The maverick lawyer (1923 – 2019)

Ram Boolchand Jethmalani was a quintessential politician, brilliant jurist and senior criminal lawyer, public figure, crusader and family man, a former Union minister with a six-time Rajya Sabha and two-time Lok Sabha stint.

Witty, courageous, gracious, outspoken, fearless, feisty and ebullient, he was a rebel and maverick who never minced his words. Often the lines between Jethmalani and criminal law got blurred. His interventions in the courts were heard with rapt attention; his physical presence intimidating enough to those embroiled in legal cases to pay through their noses to have him fly to distant places and appear for them.

Chairman of Bar Council of India for four tenures; in 1996, a member of the International Bar Association and in 2010, elected President of the Supreme Court Bar Association, his sharp criticism of the Emergency led to an arrest warrant, but opting for self-imposed exile in Canada, it became the bedrock of his upcoming political life.

The political Left regarded him with disdain, and the Right as untrustworthy. After Emergency was lifted in 1977, he filed his candidature from Canada, for the Bombay North-West constituency and won, ousting the serving Law Minister H. R. Gokhale. He retained it in 1980 but lost in 1985. He became a Rajya Sabha member in 1988.

Jethmalani was appointed Union Minister of Law, Justice and Company Affairs in 1996 in the first Vajpayee Government and during the second in 1998, was Union Minister of Urban Affairs and Employment. But in October 1999, he was again sworn in as the Union Minister for Law, Justice and Company Affairs, but soon asked to resign by the Prime Minister following differences.

He lost the 2004 Lok Sabha contest as an Independent from Lucknow to Vajpayee. But was back in 2010, as a BJP Rajya Sabha member. Following his public barbs, he was expelled in 2013. Since 2016, he was a RJD Rajya Sabha member, rumoured to be a quid pro quo for defending RJD chief Lalu Prasad in the fodder scam.

In a career spanning 70 years, he took on numerous high-profile controversial cases, without qualms about who he represented, often facing severe flak. A highest paid criminal lawyer, his witness cross-examination techniques repeatedly proved his mettle.

Jethmalani defended the likes of Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh, Manu Sharma, S.A.R Geelani, Narsimha Rao, Anil Ambani, LK Advani, Jayalalithaa, Kanimozhi, Lalu Prasad Yadav, BS Yeddyurappa, Subrato Roy, Baba Ramdev, Amit Shah, Arvind Kejriwal, the assassins of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, Sanjay Dutt, but supported the death sentence of Afzal Guru.

Born on 14 September 1923 in Sikhapur, Sindh, now in Pakistan, Ram completing his schooling at 13 with two double promotions, got his LLB degree at 17. He contested in the Court of Sindh, the Bar Council rule requiring minimum age of 21 to become a lawyer and won a special resolution allowing him to become one at 18.

Starting his career as a lawyer and professor, he formed his own law firm in Karachi with his friend A.K. Brohi.  When riots broke out in Karachi in February 1948, he fled to India with only a one paisa coin in his pocket and stayed in a refugee camp to begin his life and career afresh.

In 1954, he became a part-time professor at the Government Law College, Mumbai and the Professor Emeritus for Symbiosis International University law schools. In 1959, he shot to limelight in the sensational K M Nanavati vs. State of Maharashtra case, as a prosecution lawyer, on ‘watching brief’.

In 1977, he won an international Human Rights Award instituted by World Peace Through Law.

Author of books such as Big Egos, Small Men; Conscience of a Maverick, Conflict of Laws (1955) and Maverick: Unchanged, Unrepentant; Justice: Soviet Style, he also co-authored legal scholarly books on different fields of law, such as criminal law, administrative law, and media law. There have been two books on Jethmalani, Ram Jethmalani: The Authorised Biography by Nalini Gera and Rebel: A Biography of Ram Jethmalani by Susan Adelman.

A very humble man, 90 percent of his cases were done for free as he didn’t chase money. A week before his 94th birthday in 2017, he officially retired. Jethmalani passed away on 8 September 2019 in New Delhi at the age of 95.
Married twice, he faced personal tragedies like the death of a daughter and son with grit and is survived by his son Mahesh, an eminent lawyer-politician and a U.S. based daughter Shobha.


A.RADHAKRISHNAN is a Pune based freelance journalist, short story writer and poet, who loves to make friends and share humour.