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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 8, New Delhi, February 6, 2021

Book Review: Ram Jethmalani - A Perennial Rebel | M R Narayan Swamy

Saturday 6 February 2021, by M R Narayan Swamy

Title: The Rebel: A Biography of Ram Jethmalani; Author: Susan Adelman; Publishers: Shobhaa De Books (An Imprint of Penguin Random House): Pages: 607; Price: Rs 550

The legendary Ram Jethmalani, who passed away just before turning 96, was one of the most successful lawyers the Indian sub-continent produced. A legal craftsman, a part-time politician, a maverick of sorts, a quintessential Sindhi, an admirer of good looking women till the very end… Ram was all this and more. Just how did he become such a force in the Indian Bar? What were his politics? Was he communal? Why did he tick? From a vantage point as a family friend, Susan Adelman has comprehensively explored his fascinating life journey, which is almost like reading a history of India, post 1947 in particular.

Born in Sindh in British India on September 14, 1923, Ram’s initial education cost his father Rs 4 a month. This is when he picked up English, soon to become a master of that language, making him, many would say, the best English-speaking lawyer in the world. At his next school, he was a star, winning a debating prize and attracting the attention of the Sindh Model School, 38 km away where he again became a champion debater – qualities that would stand him in good stead. After a brief and sad marriage with engineering studies, Ram finally entered the SC Shahani Law College in 1939 in Karachi, graduating at age 17 with a first class first, beginning law practice at age 18 and winning his very first case.

Ram stayed on in Karachi even after independence hoping the communal madness would die down. But that was not to be. So, on February 18, 1948, when things became too hot in Karachi what with thousands of Muslims pouring in from India, Ram took a Dakota plane to Bombay, using a ticket a client had given him as fee. He was horrified to find his family, which had come in earlier, in a squalid refugee camp. They moved into a rented house and Ram began life all over again. The first month he earned Rs 30 writing three notices – and spent Rs 60 on rent. In his second month, Ram made Rs 1,300. There was no looking back after that. In his very first year, he became the only Sindhi refugee to pay income tax.

Bombay overflowed with Sindhi refugees including some who remembered Ram from his Karachi days. Everyone had legal problems: disputes over titles, property rights, rents, hundis, deeds, partnership contracts, petty criminal matters and of course issues with the municipality. Ram’s practice started in the lowest court of Bombay, of small claims or small cases court. One lawyer gave him three pro bono cases which gave Ram, the book says, a chance to make a solid impression on the Sindhi community.

As it was to happen again and again in his career, Ram gained early notoriety by defending four dacoits who had grabbed at gunpoint bags of money meant to be paid to Tata textile workers on Bruce Street in Bombay on January 10, 1949. He also handled several high-profile legal cases related to the Sindhis including one which forced the Bombay High Court to declare the Bombay Refugees Act ultra vires. “Ram says this was the case that made his career.” Ram took up the issue of Sindhi language, forcing the Education Ministry to rule that it could be taught in both the Perso-Arabic and the Devanagari scripts. At 27, Ram came to be known as the man who saved Sindhi language from extinction in India.

Ram kept winning one case after another, earning both fame and money besides a large following. According to Susan, he would first study a complicated case alone, often waking up at 4 a.m. He would read the written documents slowly and with great concentration. He not only compiled thick books of notes but read far beyond what is necessary for the case. He would cross-examine the client at length. By the time he approached a judge, he knew the facts and the law. A clerk once gave him the wrong brief but Ram still argued the case brilliantly from memory.

Ram had a strong political bend of mind. He viewed the 1962 Chinese invasion of India as a national humiliation. He was a great friend of Israel. He loathed Jawaharlal Nehru – both for his love for socialism and what he said was cowardice after the 1962 war. He also had a poor opinion of Indira Gandhi – calling her “a dropout from Oxford” – for her lack of democratic credentials and for letting Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto hoodwink her at the 1972 Shimla meet. When the Emergency was declared, Ram went to the U.S. to campaign against Indira Gandhi where he became the first Indian to get political asylum. In the 1977 elections, Ram was elected to the Lok Sabha by a massive margin.

Ram has rushed towards major flashpoints including Punjab and Kashmir, supremely confident that he can be sufficiently conciliatory and broadminded, with animus towards none. He was widely criticized for defending the two assassins of Indira Gandhi; but that was not true. He only defended the two alleged co-conspirators. Even the BJP ditched him, demanding his resignation as its Vice President. He was devastated when Kehar Singh, who he was convinced was innocent, went to the gallows. Much later, Kehar Singh’s son came to him seeking a job. Ram hired him and the son worked in his office for 10 years.

Ram has often been accused of defending reprehensible people including smugglers, other criminals, sleazy politicians and money-making middlemen. In a few cases, even his immediate family turned against him. But he has also taken up innumerable cases pro bono, legal parlance for free consultation, in the process helping many who could have never afforded a good lawyer. Ram has been accused of being a political flirt, now in the BJP and now out of it, once a Vajpayee fan and then his foe, once passionately pro-Modi and then against him, pro-Congress once and pro-Shiv Sena later, starting his own political party which did not last long, and finally, when he died, being with Laloo Prasad’s RJD. For long he bitterly fought Subramanian Swamy, only to become a friend!

Whatever may be his shortcomings, Ram spiritedly battled corruption, even if the source was within the legal fraternity. His role in establishing the National Law Schools in India is least recognized. He is the de facto father of India’s Freedom of Information Act because when he was Union Urban Affairs Minister he ruled that anyone who could pay a nominal fee could read his ministry records – setting the stage for the path-breaking legislation. He was into election law, constitutional law, criminal law, civil rights, preventive detention and family law … almost everything. But his forte was rules of evidence and his amazing cross-examination which would mesmerize both the judges as well as the rivals. On a personal level, Ram was always charitable. His philosophy was never to say ‘no’ to any beggar. Despite his close association with the BJP, he had great love for Islam. Even at age 90 he remained vigorously active, thanks to yoga, regular push-ups and the use of treadmill. By 2010-11, Ram was one of the highest paid lawyers in India.

This was a remarkable achievement for a man who came from Pakistan virtually penniless. Susan’s wonderful biography tells you how it happened.

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