The Angry Young Man

Ram Jethmalani’s life reads like a potboiler version of India’s independent history. A sketch of one of the grandest and most controversial of Indian public figures

June 25, 2005 in People
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A few weeks ago, a curious notice appeared at the gates of a famous address, 2 Akbar Road, New Delhi. “I will no longer take up any more legal cases. People are welcome for other reasons.” A legend had come to an end it seemed. Ram Jethmalani, political maverick and criminal lawyer par excellence, was hanging up his boots.

Ram sat in his office soon after, in an uncharacteristically elegiac mood. “I’m 83 darling,” he said, “I have to settle accounts with my god.” He routinely calls even Mamata Banerjee darling.

“Who is your God?” I asked.

“A bumbling fool and a sadist,” he replied. “I’m not even sure he exists, but like a good lawyer, I give him the benefit of doubt.”

Settling Ram Jethmalani’s accounts would indeed require some divine book-keeping. His tumultuous life reads like a pot-boiler history of independent India. Name any event, any people, any high-profile case that makes up the collective memory of Indians in the last 60 years, and one way or the other, Ram has had a hand to play in it. Sometimes as aggressor, sometimes as defender, sometimes as both. The Sanjay Gandhi Maruti case, Emergency, Bofors, Indira Gandhi assassination case, hawala scam, Harshad Mehta scam, Haji Mastan, Parliament attack, Rajneesh, Chandraswami, Mandal Commission case, Hindutva, Laloo Yadav fodder scam, Bombay blasts case, Sanjay Dutt case, Antulay case, Nanavati case, Syed Modi murder case, Punjab problem, Tehelka, Gujarat riots, ntr, mgr, Jayalalitha, Sharad Pawar, Bal Thackeray…

Many mythical archetypes could be moulded to fit Ram Jethmalani, but perhaps the one that sits most naturally is Krishna. Like that irresistibly charming and consummate strategist, Ram is formidably intelligent, has a preternatural sense of right and wrong, and is a wily opportunist. Like him too, he is a joyous libertine.

“Is there anything you would undo about your life, Ram?” I ask.

“My entire private life,” he replies. “I wouldn’t have married early, I wouldn’t have had two wives.”

“And anything professional you would undo?”

“Yes, some cases,” he said. “Today winning leaves me cold, success leaves me cold. I sit in judgment on my clients. I would be more selective in my work.”

A week later, the elegiac mood has ebbed. Ram’s cat is amok in the coop. In the space of a week, he has won and lost two high-profile cases. He has got the Hindujas off the hook in the Bofors scam, but been unable to extricate Swami Premananda of Trichy from the charge of raping 13 girls. The week could pass for a précis of his life. Not content with the tally on his carbine, Ram has shot his gun off in different directions.

In an article in The Asian Age detailing the legal explanation for the Hinduja victory, Ram writes, “Though I led the attack on late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, I had no difficulty in recanting when I saw the final testimony… In retrospect, the nation should be grateful to those who bought it for us.” Obviously, this is a shocking statement. Ram was famously the prime aggressor in the Bofors case. It was one of the defining moments of his life. His 10 questions to Rajiv, piercing, uncomfortable, published daily in The Indian Express, emblazoned the issue in people’s minds. Later, he almost single-handedly kept up pressure on the case through successive governments, even tolerating dubious Chandraswami and arms dealer, Adnan Khashoggi’s company because he thought they could provide some evidence. What could his change in stance now mean?

Was this an unusual act of moral courage? Was this a rare man, uncommonly secure, marching to the demanding sound of an internal drum? Or was this opportunism of the worst kind? Which of these was the key to the quintessential Ram?

“You must love the gods, but never more once the greater gods arrive,” says Ram, with characteristic individuality and acuity. “To be doggedly loyal is a low form of honesty. Honest lawyers must react honestly to evidence. Everything is under suspicion till the evidence is presented.”

Ram has displayed great piety for the rule of law in the past. A passionate believer in every individual’s right to defence, he espoused Kehar Singh and Balbir Singh’s case — accused as accomplices of Indira Gandhi’s assassins — at a time when the country reviled them. The bjp expelled him from vice presidentship of the party for this. But Ram stood resolute. He had Kehar Singh acquitted. This, his defence of sar Geelani in the Parliament attack case, his defence of the Mandal Commission report, and his argument in the Hindutva case are now seen as some of his finest moments.

But with Ram it is never easy to distinguish between higher morality and convenience. Ever the public crusader, he initiated the pil that forced investigation into the hawala scam in the mid-1990s. A couple of years later, he defended LK Advani, one of the accused in the case. Ram has fine points for why this is perfectly tenable, primarily that the evidence — always Ram’s “greater god” — against Advani was weak. But he admits there was also a quid pro quo. When the bjp next came to power, Ram was installed as the law minister.

