Feared and Respected Politician and Lawyer is a Teacher of the Young at Heart

Member of Indian Rajya Sabha Ram Jethmalani.Photo: Jawahar Malhotra

Member of Indian Rajya Sabha Ram Jethmalani.
Photo: Jawahar Malhotra

By Jawahar Malhotra

HOUSTON: Not a minute into the meeting and Ram Jethmalani had jumped into the episode in his life 42 years ago that had galvanized his role as the conscience of the country from which he had gone into a brief exile.

 “I have always had a special affection for the US ever since that time during the Emergency Rule in India (1975-1977) when I spent ten months in the US”, recalled Jethmalani during a two day stopover in the Bayou City two weeks ago. During that time, he was able to indulge in a passion: teach a short course to a younger generation of lawyers at a local institution.


From left : Houston attorney Rajneesh Chaudry; Ram Jethmalani;
Lata Krishnamurthy and attorney John Lunstroth during a meeting
with the press.

 The memory of that period is still very clear for Jethmalani as he became known as a firebrand who would take on the Central Government of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. During a speech in Kerela in front of the bench of five judges in closing arguments for men who had been detained, Jethmalani had railed against the judges, roaring that the same Draconian laws they were upholding would be used against them as they had in a case in Ghana where the Chief Justice had upheld a similar law only to be the first to be killed. 

“The Indian Democracy is lying in the coffin,” he recalled saying, “but still not dead. The government wants you to shut the lid, but won’t do it. They want you to nail it shut yourself”.

 For these flagrant remarks, the Central Government issued an arrest warrant against him by the time he was back in Bombay. “The Chief of Police was a friend who refused to carry it through till the warrant was physically delivered to him”, Jethmalani recalled with a chuckle. “Instead, he escorted me onto a plane that night and I took off for Canada and then came to Detroit where I had some family”.

 The 90 year-old Jethmalani was in town at the urging of a former junior colleague and recent transplant to Houston, Rajneesh Chaudry an attorney and his partner John Lunstroth who invited him to share his recollections and observations on Indian law and politics during the two-day whirlwind stopover in Houston where he addressed the Asia Society (see IAN September 27, 2013); the University of Houston Law Center and had dinner at the house of a prominent community member and admirer, Dr. Arun Verma. He was escorted on the brief trip, which included a stopover in Greenville, S. Carolina, by Lata Krishnamurthy a lawyer in the Supreme Court and his partner for the past four years.

 Over breakfast on a Monday morning, Jethmalani shared his views on US-India relations, the law, democracy and politics in which he has been deeply immersed since he first got elected to the Indian Parliament in 1980. “We are the world’s most prominent democracies”, he said about the US and India, “but the relationship is not the best”. He worried about the connection between religious fundamentalism and terrorism and what was taught in schools to young people. “My grievance is that these times are threatened by a medieval menace”, he said, adding “Freedom of speech is not about what thought you like, but about what thought you hate”.

 Born in Shikharpur, British India, Jethmalani was a prodigy who received his law degree at the age of 17 and started to practice law in Karachi. His family migrated to Bombay after the Partition and he established a practice that has grown immensely due to the high-profile defense cases he took on. He came to the spotlight in the famous case of Nanavati vs. the State of Maharashtra in 1959 with Yashwant Vishnu Chandrachud. In the 1960s, he took on the defense of a string of smugglers. Among those are his defense of the infamous Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh who were involved in the Bombay stock market manipulations; Afzal Guru, the Pakistani convicted of the 2001 Indian Parliament attack, Rajiv Gandhi’s killers, the underworld don Haji Mastan, Manu Sharma in Jessica Lall’s murder case and L.K. Advani in the Hawala Scam.

 Asked why he took these cases and the reputation that followed – he was once known as the “smuggler’s lawyer” – he responded that he had to make his livelihood from law and that “no lawyer shall refuse to defend a person even though others may believe them to be guilty”, adding that “the best guarantee of finding the truth is by extreme arguments in an adversarial system”.

 This tact has often placed Jethmalani at odds with the judicial system, politicians and even the public, as his recent utterances in the Asaram Bapu case have shown. But Jethmalani has never shied away from controversy, in fact it seems he thrives on it, taking on subjects that others wouldn’t touch. This facet of his personality has made him a maverick in law as well as in politics which he has been involved in since his first seat in 1980.

 He is currently a member of the Rajya Sabha or Upper House (akin to the Senate in the US system) of Parliament having been elected on the BJP ticket from Rajasthan. He has been a Law Minister in the Vajpayee administration, split with the BJP and launched his own party twice, run as an independent and recently mended fences with the aging outspoken BJP stalwart Advani over the nomination of Narendra Modi to the party’s ticket as PM in the forthcoming national elections.

 Asked about his love-hate relationship with the BJP and his role as a politician, he said he was not so proud of politicians, but more proud of teaching law to the young. “It is the duty of every individual in a democracy to get involved”, he declared. He defended Modi’s role during the riots in Gujarat where many people were killed, saying that Modi was only four months into his administration and that mob violence and retaliation was the root cause of the deaths. “I am a BJP rebel”, he said, “and my conscience will not submit to party politics. I was invited back to the BJP in 2010”.

 Even now, Jethmalani relishes his role as a loose canon, and age has not slowed him down. “I feel like I am living in the departure lounge of an airport”, he joked, “but the flight has been delayed”! His skill as a negotiator and debater has provided him well, and he feels that he has a debt to repay to India that has been good to him. He has started his own paper, the Sunday Guardian, with M.J. Akhtar as its editor and published in Delhi and Chandigarh. He founded the Ram Jethmalani Foundation in 2005, with five trustees, to serve the public in the areas of education, health and the environment.

 His colleague Krishnamurthy best summed up what others think about Jethmalani, who is considered an icon in Indian law circles. “He is a one man army. He is very inspiring, has remarkable courage”, she said. “You have to hear him in court and learn from the arguments of the cases he presents”.