Interview: Flamboyant Legal Eagle, Ram Jethmalani
Celebrated lawyer. Crusader against corruption—but also advocate of “crooks.” Trouble shooter, trouble maker, and ladies’ man. Ram Jethmalani, arguably India’s most famous—some would say infamous—litigator and politician, wears several hats with equanimity and loves calling a spade a shovel.
At 92, Ram Jethmalani holds the distinction of being India’s oldest practising lawyer. He has seen a changing nation, right from its modern birth, through the prism of law. Beginning his career as a lawyer at the young age of 17 in the Sindh province of pre-Partition India, Ram became a force to contend with, both in court and the political arena. Apart from his legendary cross-examination skills in court, he is known for being fearlessly outspoken and has no qualms about calling a crook a crook and a fool a fool, no matter how powerful or influential his target.
His accomplishments in the fields of law and politics are formidable—law professor, law minister, and minister of urban affairs. He is also India’s most aged Member of Parliament. The diminutive Jethmalani holds the record of being one of the most high-priced lawyers in India and has defended a motley crew of crooks, swindlers, murderers, and underworld figures, from the killers of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi to the murderer of Jessica Lal, and has even defended the don Haji Mastan. He has also defended high profile political figures, including former Gujarat Minister Amit Shah in the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case.
There’s yet another side to this fascinating, complex man. He’s an unlikely Robin Hood who often works pro bono for the poor and downtrodden, subsidizing these cases with the stratospheric fees paid by his enviable list of well-heeled clients. Ask Jethmalani about this aspect of his work and he shrugs nonchalantly: “And what are my needs? My children are all doing well. How much money do I need? With 10 per cent of my clients, I earn enough to make a very comfortable, almost royal existence,” he says.
Ram’s personal life is as quirky and offbeat as his professional one. For one, he has two wives from two legal marriages. Dapper as ever at 92, he’s clearly an accomplished charmer. Every woman—age and appearance no bar—is a ‘darling’ and ‘honey’ who cannot but fail to respond to his chutzpah and ready wit. Quiz him about his affinity for women and he is unfazed: “People are jealous and they talk of it and I make them more jealous.” And what makes Ram, Ram? Pat comes the repartee: “Why don’t you ask the girls?”
In a life so flamboyantly lived, both accomplishments and controversies jostle for prime position, and a new biography by Susan Adelman documents them all. The Rebel is a hefty, well researched volume that covers Jethmalani’s journey from his early days in Sindh to current times, presenting India’s turbulent modern history through the prism of his experiences from the harsh days of the Emergency to the rise of Hindutva, the tragedy of Babri Masjid, the Kashmir issue, terrorism, and more.
“Critics complain that Ram fights institutional corruption but he defends the rights of criminals,” writes Adelman. “That is true—he believes just as much in individual rights of everyone as he does in his cherished ideal of the heroic lawyer who stands up against oppression, fights injustice, and is a guardian of freedom. Despite being in personal peril, Ram waded in with 50 lawyers to intercept a bloody pogrom against Sikhs in Delhi after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination.”
In the book, Adelman also takes on some controversial aspects of the maverick lawyer-politician.
“Ram has fought for years against the Gandhi dynasty and its trail of corruption, yet he defends corrupt politicians,” she writes. “He rails against dacoits in political power who impoverish India, but he represents stockbrokers who personify corruption. In his mind, these are not contradictions. He feels a responsibility to expose corruption to sunlight but also to make sure that every citizen, even if corrupt, has proper representation in court.”
The book records not only Jethmalani’s hits but also his misses, including the time he ran against Atal Bihari Vajpayee for the Lok Sabha and lost, as well as his expulsion from the BJP. His defending of Manu Sharma in the Jessica Lal murder case was also hugely unpopular.
In politics Jethmalani has flitted from party to party, including BJP, RSS, Shiv Sena and even Congress. He jokingly told Adelman, “If you call me a political flirt, flirting is one of my great strengths.”