This capacity for the agile moral position — crusader against institutional corruption, on the one hand, and passionate defender of individual right, on the other, regardless of whether that individual is a criminal or cheat, presents inevitable conundrums. Uniquely, Ram doesn’t need any detractors. Those who love him most dearly express the perplexing combine of affection, awe and exasperation he evokes.

“Ram is the height of obstinacy. He never compromises on his integrity. It’s just that he convinces himself that he is right. He’s saying all this about Bofors because suddenly his politics has changed,” says lawyer and friend, Kamini Jaiswal. “I have never seen anybody so brilliant and so stupid. At the fag end of his life, people are questioning his credibility.”

“Would he clear Rajiv Gandhi if he wasn’t so irritated with the bjp?” asks his biographer and friend, Nalini Gera. “He shouldn’t be so quick to initiate
action if he is going to change course later.”

Ram’s defence would be that the courts have cleared Rajiv Gandhi on the strength of evidence presented. He is merely bowing at its altar.

“My father is an extremist on a pendulum,” laughs lawyer, Mahesh Jethmalani. “He still hasn’t graduated from being a superb iconoclast to being an elderly statesman. He is still the angry young man. If I were to judge him as a man, my harshest criticism would be that he is singularly lacking in sobriety.”

Yet, the lack of sobriety — an indispensable cousin of courage — is what makes Ram so uniquely who he is: young, immense, thundering, generous-hearted, larger than life. And as impulsive as the gods.

As the Bofors argument lapped around him last week, Ram also shot off a signed letter to the legal fraternity questioning the “intellectual inadequacy” of some Supreme Court judges. The provocation? The Swami Premananda case he had lost. Ram’s contention is that the judges had displayed poor knowledge of criminal law: they had
upheld patently false evidence against the Swami procured through police beatings.

Predictably, the letter has created a stink. “How can Ram put himself out on a limb on a case he has lost?” groans Jaiswal. But the conventional imprudence of such things does not faze him. “I have lost many cases,” says he, “I’ve not raised questions on all of them. This is about an important point in law.”

It is apiece with the legends of Ram that he is probably one among a rare handful of people, if not the only person, who can or has challenged Supreme Court judges without incurring contempt of court. He has done this with Justice Ramaswamy, Justice MM Punchhi and most recently, with Chief Justice Anand. As Ram famously retorted during his stand-off with Justice Anand, “Tell the judge, he is dealing with a law minister who knows his law as well as anyone else.” This is the other truism about Ram: he only picks on people his own size: Sanjay Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Atal Behari Vajpayee, Subramaniam Swamy.

In his office the second evening, Ram sits at his desk surrounded by voluminous books by Nirad C Chaudhuri, Ambedkar and Nehru. He is 83. He is to leave for the US the next morning, but he is setting out to write a piece on Jinnah. No publication has asked him to. It is just the raging topic of the moment and Ram cannot resist the urge to have his say.

In a sense, this is the dynamo that keeps Ram ticking. He has an unusual gift for getting to the heart of things, of cutting through the fog. And he knows he is blessed. This makes him want to be centrestage. It makes him want to have the dominant voice. In many ways, he is an innocent. Because he believes in his gifts and is without malice, he believes the world is always ready for him. A few years ago, it made him aspire for Presidentship of the country. Both his enemies and his loved ones would agree it was one of his most naive decisions. Ram would wonder why.

Few heroes live up to their reputation in the flesh. In Ram’s case the reputation is almost hyper real. As law minister, apparently he often travelled without security. Once, caught in the rain in Pune, a little distance from his Mercedes, he casually thumbed down a passing ride to the utter astonishment of its passengers. Another story has it that when his house was raided during the Emergency, Ram was at his favourite pastime, playing badminton. “Tell them to carry on,” he said, “I’ll finish my game and come.” Another time, he dragged himself out of a hospital bed after an angioplasty, doctor in tow, to argue a habeus corpus case for the Akali chief, HS Longowal. Yet another story has it that when Jaswant Singh called Ram for his resignation as law minister, he said without faltering, “I’m in a car just now. Tell the prime minister, as soon as I reach a fax, he shall have it.” Lawyer, Prashant Bhushan’s favourite story is about Ram’s fearlessness during the Sikh pogroms of 1984. Faced by an irate mob in East Delhi, Ram sat down squarely in front of the crowd refusing to budge till they had disbanded. Other stories abound: cases Ram has done for free for destitute women and freedom fighters; money orders he has sent to hopeful prisoners in Coimbatore jail.

As associate, Lata Krishnamurthy says, “Ram is a big human being. Everything about him is big. There isn’t a petty bone in his body.”

Still, perhaps uniquely, Ram is bigger in real life than his image sets him up to be. Tehelka experienced this first hand when he defended it against the government in the Venkataswami Commission. Foot placed insolently — tactically — on a stool, hand in pocket, voice booming, teasing, suddenly exploding, in three days Ram had run a lance through the government’s case and exposed its perjury. The judge was eating out of his hand, the witnesses were whimpering, and the law officers of the land were running for cover. It was a spectacle of a lifetime. Classic Ram.

