I heard Ram Jethmalani for the first time in 1980 as a student in Chennai. Dr Madhav Menon had organised his lecture for law students and teachers. The next time I met him was in May 1983 when I joined his daughter Rani Jethmalani as junior.
As luck would have it, in 1984 there was the celebrated commission of enquiry under Justice Ram Prasad Rao, a retired judge of the Madras High Court for enquiring into the allegations of corruption against M.G. Ramachandran, the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. I had the great good fortune of being Ram’s junior in that case.
The proceedings were sensational; Ram’s cross examination was absolutely scintillating and the audience poured out of the hall and onto the streets bringing traffic on the Mount Road to a standstill. My actual law education started on the first day of the trial.
My first appearance in the Supreme Court was also with Ram in a case of passing off under the intellectual property law.
I was swept off my feet by his oratory, his clarity of thought and precision of expression. Ram’s most famous opening lines used to be “I have not come to please but to provoke you”.
In 1984, while Ram was on his legs in a case, he felt the symptoms of a heart attack. When I heard from others that Ram had been rushed to the National Heart Centre, I blundered my way there. His lovely wife Ratna and daughter Rani were there with him; I was permitted to come in on Ram’s instructions. When I saw him hooked to so many lines, I nearly passed out but I was reassured when I heard him say in his usual strong voice that everything was going to be okay. Dr Padmavati personally attended on him and made him stable to be able to travel to the United States to attend to his heart.
It was when he was away in US that the assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi happened and the city was taken over by evil and unscrupulous people. I intuitively felt that if Ram had been there he would have somehow put out the evil fires that were raging and would have galvanised everyone to take out peace marches.
Lo and behold, as if in answer to my prayer, I actually saw Ram on the television appealing for peace and amity. I later learned that Ram had got himself discharged from the American hospital against the doctor’s orders in order to be in India.
I reached the Supreme Court only to find it deserted but for a clutch of senior advocates; among the women lawyers, as far as I recollect, there were Ram’s daughter Rani, Kamini Jaiswal, Nitya Ramakrishnan and I. Ram asked all the lawyers to donate whatever money they had. He himself made the first contribution of Rs 50,000. He took charge like a General of Peace and we marched through the worst affected areas shouting “Hindu Sikhs Bhai Bhai”. Ram was leading the procession. We saw the worst horrors and atrocities. Suddenly a busload of Youth Congress members, led by a giant of a man, charged towards us with huge sticks. The others were armed with stones. Before any decision could be taken in consultation with the other seniors, Ram just lay down on the road saying “You want to kill me? Go ahead but till my last breath I will maintain that Hindus and Sikhs are brothers.”
The feeling of extreme tension amongst the group of lawyers looking on was palpable but Ram’s heroic action was not in vain. The charging mercenary hoodlums first stopped and then started receding. For me that was the moment of truth. I realised that a hero did not have to be young, tall and handsome with a full head of hair. From that moment Ram became my hero.
On 1 December 1988, a writ petition was filed in the Supreme Court by Kehar Singh to examine whether the exercise of the President’s power under Article 72 of the Constitution could be judicially reviewed. The Court was as usual jam-packed. I remember pushing my way through the crowd to the front row where Ram was already on his legs. I pushed towards Ram the judgement in the Billa-Ranga case reported in (1982) 1 SCC 417, where the very same question was left open to be decided in a more appropriate case. I was elated when Ram cited the ruling before the Constitution Bench to stay the hanging of Kehar Singh and the Court decided to entertain the petition. When we arrived back at his home-cum-office at 11, Harish Chander Mathur Lane, Ram Nath Goenka garlanded Ram. Ram promptly took it off and put it round my neck even while informing Goenka of my contribution in staying the execution. It was one of the most glorious moments of my life when he asked me to assist him in the Kehar Singh case which he was doing pro bono. Since 1988 I became a permanent part of his office, not only helping with court cases and research, but also became willy-nilly a part of all his quixotic ventures.
Ram was an optimist through and through and believed that he could change the political scene. He was deeply involved with the destiny of this country and was never tired of saying that he had a huge debt to repay to the people of this country.
Sometime in the year 1990 he started the Bharat Mukti Morcha, a civil society movement to cleanse public life.
He was very trusting of people, but most people who joined the movement had their own reasons. They used Ram for free legal services and, sadly, had little concern for the movement itself.
Ram was certainly disappointed at the fall in public character. He used to lament repeatedly that character could not be legislated. However, undeterred, a few years later, Ram started the Pavitra Hindustan Kazhagam. The word Kazhagam was added to resonate with the people in the South. PHK was a full-fledged registered political party. He was desirous of setting up 30 public-spirited, articulate young people who were committed to creating a corruption-free India.
This movement too received overwhelming response from all quarters. He travelled the length and breadth of the country to recruit volunteers. However, this shrewd criminal lawyer was most unassuming and unworldly in practical life. He took people at their word without instituting serious enquiries into their background. The entire financial burden of the party was borne by Ram. However, a majority of his party recruits proved unworthy of his trust.
A lesser man than Ram would have completely lost faith in humanity! Whoever came to him for help received help. No one went back disappointed. After I had observed many totally undeserving appeals for help, I suggested to him that we create a registered charity with a board of honorary trustees. Ram readily agreed and so the Ram Jethmalani Foundation was born in the year 2005. Since then the trust is fully functional, collaborating with many NGOs in the field of education, public health and environment. At Ram’s request I became the lifetime chairperson of the Foundation.
He resigned from the BJP to take up the case of Kehar Singh at a time when he was holding the position of vice president of the BJP. In 2010, when he reluctantly rejoined BJP, his main purpose was to dismantle the dynastic governance by an extra-constitutional power. Ram has never remained silent in the face of injustice.
Ram and I were committed to each other without any legal parchment paper. In his last registered will and testament, Ram had this to say: “In the event of my becoming bedridden and unable to take care of myself I would like to live under the same roof and in the care of Lata Krishnamurti till the time of my demise.
“Upon my demise my companion and partner Ms. Lata Krishnamurti whom I look upon as being more than a wife to me should be allowed to participate in all my rites as my legally wedded wife.”
Ram had already achieved during his lifetime the three goals of human existence—Dharma, Artha and Kama. He often told me that he never wanted another birth. He had completed the recitation of the Mahamrityunjaya Mantra over 5 lakh times. Surely he deserves Moksha!