At 7:45 am on September 8, 2109, six days before his 96th birthday, Ram Jethmalani peacefully passed away at his residence in the heart of New Delhi. Unapologetically outspoken and outrageously opinionated Ram Jethmalani will be remembered for many things – but for the former Chief Justice of India J.S. Khehar, he was a man who never said no.
Sitting across his desk from me, sipping on hot coffee that he absolutely loves, Justice Khehar remembers Mr. Jethmalani with a soft smile on his face.
“He had argued so many important matters before me – last being NJAC, but everybody knows what a great lawyer he was. Let me tell you something everybody doesn’t know. I remember when I was the Chief Justice, I had just finished my work for the day – there were meetings lined up one after the other. Just then, I was told that some junior lawyers were waiting to meet me; they wanted some of their grievances to be heard. By the time I could meet them, it was around 6:00-6:30 pm. I went in for the meeting in one of the Supreme Court conference halls and with these junior lawyers, I see Ram Jethmalani sitting and waiting there. I asked him, ‘Mr. Jethmalani, what are you doing here?’ He said to me (almost matter of factly) that ‘These juniors asked me to represent them, so I’m here’."
The first case Ram Jethmalani ever argued was for his right to be a lawyer. The Bar Council rules had set the minimum age to practice as 21 years. A 17-year old Ram Jethmalani, having obtained his law degree from Karachi, stood before Justice Godfrey Davis saying “I would never have gone to law college if I knew I couldn’t support my family for four years”. Justice Davis heard him and directed the Bar Council to make an exception and at the age of 18, Ram Jethmalani was enrolled as a practicing advocate.
“He was a very hardworking man” remembers Justice Khehar. “You cannot be a great lawyer without working that hard. However, there was more to him than just that – he was a good man with all the kind of things that make a complete personality. An introvert, but nobody would ever meet people as warmly as Ram Jethmalani did.”
On a professional front, Ram Jethmalani was the defender of the indefensible. Afzal Guru, Manu Sharma, assassins of Indira Gandhi, Harshad Mehta, Lalu Prasad Yadav are just a few examples. On the personal front, he openly advocated for death penalty and stringent laws in the fight against black money and corruption. There were no holds barred if you ever asked him his opinion on a legal or a political matter but when it came to defending his client, Jethmalani was a beast in the courtroom – eloquent, passionate, dedicated and relentless.
“He was the only person who abstained from voting for the (NJAC) legislation. He was the only one! Everybody else said yes, but he stood his ground and argued against the legislation,” says Justice Khehar with a smile. “That’s how he was, a very powerful personality. He did a lot of big matters before me but the thing I remember him most for is that he never said no – to anybody.”