The maverick, at 92, hasn’t slowed down. Appearing (left), in October, at Indo American Art Council’s Literary Festival in New York. (Photo: Lavina Melwani)
On a recent visit to New York to attend Indo American Art Council’s Literary Festival along with Susan Adelman, Ram Jethmalani engaged in a lively discussion with author Hindol Sengupta and lawyer Devika Kewalramani. At his irrepressible best, Jethmalani shared vignettes from his long and many-hued life experiences to a spellbound audience. Later, he spoke to Khabar. Following are excerpts from the discussion as well as the interview.
You grew up in Sindh, in what is now Pakistan. Tell us about your childhood years and how that has influenced your thinking?
I loved Sindh where I was born, and I still love Sindh and Pakistan, which of course I did help to create. Sindh was known for a great synthesis of Hinduism and Islam, that is Sufism, and most Sindhis are Sufis. Our greatest poet was Shah Abdul Latif, one of the greatest Sufis that you can think of.
When Partition came and rivers of blood were flowing throughout the country, not one Sindhi Hindu was ever killed by a Sindhi Muslim, because of the influence of Sufism and the kind of cultural affinity and unity that we had developed. The Hindus were driven out not by Sindhi Muslims but by Muslims who came in from India and claimed Sindh as their homeland.
What are your thoughts on today’s Pakistan?
While I was living in that refugee camp for a while, I came to one firm conclusion that India and Pakistan must become friends or both will be ruined. It is still my belief in spite of terrible acts of misbehavior from Pakistan against India, and I must tell you this is the typical reaction of the Sindhi Hindu.
I continue to believe that India and Pakistan must become friends and I have lived up to it, I have suffered for that belief, I am still willing to suffer more.
You have said that you do things because of your conscience, not because of popularity. But does your conscience not bite you when, in the course of the case you learn that the person is indeed guilty, and yet you have to find technical loopholes to help him avoid justice?
My conscience doesn’t bother me—my intellect bothers me that I have been made a fool of!
How do you deal with that, if that happens?
Then you change your technique, change your means according to the ends that you want to achieve. Now if I have to oppose Modi, I went to Bihar and campaigned against him. And I am going to tell you almost certainly, he is going to lose. Doesn’t matter, Nitish and Lalu combination will come. [This interview was prior to the Bihar election results.]
Alcohol and ice cream are two items that are considered bad for your health. You, it has been reported, consume alcohol daily and eat ice cream frequently, and yet at age 92, are going strong. Why do you think that is?
Alcohol is something which has to be taken in moderation. It is elixir of life provided you know how to control it. If it takes control of your life, you are a goner. I don’t take more than two drinks. Mere ko maar dalo, main do drinks se zyada nahin peeta, kabhie. I keep good health, I eat very little.
Of course, ice cream is my favorite sweet dish in the end, and a moderate amount of sugar and milk in is good. And milk also, frozen milk they say now, the latest discovery of medical science, that yogurt is digested milk. I take one cup of ice cream, I love it! And I will not stop eating my ice cream and drinking my whisky merely because some press people don’t like it!
You have had a long and prolific career in law and politics and have got to see a changing India firsthand. Seen through your eyes, where is India headed?
Things were so bad from 2004 onwards that a change was absolutely essential. A person like Rahul Gandhi was being projected as future Prime Minister of the country, and obviously the people trusted Modi. They may not have trusted BJP and the kind of leaders that they had at that time. Modi came to people as a change, and I was at that time an expelled member of the BJP, but I still supported him and, therefore, the BJP. But so far, I think that he has been failing, and he is failing because of the choice of his advisors. He will have to take a bold step to get rid of them—otherwise they will get rid of him.
You had endorsed Narendra Modi wholeheartedly. What are your thoughts now?
Narendra Modi, according to my judgment, was the best possible candidate compared to those who were in the field. I believe that the BJP had no other candidate comparable to him, and that is why during the election campaign, in spite of the fact that I was an expelled member of the BJP at the time, I worked for Narendra Modi. I went around the country and almost did more work for him than anyone in his own party did … but when the results of the election were announced, I wrote in my piece in the Sunday Guardian, I said “Dear Mr. Modi, congratulations on your spectacular success. I am very happy that I have some small contribution to make to your success. But I am writing this only to tell the country that so far as I am concerned I want no return of any kind from you. I must remind you that I am living in the departure lounge of God’s airport and I want nothing from you—and nothing means nothing! For God’s sake, now fulfil your promises to the people.”
