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Ram Jethmalani: Fearlessness defined his soul

September 10, 2019 09:23 IST
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'Ram Sir was a creator of law. He has his stamp on every leading judgment in criminal law.'


Even though the 95 year old had been ailing, the news of Ram Jethmalani's death on Sunday, September 8, still stunned noted defence lawyer Shrikant Shivade, who felt a "tremendous" sense of personal loss.

Shivade -- who presently represents Lieutenant Colonel Srikant Purohit in the Malegaon blasts case, Tarun Tejpal in the Goa rape case and Peter Mukerjea in the Sheena Bora murder trial and has defended Salman Khan in the 2002 hit-and-run case and Sonali Bendre and Saif Ali Khan in the 1998 black buck case -- tells Savera R Someshwar/, "We have lost the last, the most fearless and the most courageous titan of the legal profession. He commanded the legal fraternity like a true general who always led from the front."

Shivade recalls the first time he, as a young lawyer, saw Jethmalani in court.

"The very first time I got to witness Ram Sir in action was when he appeared in the Pune court representing Acharya Rajneesh (also known as Osho), justifying his exemption from appearing in court."

In an aside, Shivade adds, "Ram Sir was a voracious reader and had a huge collection of Osho Books in his office. He used to read every page and make small notes in the margin."

While he argued all kinds of cases, Jethmalani was, at heart, a trial lawyer, says Shivade.

"He was excellent at cross-examination. My dream of sitting next to him and watching him cross-examine witnesses became a reality in the 2G spectrum allocation case (politicians A Raja and the late M Karunanidhi's daughter Kanimozhi ere amongst the 18 accused in the alleged scam).

"I also watched him when he argued the Sharad Birdhi Chand Sarda vs State of Maharashtra case in the high court (where he defended the husband, Sharad, who was accused of murdering his wife, Manjushree).

"It is a very important case as far as circumstantial evidence is concerned. The lady committed suicide and the accused, her husband, was ordered to be hanged by the sessions court as well as high court.

"But Ram Sir got an acquittal in the Supreme Court. While explaining the possibility of false dying declarations, Ram Sir recalled an observation made at the Nuremberg trials: 'Rascals have gone to the gallows without speaking the truth'."

IMAGE: Ram Jethmalani and defence lawyer Shrikant Shivade. Photograph: Kind courtesy Shrikant Shivade

Other cases, too, are seared in Shivade's mind, particularly cases that have interpreted the Constitution.

"I have observed his cases under the draconian TADA Act in the Pune TADA court.

"His original interpretation of the TADA law at a time when there was not much precedence or guidance was admirable.

"His elucidation of the TADA principles were later recognised by the Supreme Court in the landmark Kartar Singh vs State of Punjab case (the case challenged TADA's constitutional validity on the grounds that Parliament did not have the right to pass such an act. The Terrorism and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, 1985, came into force after insurgency increased in Punjab).

"His exposition of the law of confession, while arguing the Constitutional validity of TADA in the Supreme Court, still echoes in my ears.

"There are cases and cases that come to mind... Like the Indira Gandhi assassination case (where he defended Balbir Singh and Kehar Singh, who were accused of conspiring with Gandhi's bodyguards, Beant Singh and Satwant Singh; the latter, who were charged with guarding the prime minister, assassinated her in the aftermath of Operation Bluestar, when the Indian Army entered the Golden Temple.)

IMAGE: Ram Jethmalani, right, with Narendra Modi in 2014. Photograph: Kamal Singh/PTI Photo

"Ram Sir was a creator of law. He has his stamp on every leading judgment in criminal law.

"I consider myself most fortunate that I got a chance to assist him in the Vadrai silver ingot case (against Jayendra Vishnu 'Bhai' Thakur; in this case, a boat was transporting silver bricks reportedly belonging to Dawood Ibrahim. When the boat anchored in Thane, some bricks fell into the water. Tribals living nearby grabbed these bricks, following which 'Bhai' Thakur and his henchmen tortured them to recover the bricks) and the Pappu Kalani (who was found guilty of murdering BJP activist Inder Bhateja) case."

Shivade says the biggest challenge a criminal defence lawyer faces is his personal sense of morality.

"Criminal law is almost always a conflict of morals, with your own personal beliefs on one side and the correct practice of law on the other.

"Ram Sir was a guiding lamp to the fraternity in this regard. He never refused a brief because society/people believed the accused to be guilty.

"In fact, he said in many of his speeches that it would be misconduct on the part of a lawyer if s/he to refuse a case because she/he believes the person is guilty.

"He would always says that you can refuse a brief for any other cause but not because you believe the person to be guilty or because others believe he is be guilty.

"He would warn, 'Never get bogged down by personal prejudice created by the media in criminal cases'."

"A lawyer's job is to test the evidence produced by the prosecution. Whether the evidence is true or false, and whether a person is guilty or not, is for the court to decide."

"Defending the undefendable was his passion."

Another Jethmalani priority was upholding liberty, says Shivade.

"People say he was an expensive and unaffordable lawyer. but I have seen him conduct several cases without charging a rupee; he would even bear the related expenses out of his own pocket.

"If something clicked in his mind, he used to accept the case. Otherwise, even if you offered tons of money, he wouldn't."

"Ram Sir believed in the teachings of Woodrow Wilson: 'The history of liberty is a history of curtailment of government power, not the increase of it'."

Asked what today's lawyers can learn from Jethmalani, Shivade says, "Fearlessness. Like him, while representing the client, you should be fearless. And he worked extremely hard."

Senior lawyers like Jethmalani have helped define India's legal system, says Shivade.

"They were originals like none other. They argued cases when there was no case law or precedent to fall back on. They actually interpreted the law and helped set precedents."

'I received the most precious gift in my life -- two books written by him in which he had penned a personal message for me,' says Shrikant Shivade. Photograph: Kind courtesy Shrikant Shivade

Shivade recalls his last meeting with Jethmalani.

"I had gone to pick him up from Pune airport and drop him off at the Symbiosis Law School. He was the professor emeritus there. He was a born teacher. His lectures were so interesting.

"On that day, I received the most precious gift in my life -- two books written by him in which he had penned a personal message for me.

There can, says Shivade, never be another Ram Jethmalami.

"His contribution to the legal field is unparalleled. He had a laser sharp mind and was extremely witty. He always analysed facts and the law with surgical precision.

"He was very outspoken when it came to politics, his views... He never minced words. He used to call a spade a spade. He never bothered about the consequences. It was his view, so he openly used to say that in the court also.

"And this fearlessness defined his soul.

"My life would have been incomplete without Ram Sir.

"The whole legal fraternity has been orphaned. The courtrooms and corridors of the court have been silenced without Ram Sir's laser sharp voice. The memories of Ram Sir will constantly echo in our minds."


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