Ram Jethmalani, an eminent Supreme Court lawyer, jurist, and former Union Law Minister passed away on Sunday, September 8, 2019, in New Delhi at the age of 95. He was an iconic public figure and made rich contributions to law through the courts and the Parliament. Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Jethmalani’s residence and said that the “courageous” advocate never shied from expressing his views. “He was witty, courageous and never shied away from boldly expressing himself on any subject,” the PM wrote on Twitter.
Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu said, the nation has lost a distinguished jurist, a great intellectual and a patriot, who was active till his last breath. The Vice President said that he has lost a dear friend with whom he had a very long association both as a Minister and as a member of Parliament.
Born in Shikarpur in the Sindh province (now in Pakistan), Jethmalani completed his law degree at the age of 17 and began his practice before moving to Mumbai after the partition. He retired in 2017, during the felicitation ceremony of the then Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra.
The veteran lawyer will always be remembered for his vast knowledge of the law and legal affairs. Over the span of his career, Jethmalani made several contributions to the criminal and constitutional laws of the country.
Ram Boolchand Jethmalani argued numerous landmark cases in Supreme Court, HCs and Trial Courts. His first noteworthy case was in 1959. Jethmalani — popularly called a ‘doyen in the field of legal fraternity’ — shot to prominence in 1959, when he took up the role of a prosecutor in the landmark KM Nanavati case (KM Nanavati vs State of Maharashtra), in which a naval commander was tried for murdering his wife’s lover Prem Ahuja. Jethmalani said that the case earned him fame, which was the most important milestone of his career. After the case, he was credited for presenting a unique style of theatrical cross-examination.
His other high-profile cases included the Indira Gandhi assassination case in which he appeared for the accused, Satwant Singh and Kehar Singh. He defended Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh in stock market scam cases and Delhi University professor SAR Geelani in the Parliament attack case in 2001.
During the 1960s, Jethmalani earned the name “Smugglers’ lawyer”, as he had defended some smugglers, such as Haji Mastan, at the time.
In 2011, he defended former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s killer, V Sriharan, in the Madras High Court.
The senior advocate had also defended the death sentence of Afzal Guru and the accused, Manu Sharma, in the Jessica Lall murder case.
Jethmalani had also defended Asaram Bapu in a sexual assault case, and the late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa in the disproportionate assets case. Not to forget, the veteran lawyer had defended Union Home Minister Amit Shah in several fake encounter cases including the Sohrabuddin Sheikh encounter case.
On the political side, he was one of the founding members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
A six-time Rajya Sabha MP, Jethmalani was presently serving as a member of the Rashtriya Janata Dal. He was an elected member of the Parliament to the 6th and 7th Lok Sabha on a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ticket from Mumbai in 1977 and 1980. Jethmalani served as the Union Law Minister and the Minister of Urban Development in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government between 1998 and 2000.
Jethmalani remained a BJP member in Parliament’s upper house subsequently, but fell out with the party in 2013. This was because in 2012, Jethmalani wrote a letter to the then BJP president, Nitin Gadkari, accusing opposition BJP leaders of being silent against the huge corruption by members of the UPA-II government. Jethmalani’s letter became public on the internet, and BJP expelled him on May 2013 for six years for making “anti-party” statements.
A vocal critic of the Congress-led central government during Emergency, the advocate earned a reputation of being forthright and straight-forward in expressing his views. He was critical of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and his sharp commentary against the government earned him an arrest warrant during the time. “He was a champion for the underdog, was an open critic of an inefficient system and roared like a lion in courts,” former Delhi high court judge Justice RS Sodhi, who had worked closely with Jethmalani, said. However, the arrest warrant was stayed by the Bombay High Court. He went to Canada and campaigned against the emergency and returned after almost 10 months when the emergency was lifted.
Widely respected by the Bar and the Bench, in 2010, he also served as the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association and was the chairman of the Bar Council of India four times.
The renowned lawyer also won many big awards such as the International Jurist Award, World Peace Through Law Award and the Human Rights Award.