks and that he will get back that money and give Rs 15 lakh to the family of every poor man....and then he appoints a party president (Amit Shah) who made a statement that it was an election jumla (gimmick)." Jethmalani addressed people with candour: "I am making a confession that I helped them to cheat you, I have come to seek your forgiveness." Even after his suspension from the BJP in 2012 over his criticism of corruption and certain key appointments, the lawyer had extended support to Modi in the 2014 elections. His quest to eradicate black money was evident with this statement: "It shocks me, a person who is fighting black money since April 2009, and I had referred to Modi as an 'avatar'".
8 When Jethmalani placed his faith on Mamata Banerjee: In March 2018, the former Union minister had written a letter addressed to three senior BJP leaders Yashwant Sinha, Arun Shourie and Shatrughan Sinha, saying, "I write this to make the lady of Bengal who is my selected heroine as the ruler of Indian democracy", adding, "I have thrown my lot and talent at the total disposal of Mamata Banerjee and she has responded beautifully to my gesture and spoken bravely that she will destroy the present BJP regime”. The senior lawyer had also written that when he was being thrown out of the party, none of these leaders had come forward to help him.
9 When Jethmalani cross-examined Arun Jaitley in the civil defamation suit against Kejriwal: Jethmalani countered Jaitley on his claim that the damage he suffered (through Kejriwal's allegations of fraud during Jaitley's tenure with the Delhi and District Cricket Association) was 'unquantifiable'. Jethmalani asked Jaitley: “Was it your own feeling about your greatness that it could not be quantified in fiscal measures? Can you assign any objective reason besides the value you are placing on yourself?" This particular statement was made in reference to Jaitley demanding Rs 10 crores in damage. To quote a March 2017 Caravan article titled 'Contempt in Court: Notes From Jethmalani’s Face-off With Jaitley', Jethmalani's questions and counter questions to Jaitley had such an effect that "...after the conclusion of three sessions over two days, a Twitter user cheekily commented: “@ArunJaitley please sue Ram Jethmalani as he has defamed you in the courtroom more than @ArvindKejriwal did.”"
10 When Jethmalani attacked PM Modi for comparing Jaitley-Kejriwal defamation case with Advani's hawala case: PM Modi, while reassuring everyone that Jaitley would come out clean in the wake of Kejriwal's fraud charges, reportedly said: “When Advaniji’s name was dragged into the Hawala scam by the Congress, the entire nation stood by him. Advaniji jitna pavitra hain, Jaitleyji utna hi hain (Jaitley is every bit as pure as Advani)." Advani's counsel, Jethmalani, immediately had a razor-sharp comeback to Modi's statement: "Narendra Modi thinks himself to be very clever that he is comparing Advani with Jaitley...This is an attack on LK Advani. Advani…poor fellow didn’t take up any job (Advani resigned from all his posts after the charges)... What is he (Jaitley) doing? Jaitley is a shameless man. There are hundred allegations against him." Here's another scathing remark: "Mr LK Advani had Ram Jethmalani (as his defence lawyer). Now Arun Jaitley is to be prosecuted by me (Ram Jethmalani)."
11 Jethmalani on his bitter relations with colleague Arun Jaitley: Jethmalani and Jaitley, both lawyers, were frenemies for long. From calling Jaitley 'crook' to 'shameless' in court, to "I don't make secret of the fact that I don't like Arun Jaitley", Jethmalani had always been Jaitley's most vocal critic. A young Jaitley had assisted Jethmalani as a lawyer in legal battles between Nusli Wadia-owned Bombay Dyeing and Dhirubhai Ambani-headed Reliance Industries. Jaitley had reportedly even carried Jethmalani's coat in court. However, when Jethmalani got the prestigious Law Ministry portfolio under the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government in 1998, there were reports that he suspected Jaitley was not too pleased. Arun Jaitley later succeeded Jethmalani to the post after his expulsion from the party. Thus, the seeds of a long-standing rivalry had been sown.
12 When Jethmalani criticised client Kejriwal too: The lawyer's ties with the Delhi CM had snapped after the latter told the Delhi High Court that he had not asked Jethmalani to use objectionable words against Jaitley like 'crook'. Jaitley had even threatened another defamation suit worth Rs 10 crore against Kejriwal over the use of the word after Jethmalani told the former that he had used it upon his client's instructions. Kejriwal went on to deny this in a letter to the senior counsel. Jethmalani then penned a sharp letter and uploaded it as a blog post in response stating, “When Arun Jaitley filed the first suit and criminal case, you (Kejriwal) naturally sought my services. Ask your conscience how many times you used worse abuses than a mere ‘crook’. You have hundred times asked me to teach this crook a lesson." Jethmalani’s letter also referred to Kejriwal’s letter to him and said, “If you think Jaitley will withdraw the suit on seeing this letter to me, do by any means settle with him. I will bear the consequences.” Jethmalani vowed to never appear for Kejriwal in any matter and asked the latter to “pay the settled fees for the first matter and nothing for the second”.