In 1843, Sir Charles Napier allegedly messaged the Queen: “Peccavi” — implying both that he had “sinned” and conquered Sindh. One of Ram Jethmalani’s ancestors had fought against Napier, fleeing to Afghanistan.
Ram, too, was a Partition refugee who became one of India’s greatest criminal lawyers. He was the puppeteer who strategised the famed Nanavati case and was counsel to dacoits, murderers, preventive detainees and politicians without discrimination. He became a refugee during the Emergency, using Kerala to disappear — an adventure in itself. Post Emergency, he became a politician, and a maverick opponent to every regime except Atal Bihari Vajpayee, whom he served as minister and liked.
If he is famous for loving women and his friends, he is equally famous for hateful diatribes against Nehru’s dynasty and, now, Arun Jaitley and Narendra Modi — forever hopeful that the future would sparkle as it always has. But he is almost 94 and feels his age. In the past few years, he has often threatened he will resign from practice. But he resiled. Perhaps, it was: “Resign, resign, I often swore/ but was I sober when I swore.” This time I fear his resignation is real. His athleticism has been admirable. It is well known that until recently he played badminton, every day.
Not virtual badminton, but strenuous enough to be put most to shame. But old age has caught up with him, and all of us want him to live longer, with politics to challenge his usual tenacity.
With Charm & Courtesy
I first met Ram in 1975-76 in London in the Narang extradition case. He gave brilliant advice only to have his genius rebuked by the Queen’s Counsel: “We don’t do that in England Mr Jetha Malini.”
English conservatism had its way to eventually lose the case. I met him again just after the Emergency, when Ram, Soli Sorabjee and others met for dinner at the Oberoi where he out-danced and outtalked all on revenge after the Emergency. Decades later, we were in Allahabad together for five days. I had met both his wives at different times. This was not bigamy because before 1955, Hindus males could have multiple marriages.
But what was fascinating was his love for both wives and his extended families. This entitles Ram to be the god of love. He mischievously told his Allahabad audience that “Solomon and Sheba did not need a language to communicate”.
He has flirted and won, and loved and lost, with charm, courtesy and respect. To live with all, without rancour and with mutual respect, is more difficult than can be imagined. When I went with Ram to Pakistan recently, we met many, including those of the Sindhi community and some Pakistani protagonists of Kashmir as well as judges. His Sindhi friends in Karachi were there at the airport, resplendent in their hospitality and firm in their commitment to past and future. As a Sindhi, Ram was concerned about the Sindhis in Pakistan. One day, the troubled Sindhis will find the strength to rebel against continuing adversity.
Ram’s hopes are not for re-uniting the subcontinent. That, to him, is unrealistic at this stage. But he felt he could help build bridges to resolve Kashmir-related issues. I went with him in the belief that he was an ambassador of peace. Given his practice, Ram had not delved into social justice issues. When I met him over several dinners, he attacked socialist hypocrisy. But, in retrospect, his ire was against Congress-style socialist nationalism. He had a limited knowledge of sociopolitical is sues. But in the Mandal case (1992), we found him arguing for reservation of OBCs with favour and flavour. He taught himself political sociology and perfected his knowledge of the caste system, arguing as a professor on the subject.
This seemed discordant with his usual practice for powerful criminals, businessmen, politicians and the like. He argued the case to success along with others more genuinely involved. His appearance in Mandal was unusual. He is a maverick in his selection of causes. He defended criminals to save them from the gallows, but argues in favour of the death penalty.
The Angry “Young” Man
His political life has had many flavours. The political Left regard him with disdain, and the Right as untrustworthy. He feels hurt that even though he got LK Advani off in the Hawala cases and got the Supreme Court to accept Hindutva as a legitimate electoral slogan, he was thrown out of the party by those who owe him. Betrayed by his party, he is the dramatic angry “young” man in politics.
In his personal life, he has a generosity of spirit. Although he had been a controversial minister favouring the building lobby, he has espoused wider appeals. In politics, he is his own master. Trustworthy in love, doubted in political relations.
- Rajeev Dhavan
Originally published on the Economic Times.
Copyright. All rights reserved. Ram Jethmalani. 2019.
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