‘A less-known fact about him is that he has even won cases against Mohammad Ali Jinnah, when he began practising in Karachi.’
K. Mahesh, an IAS officer, and the former private secretary to Ram Jethmalani, when the latter was Union Minister, talks to The Sunday Guardian about the eminent jurist, former parliamentarian and one of India’s top criminal lawyers. In a career spanning seven decades, Jethmalani left behind a legacy of cases that set legal precedents, fame and a fair share of controversies. Excerpts:
Q: Tell us about your association with Ram Jethmalani.
A: I was fascinated with Ram’s work ever since I was a law student, this was before I joined the Civil Services. I admired him for his fantastic work and great intellect, wisdom and the way he would argue matters. He was a human rights activist and floated a political party in 1995, called the Pavitra Hindustan Kazhagam. I joined the Civil Services and became his private secretary when he was a Union Cabinet Minister. He was like a father figure to me and his death has ended an era in the history of the Indian judiciary. He has made history in Indian politics and judiciary, look at the cases he has to his name, he has paved way for progressiveness and social justice all through his career.
When he resigned as the Union Law Minister and Arun Jaitley, who was then a Cabinet Minister, took charge of Law ministry, I was asked to continue as Jaitley’s private secretary. When a minister resigns, he is allowed a speech addressing the floor of Parliament, so Jethmalani’s speech was leaked to the media and everyone thought I had done it. My offices were locked and there were talks of an inquiry against me. When Jethmalani heard about this, he straightaway declared that he himself had leaked the speech and if there was to be an FIR, it should be against him (Jethmalani).
Q: Who was Ram Jethmalani other than being a brilliant lawyer and parliamentarian? Did he have a side which is not known to many?
A: People think that he was a great criminal lawyer, but that alone would not do justice to the persona of Ram Jethmalani. He was not only a brilliant criminal lawyer, but also an astute civil and constitutional lawyer. He was also one of the most distinguished teachers of law this country has ever seen and an eminent jurist who developed the law. He was a human rights activist, and not just in theory but in his personal life too, he practised what he preached. In such a divided society where politicians just play the secular card, Ram has an adopted grandson who is a Muslim boy from a slum. During the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, he himself jumped out of a car to stand in front of a violent mob to save people. This in itself speaks volumes about his secular nature.
One of the longest-serving Members of Parliament, he was a minister who never ordered bureaucrats around, or forced them to do any unconstitutional or illegal things. I have witnessed in my personal capacity as his private secretary, he encouraged those working under him to give him honest opinions about his decisions and also gave them the freedom to disagree.
Also, interestingly, when he joined the Ministry of Urban Development, he went ahead and read books on planning, engineering and housing. He was the most well-read man I have met with expertise on an umbrella of topics. The precision of his mind and the sharpness of his wit made him the public’s favourite. We talk about the Right to Information, he was the first one to introduce such a provision in the Urban Development Ministry in 1998. That provision did not see the light of the day, but it was nonetheless a bold and transparent move.
A less-known fact about him is that he has even won cases against Mohammad Ali Jinnah, when he began practising in Karachi. At a personal level, he got me married to an Iranian girl. He sent out his students, including myself to foreign universities. He led a lavish life, loved his girlfriends and scotch but did immense charities, took many cases on pro bono basis.
Q: Tell us something about his legacy in the legal field.
A: “I have been practising the law since before my lordships were even born,” he said. He was the youngest lawyer to start practising at the age of 17, and had to fight in court to get this opportunity. Once he had the taste of victory, he never looked back. The path-breaking judgements in the history of India, be it the Mandalisation of politics or the renowned Nanavati case, he has been one of the biggest forces that have moulded the course of Indian judiciary. He supported the Mandal Commission despite many lawyers opposing it. He was always for the development of the backward classes. His most famous cases include Bal Thackeray vs V. Prabhakar Kunte, where he argued that Hindutva was a way of life and the court accepted his view. It became the base of many further cases to come, some more recent than others. Even in Nanavati case, where a naval officer by the name of Nanavati, was accused of shooting his wife’s lover, Prem Ahuja. Ram assisted the senior prosecutor on behalf of the Ahuja family. That still stands as one of the landmark cases of Indian judiciary, as the jury system was abolished after this case. He fiercely criticised the imposition of Emergency in 1975 and had an arrest warrant issued against him for speaking out against it.
Q: He often courted controversy by appearing in cases that threatened to tarnish his public image. Was he unfazed by controversies or did they affect him in some manner?
A: Not even once. Ram Jethmalani was a man of his convictions and once he decided to take up a case, he would just go all guns blazing. He repeatedly said that our Constitution gives the right to legal representation to everybody. Even the most wretched deserve a good lawyer, and he said it would be gross misconduct on his part to leave a case. He never once cared about public opinion or his image.