And do you believe he has fulfilled those promises?
Now you are asking me a very difficult question! When the election results were announced, this is what I wrote, but soon after, I became disillusioned. First about his promise that he will get back the black money, which was supposed to be $1500 billion and his promise to the people that ‘I will get that money and in every voter’s pocket I will put Rs. 15 lakh.’ Now this promise was quite capable of being fulfilled but he did not fulfill it.
So did you follow up on this black money issue?
I kept writing to him that I am losing all my faith in the promises you have made to the people of this country. And suddenly he appointed a party president, who was my client at one time, who made a public statement that all talk about the recovery of black money was an election joke. He called it in his own language a joomla (a gimmick). I said, “My God! If your party president has said this and you have not repudiated it nor are you doing anything to recover the money, I am beginning to lose faith in you.”
Now what can I do with Mr Modi that he has not collected in one year even one dollar… And when I asked a question in Parliament, his Finance Minister, that rogue, said that I am trying to enter into double taxation avoidance fees with various governments of the world—these exist but they have nothing to do with these dacoits who have stolen this money! I have no difficulty in calling [Arun Jaitley] a crook and you report it, crooks are always fools also … I have now finally told Modi that I am on the war path and he can do whatever he likes. I no longer trust him.
In 2013, you had said that Modi is 100% secular. But in a July 2015 interview you said that secularism is under serious threat in India. So what do you feel is the outlook for secularism in India under the Modi government?
Secularism today is in danger, but it is not in danger merely because of Modi. It is also [because of] the “major minority” in the country, the Muslim minority. They want Hindus to be secular but they don’t want to be secular themselves. So secularism is in great danger from that vast Muslim majority, because at least these people are, in a sense, patriotic.
Who do you think is the best Prime Minister India has ever had?
Lal Bahadur Shastri—there is nobody to match his integrity and honesty and the kind of work that he did. He is the first person who appointed a commission to investigate the phenomena of corruption. He has been almost wiped out of Indian history… it is a great injustice done to the memory of that man.
Recovering India’s black money has been one of your cherished dreams. Do you think it will happen in your lifetime or even in another generation?
It won’t happen so long as Modi and Arun Jaitley are in power.
But who else is there? Who can make a change?
There is some hope in the Supreme Court. Because this matter is still to be fought in the Supreme Court, it is still being fought.
So you mean that finally [hope does lie] with the rule of law in India?
There is no other hope, there is no other way. Either you surrender to a theocratic state—most of these Muslim states are the example—or you have plain dictatorship. So you have to have democracy and secular democracy at that, and I believe that whatever you might say about the [Hindu majority], a large, large majority of Hindus are genuinely secular.
If you say Hindus are secular, isn’t there a rise of communalism amongst many Hindus?
On the contrary, with the slightest secularism on the part of a Muslim, we treat him as a god. The imam of the biggest mosque in Delhi, he asked his followers not to attend the meetings of Anna Hazare. What was the reason that he gave? That they are singing "Vande Mataram" there. Look at them, they get away with murder.
But then a case happens where a man is murdered for eating beef!
That was foolish!
That is why there is concern and anxiety. The Hindu extremists do foolish things at times...
They do that. But what can you do? After all, that is the fault of democracy not being in the hands of educated people. Democracy without education is hypocrisy without limitation—that is the saying!
STORY OF A MAVERICK...
Dr. Susan Adelman, MD, biographer of Ram Jethmalani, is also an author, a pediatric surgeon, and an artist. A resident of Seattle, Washington, she has known the Jethmalani family for decades.
“Ram calls himself a sinner with a clean cconscience. Indeed much of his lifestyle is an open book, much of it known, for better or for worse, by the whole country. The parts the public does not know about would be the yoga, the regular push-ups, and the treadmill he uses daily in Pune. He also chants a mantra, which once it has been chanted 500,000 times, is supposed to give freedom from the cycle of life. He once told me that if he loses a night of sleep he can make up for it by the simple expedient of standing on his head. Now he no longer does it. People may not know of his daily 8 a.m. badminton game before breakfast when he is in Delhi or Mumbai. They might guess, though, if they saw him walking purposefully through the airport every few days, at age 90.”
—Susan Adelman, in The Rebel.
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