A true lawyer at heart, Ram Jethmalani staunchly believes that it is not enough for a lawyer to know the law. “If he knows only law then he is a mason. The country needs architects,” says he.
“My idea was to make a speech the first day in court. This way I would be famous!” and fame did follow Ram Jethmalani, albeit not with a speech on his first case in Sir Godfrey Davis’ chamber, who was then the Chief Justice of Sind.
Law has been his passion but he had to fight his way to get it. “My father did not want me to be a lawyer but I still wanted to be one and even while my father compelled me to take up science, I continued debating,” talks Jethmalani of his student days. He further adds that, “By God’s act I managed to pass Inter Science and then, defying my father, I went to Law College, as at that time, Bombay University had started a two-year L.L.B. course after intermediate.” Attaining an LL.B. degree at the young age of 17 from Government Law College at Mumbai was quite a feat. In fact, Jethmalani had been a prodigy, even as a child. He had completed matriculation at the age of 13.
Although the minimum age for becoming a lawyer at that time was 21, a special resolution was passed by the Bar Council so that he could become a lawyer at the age of 18. Having completed his degree in law, he then did his Masters from S.C. Sahani Law College, Karachi and continued to practice there for six years. In fact, he had started a firm A.K. Brohi & Co in Sind with Allah Buksh Brohi, who later became the Law Minister of Pakistan. Like Jethmalani, Brohi too had been educated in Bombay and his philosophy, which was based on Buddha and Kant, drew Ram to him. The firm was doing well but the times weren’t. So, when the partition happened, Brohi told him “I can’t bear the responsibility of your safety.” Jethmalani left Karachi and returned to Bombay.
Jethmalani first hit the headlines in 1959 with the famed Nanavati case. Even though he was only watching briefs for the deceased Ahuja, his name was in main stream media. The case marked a turning point in his career. It not only marked his beginning as a criminal lawyer but also his race to the top. Though he has been associated with a number of high-profile cases, yet the one that he is most proud of is the Hindutva case. Says Jethmalani of the landmark judgment: “It is a forensic case. A success of advocacy. Hindutva is a way of life. It is the essence of India’s Constitution.” Expressing his angst at fellow politicians he further adds, “I think our politicians do not understand secularism at all. They have converted secularism into political abuse.”
His political career has been equally riveting. In 1971, he entered politics as an independent candidate with support from the Shiv Sena and the BJP. A few years later, during the days of the Emergency, as Chairman of the Bar Council of India, his criticism of Indira Gandhi resulted in arrest warrants in his name, forcing him to flee the country and seeking political asylum in the United States of America. Incidentally, he was the only Indian to get political asylum in the US. He first came to Parliament in 1977 as part of the anti-Emergency wave. In 1987 he launched the Bharat Mukti Morcha and then again in 1995 he floated the Pavitra Hindustan Kazhagam.
He was part of the BJP government in 1996 and then again in 1998. He served as Law Minister of India and also as Minister of Urban Development in the Vajpayee governments. Interestingly, in 2004 he contested against Atal Bihari Vajpayee from Lucknow. Today, he is a member of the Upper House on a BJP ticket. He says, “Today, I do not have any political ambition. Politics today is search for illicit wealth.”
Not content with being a lawyer for the past 72 years, Jethmalani says he has four parallel professions. Besides being a politician and a Parliamentarian, he is a Professor Emeritus with both Symbiosis, Pune, and Bharti Vidyapeeth, Delhi. He also delivers lectures in foreign universities. He is a political columnist and writers for The Sunday Guardian, a weekly newspaper. “The Sunday Guardian is my baby. I am Chairman of the Board,” he elucidates. His busy schedule has never restricted him and he has “never missed writing the column a single week”.
Born in Shikarpur, Sind, to Boolchand Gurmukhdas Jethmalani and Parvati Boolchand in 1923, Jethmalani’s eyes light up when he talks of his early days in Shikarpur. “A big canal ran by the city. In the summer, people would go up and down the canal or simply float down on kaddus, a familiar pastime when food and eatables used to be sent down the canal. It used to be a very romantic setting. Jars of food would float down with the revellers. Liquor was also part of the merriment,” his face breaking into a boyish grin.
While being married to Durga at the age of 18, in a traditional Indian arranged marriage, he also married Ratna Shahani, a lawyer by profession in 1947. “Ratna and I were friends in Pakistan and we were practically married. When we were migrating to India in 1948 we secretly got married. It was done with the concurrence of my first wife and Hindu laws permitted polygamy.” Today, sadly both Ratna and Durga are no more. Even Rani, his lawyer daughter passed away in 2011. Other lawyers in the family are his son, Mahesh, and Rani’s son, Ali. His older son, Janak, is a Financial Consultant while daughter, Shobha, is a doctor. Both are US citizens.
A true lawyer at heart, he staunchly believes that, “It is not enough for a lawyer to know the law. If he knows only law then he is a mason. The country needs architects.” Known for his independent thoughts and actions irrespective of the consequences, Ram Jethmalani continues to be his own unstoppable self, much admired by many.