India’s top criminal lawyer and former parliamentarian Ram Boolchand Jethmalani, the quintessential defense lawyer who became a legal legend in his lifetime, died Sept. 8 in New Delhi, a few days before his 96th birthday on Sept. 14.
He is survived by his son Mahesh Jethmalani, also a lawyer, and his U.S.-based daughter. One of his other daughters, Rani Jethmalani, also a Supreme Court lawyer, died earlier.
His death led to an outpouring of emotions from politicians, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Opposition leader Sonia Gandhi to Bollywood celebrities like Mahesh Bhatt and Soha Ali Khan who shared a picture with the "conscience keeper of collective India" along with husband and actor Kunal Khemmu on Instagram.
Born on Sept. 14, 1923 in Shikarpur in Sindh (now in Pakistan), Jethmalani completed his law degree in Karachi. He fled to India in February 1948, when riots broke out in Karachi after partition. In India he would put his legal acumen and maverick skills to great use.Among the highest paid criminal lawyers in the country, Jethmalani began his legal career at the young age of 18.
Jethmalani married his first wife, Durga, in a traditional Indian arranged marriage. In 1947, just before partition, he married his second wife, Ratna Shahani, a lawyer by profession. His family included both of his wives and four children
According to news reports in the Indian media, as a refugee in India, he fought against a new law that was just passed by Morarji Desai, then Chief Minister of Bombay State, to deal with refugees. He came to the spotlight when he appeared in the famous KM Nanavati vs State of Maharashtra case in 1959. In 1960s, he appeared in defense of a string of smugglers, establishing his image as a ‘smuggler’s lawyer’.
Jethmalani contested and won the Bombay north-west Lok Sabha seat in 1977, backed by the Bharatiya Jana Sangh. He retained it in the next election in 1980 as well, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was born out of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh.
He became a member of Rajya Sabha for the first time in 1988 and later became Union law minister in 1996 under former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He was law minister twice more, in 1998 and 1999 when Vajpayee won prime ministership. But the maverick lawyer later took on Vajpayee in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections from Lucknow, but lost.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted after his death that “In the passing away of Shri Ram Jethmalani Ji, India has lost an exceptional lawyer and iconic public figure who made rich contributions both in the Court and Parliament.”
Modi described him as “witty, courageous” who never shied away from boldly expressing himself on any subject. “One of the best aspects of Shri Ram Jethmalani Ji was the ability to speak his mind. And, he did so without any fear…”
During Emergency Jethmalani fought for public liberties.In 2013, the maverick lawyer was expelled from BJP for accusing it of being “silent against high corruption”
A Financial Express report quoted Attorney General K. K. Venugopal as saying that the country has lost its finest lawyer who was bold and handled the most sensational criminal cases and constitutional matters.
“According to me, he was a lawyer, was larger than life handling the most sensational cases, especially criminal cases as I, therefore, told him once that he is a leader of the criminal Bar of the country. His retort was, ‘I am also the no. 1 constitutional lawyer’. This is because he was handling cases across the board,” he added.
In his biography The Rebel: A Biography of Ram Jethmalani by Susan Adelman, a close friend of Jethmalani for 40 years, he is quoted as saying, “When I see a man come into my office with his pockets bulging with smuggling money, I consider it my duty to relieve him of his wealth," according to a report in Live Mint
His biography says 90% of his cases were pro bono but in the remaining 10% he would make a fortune by defending the rich and the powerful. In his biography, he has confessed that he would actually visit crime scenes to make notes.
From defending the killers of the former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to the Dalal street scammers Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh and from opposing the death sentence of Afzal Guru to representing clients like DMK MP Kanimozhi, Jethmalani has defended them all with the same gusto and belief.
Jethmalani was Professor Emeritus at Symbiosis Law School, Pune since 2003. After more than seven decades as a lawyer, Jethmalani announced his retirement from the legal profession in September 2017.