The day Ram does hang up his boots, India will lose its most preeminent criminal and trial lawyer. He is a master of cross-examination, “almost prophetic” as Arun Jaitley puts it, about what his witness will say in the stand. That gift for prophecy comes out of very hard work. Ram is capable of working with unbroken concentration for 12-14 straight hours, preparing for a cross-examination. I once watched him at work. Surrounded by a team of lawyers and clients and pin drop silence. Brief, sharp questions. Bouts of intense reading. One glass of water in the entire day. We wilted, asked for food, got up for breaks. Ram worked with monastic discipline till late evening. Then he dismissed us for his own ritual preparation: a time when he introspects, meditates, walks the paths his questioning will take the next day, checking every route like a meticulous security detail for flaws and snags and hidden detonations.

“Cross-examination is a dying art,” says he. “You have to be able to sniff out the guilt. Lawyers forget the most important thing is not law, it is facts.” The highest god. Armed with facts and a brilliant, precise mind, Ram can be an unstoppable force. A little like Krishna’s discus.

Except, his divine weaponry can sometimes be utilised in distressing directions. As Mahesh Jethmalani says, “The worst thing Ram has ever done has been to take Shiv Sena support to win as an independent. But he has arguments to justify that also.”

Ram was a prodigious child, who finished school when he was 13, and law school when he was 17.

A consummate original, he admits to few influences. His father was an unimaginative autocrat who left Ram cold, his mother was an uneducated woman whom he began to protect from the age of five. But there are two people who touched him. The first is the elusive literary genius, GV Desani, who apparently taught Ram briefly when he was in Class 3 in New Era School in Shikarpur. “I once read out a long speech he wrote, something about President Roosevelt and a cuckoo. Then he suddenly disappeared from our lives,” says Ram.

The other was Allahbaksh Karimbaksh Brohi, a brilliant lawyer, several years older, who Ram persuaded to start a law firm with him. Brohi, who went on to become Pakistan’s first law minister, ignited Ram with the “power and magic of language to sway the human mind.” For years, he was also Ram’s moral lodestar. “I judged the morality of things by imagining what Brohi would say about it,” says he.

For all his extroversion, Ram is a loner. When the bjp dismissed him as law minister — an incident his friends rank as amongst the most low points in his life — he called no one, not his wives, not his children, not his lovers. He just switched his phone off. He is also curiously a hedonist-ascetic. When he was 11, he was sent to a brahmachari hostel. In the bitter winter of Sindh, the boys were hauled out at four in the morning for lathi practice and wrestling. Ram hated it then, but it instilled in him a lasting discipline. Now, even when he cavorts late into the night, he still wakes early, practises yoga, chants the mrityunjay mantra — which chanted 500,000 times is supposed to free one from the cycle of life — and plays badminton like a fanatic.

A few years into his marriage with second wife, Ratna, Ram went to Damascus on a conference where he was impossibly taken with a dancing girl called Ima, who only spoke Arabic. Ram spent long hours with her at night, standing on his head for a bit in his hotel room to gather his thoughts and reenergise himself, before attending the conference at 7.30 each morning. Returning to India, he started learning Arabic, even making a trip to Damascus to look for Ima when her letters ceased to come.
The innings as a libertine has been as eventful as the public life. Terry McGovern, an American socialite, his daughter’s age, has been one of Ram’s other declared loves. As he quips, “Worship the gods, only till the higher gods arrive.” More seriously, he says, “I loved Ratna and was loyal to her in every way except sexually. I am also loyal to the memory of every woman I have loved or slept with. I am a free soul.”

Slivers, again, of the Ram brand of morality. Liberated, broad, unconventional, and difficult for others to swallow.

As a lover and close associate of Ram says, “It’s almost scary, he’s not human, he can’t be touched. He just can’t belong to anybody. He will buy his freedom at any cost. He has a knack for giving people what they need, but he never gives himself fully. He walks fast, never waits for anyone. He says, I have places to go to, if you can keep up that’s fine.”

Naive, innocent, misguided, a poor judge of people. Or a brilliant man with an instinct for truth that is ahead of his time? Shanti Bhushan, a legendary lawyer and ex-minister himself, has an apt summation for Ram. “Ram has had a great life of which anyone can be envious,” says he. “He has been a great lawyer who has had immense courage of conviction. He has also been a brilliant politician who has been interested in getting important things done. In every way, Ram is an exceptional human being.”

Last year, Ram stood for election against Vajpayee in Lucknow. It was a suicide mission. He was ailing, he had no supporters. But he saw it as an important symbolic fight. As always with Ram though, one could see it from a different point of view. Speaking of Sonia Gandhi in another context, he says, “The greatest act of intelligence is to know the limit of one’s intelligence.” In an ironic moment, Ram could have been speaking of himself.

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