Raian Karanjawala, Managing Partner of Karanjawala & Co., speaks on the life and times of Ram Jethmalani.
Q. You knew Mr. Ram Jethmalani personally. When did you first meet him and under what circumstances?
A. I was a student studying Law at Government Law College, Bombay and the month was probably the February of 1977. There was a professor of ours, who was a close friend of Mr. Jethmalani, namely Mr. Harish Jagtiani, who had organised a lot of us students to go in a cavalcade to the airport to receive Ram when he came back from America after the Emergency had been lifted. We went in a cavalcade of about 10-15 cars, greeted Ram at the airport, his daughter Rani was also there to receive him and then we all went to his house at Advent in Bombay where he announced that he would contest against H.R. Gokhale, the then Law Minister of India, in the upcoming general elections from the Bombay North West constituency and all of us students along with our professor, Harish Jagtiani, pledged to support him. We were known as ‘Youth for Janata’ and for the next one month or so, we regularly went to Ram’s constituency to campaign. At that time, the people I remember who actively participated in the campaign, apart from myself, was my friend Mukul Rohatgi, my friend Anip Sachthey, my friend Berjis Desai, our friend, the late Rajni Iyer, my friend Navroz Seervaiand my other friend Maneck Daver, who (unlike the most of us who did law) went on to become a well-known journalist. That was my first interaction with Ram. Then of course, I got to know him better when we worked in the profession.
Q. You have worked with Mr. Jethmalani closely in many matters. How would you describe his style of advocacy?
A. His style was to take every matter, especially politically sensitive matters, centre-stage. Let me give you one example, Gurumurthy, who was the Indian Express owner Ramnath Goenka’s right-hand man, was arrested in March 1987. A little contextual backdrop to this arrest is relevant, namely (i) the Nusli Wadia / Indian Express combine had just been carrying on a relentless campaign against Reliance and the Ambanis, who by then had the support of the then Prime Minister, Mr. Rajiv Gandhi; (ii) there were accusations and rumours that the Finance Ministry under Mr. V.P. Singh, along with the help of Gurumurthy and Mr. Nusli Wadia had appointed a foreign agency, namely Fairfax, to look into the alleged foreign accounts of both Reliance and Mr. Amitabh Bachchan; and (iii) the President of India, Giani Zail Singh had just begun warring with the Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. In fact the day on which Gurumurthy was arrested was the day on which the Indian Express carried a banner headline highlighting a leaked letter of the President of India to the Prime Minister, virtually calling the Prime Minister a liar. It was in this backdrop that Gurumurthy was arrested, and his bail was to be argued. Arun and I were the juniors in the matter and were being led by Ram Jethmalani and I remember at the time of drafting the letter both of us had drafted a mildly worded bail application which we then took to Ram to settle. The first thing that Ram did when he looked at our application was to say, “no no, this will not do at all, we have to say in the forefront that yes, I Gurumurthy was investigating into the foreign accounts of Amitabh Bachchan”. There was consternation in the room when he said this with Nusli rushing forward and saying, “Ram, is it wise to take such a plea”. Arun himself demurred and I agreed with the others, but Ram prevailed. The hearing was politically surcharged, the bail bitterly fought out, but on this occasion, Ram’s tactics succeeded completely and Gurumurthy, despite severe opposition from the Government to granting him bail, got bail.
I will now refer to another case in which his habit of taking a case centre-stage did not do so well. I am now referring to the events of January 1992. I was in Bombay staying at the Oberoi Hotel, on that particular day, when suddenly I bumped into Mahesh Jethmalani sometime in the afternoon, who said, “Oh Raian, you are here. Come to the Ball Room at 4, Ram is holding a press conference”. The press conference was on Harshad Mehta and the financial scam of that time.
Sitting on the dais was Ram Jethmalani, his junior Jaisinghani, his son Mahesh (Tony) Jethmalani and Harshad Mehta and his brother Ashwin, and somewhere to the side my friend Maneck Davar. Ram in that particular conference openly said that the “scam was not a Harshad Mehta scam, but a Narasimha Rao scam”, and stated that Harshad Mehta in November 1991 had gone and given in one suitcase 1 crore rupees to the Prime Minister.
Harshad then demonstrated physically how such a large amount of money could fit into a suitcase. Obviously, this press conference unleashed a huge political fallout, but this was one occasion where Ram’s habit of raising the stakes in a matter and making it centre stage did not pay off because Harshad Mehta was arrested, stayed in jail for a long time and over the years most of his businesses came to a close.
Q.How would you rate Ram Jethmalani as a lawyer?
A.Throughout the decades, when the Bar has debated amongst itself as to which is the best lawyer of that particular era, there has always been divergence of opinions. It was Jamshedji Kanga against Bhulabhai Desai, Motilal Setalvad against C.K. Daphtary, Nani Palkhivala against Ashok Sen, and then in later years, Fali Nariman against Soli Sorabjee against K.K. Venugopal.
There was one matter however on which there was no dissenting opinion, namely that independent India has not had another criminal lawyer who could match the calibre of Ram Jethmalani.