Book Review – The Rebel – A biography of Ram Jethmalani.
The 92-year-old irrepressible Ram Jethmalani described at times as a maverick is acclaimed as the best legal brain in the country. He revels in controversy which has kept him in the spotlight and has vehemently opposed the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Married to two women at the same time which was accepted stoicly by Rani’s mother Durga, the family was patriarchal hailing as he did from Sindh in Pakistan.
Sindhis from this region married four or five times. At the same time he has refused to talk about some of his escapades and dalliances when he was 19.
The author Susan Adelman, a paedriatic surgeon and her husband Martin Adelman have been friends of Ram and his family for more than four decades. He loves to shock. If asked for his views about God, he may answer “God is a bumbling fool and a sadist. I am not even sure that he exists, but like a good lawyer, I give him the benefit of doubt”.
His critics complain Ram fights institutional corruption but he defends the rights of criminals. He is a lawyer who stands up against oppression, fights injustice and is a guardian of freedom.
Despite being in peril, Ram “waded in with 50 lawyers to intercept a bloody pogrom against Sikhs in Delhi after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination on October 31, 1984. His creative questions and original arguments are a matter of legend often offered to the great amusement of the court. He is the most pro-Israel politician in Asia. He was a strong champion of Israel when the government would not allow an Israeli embassy in India.
He has never been sectarian and lectures widely about the peaceful beginnings of Islam. He has argued a landmark case in which he contrasted Hindutva with Hinduism. He believes in astrology and wistfully remembers the gentle sufis of his childhood in Sindh. He has been variously called the Father of Social Justice in India and overcame great odds to establish reservations to help backward classes.
Sindhis are a minority community in India and that is probably why he vehemently defends the rights of all minorities. Ram shot into prominence during the Emergency from 1975 to 1977 when he was chairman of the Bar Council of India and a powerful opponent of the Indira Gandhi regime. In Washington DC he spoke eloquently about the Emergency before a Congressional committee.
He was first elected a member of Parliament on his return to this country immediately after the Emergency was lifted and elections called. Above all he is the grand master of the rules of evidence and cross examination. He was the first person to receive political asylum in America during the Emergency. He recalls being impressed with Muhammed Ali Jinnah arguing three cases in court even though he lost them. After Jinnah graduated from Law school he went to a Hindu lawyer in Karachi to interview for a position with him. The lawyer told him his qualifications were excellent; then they began to talk salary. Jinnah insisted on Rs 100 a month but the Hindu refused to go over Rs 75, so Jinnah returned to Bombay (now Mumbai) which obviously provided a wider platform. “If the Hindu had not been a miser, there would not have been a Pakistan.”
In many ways Ram’s law practice began in 1948 and his career is also the story of India. His family first found that Ratna Shahani had entered his life in 1952. She was the first female lawyer that he had ever met. Her persona contrasted sharply with that of Durga. He married Ratna in Delhi because bigamy was illegal in Bombay.
Critics disparage Ram as a smugglers’ lawyer. He simply told people “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 this wealth.”
Less than ten years after he arrived in Bombay his first case was registered in the Supreme Court in 1957. This was a refugee matter that tested the constitutionality of the Bombay Land Requisition Act.
Many of the other cases involved smugglers apprehended under various customs acts particularly the Customs Act of 1962. One of his former junior Sri Jaisinghani said smugglers once constituted 90 per cent of Ram’s practice. After 1962 smuggling soared and along with it a massive black market.
India was rife with schemes to covert black money to white. It seemed that everyone knew how the rich spent their black money and where to get the best exchange rates.
Ram uses his arts of rhetoric, cross examination and sly innuendo. There is no secret to his techniques beyond their cleverness, clarity and originality. He has encyclopaedic knowledge of the law. Even judges are in awe. Lawyers have heard a judge ask Ram on several occasions to give the exact language of a statute. He teaches students that “great milestones of the law have not been laid in cases of respectable people but with people who are disreputable.”
About Israel, he has always explained that the Sindhis are the Jews of India. He has been highly critical of India’s posture against Israel especially during the Indira Gandhi government. Even though India extended formal recognition to Israel in 1950, Israel was not allowed to open an embassy in Delhi until 1992. His house was the de facto Israeli embassy in India.
Ram’s life in Parliament combined politics with his law practice. He hoped to be law minister but Prime Minister Morarji Desai gave that portfolio to Shanti Bhushan. It was Ram’s belief that he was not appointed law minister because Desai was a teetotaller and he drank Scotch. He loved to jibe that even if Desai drank his own urine in the morning, he preferred scotch at dinner time.
When Desai promoted prohibition, Ram said “I will keep drinking to keep my right to drink alive.” On one occasion when Desai chided him to behave, he replied “You stick to your pissky and I’ll stick to my whisky…”
One of the remarkable aspects of Ram’s career is how he moves easily among cases of criminal law, family law, contract law and constitutional law. It is widely believed he knows more law than any other lawyer in India.
After Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Sikh revenge was seen as malevolent revenge and by defending them Ram was seen to be on the wrong side, the public even signalling their displeasure with demonstrations against him. BJP requested Ram to resign as party vice president and he did. This time the resignation was accepted and this was the most disastrous move in his career. Otherwise he would have become the Prime Minister. He was satisfied with sacrificing his own interests for a cause. He often acts first on his gut feeling, and uses his brilliance later to justify his actions.
After losing his parliament seat in 1985, Ram was in political wilderness. He returned to the Rajya Sabha from Karnataka in 1988. He started a political party Bharat Mukti Morcha and disbanded it. He stoutly counters the criticism that he only defends reprehensible people. Even the lowest of society have the same right to constitutional protection as those in the higher strata. The job of a criminal lawyer is to defend criminals. “Where some may see a criminal lawyer without morals, others may see a social reformer fighting for equal rights.” He has told the media that his last remaining political aspiration is to get rid of India’s corrupt leadership and replace it with an honest government.
His “larger and final objective” is to see the major democracies of the world — the US, Israel, India and Japan — unite to promote the ideals of democracy for all. He has given interviews observing “Today I’m living in the departure lounge, waiting for my delayed flight to leave.” A highly incisive and compelling biography of Ram Jethmalani always the rebel.