Why do I feel a personal sense of loss about the death on Sunday of Ram Jethmalani, a man with whom I had such deep ideological differences?
The first time I had an open confrontation with Jethmalani was when he came to Bangalore to teach at the National Law School. He was at a meeting at which he defended the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992. I saw how his words hit at a Muslim historian, who quietly walked out of the meeting; not as a protest but as a sign of humiliation.
I stood up and called Jethmalani a fascist and walked out of the meeting hoping others would follow, but none did. The next day, I saw Jethmalani at the National Law School, where I was teaching. He smiled and said hello with a twinkle in his eye. Despite all my reservations, I felt respect for him at that moment.
The next time I met Ram Jethmalani was at his home when I went with a request to him to take up the case of one of the accused in the 2001 Parliament attack case, SAR Geelani, who had just been sentenced to death by the trial court.
I told him that I believed Geelani supported the cause of Kashmiri nationalism but he was not guilty of being a part of the conspiracy to attack the Indian parliament. Jethmalani said he would first like to meet Geelani’s wife.
Ram Jethmalani asked Arifa to swear that her husband was innocent and she did. He agreed to take up the case even though it was in the High Court and he only appeared before the Supreme Court.
He insisted that I assist him along with Kamini Jaiswal. I am very grateful for the opportunity it gave me to work with him, and I quickly found out that he was a hard taskmaster.
A hard taskmaster
Jethmalani expected us to be at his desk by 8.30 or 9 in the morning even if we had left his office past midnight. I remember the number of times I picked up his phone and his clear, strict voice: “Girls, why are you not here?”
One night, when we were working very late and we three lawyers were feeling very tired and hungry, a friend dropped in to see Jethmalani. The friend apologised for interrupting our session, and Arvind Nigam spontaneously said, “Thank god you have rescued us from Ram.”
A few days after the hearings started in the parliament attack case, I broke my rib when I fell near the prison gate after a legal visit to see Geelani. I came limping into Jethmalani’s chamber, and he looked up from his desk and asked me for a case. There was no question of any distractions when we were working, and I need not have expected sympathy. This was not about being human but about discipline and professionalism.
At one point in the case, Ram Jethmalani had gone to London because his daughter was seriously ill and had been admitted to hospital. Even from there, he asked me to send him some files. It did not matter whether he was doing the case pro bono or was charging the client. He put in the same amount of work – and towards the end of his life, each case he took up was a challenge.
I was amazed to discover how deeply he believed in the rule of the law, and he believed in upholding the Constitutional principles. I once asked him whether he really believed in the law after practising for so many decades and seeing how the law really worked.
Jethmalani looked at me and said: “Yes, I do.”
Unfortunately, there is still no book on Ram Jethmalani’s court craft and his understanding of the Indian Penal Code.
There were several moments I saw Jethmalani’s humanity. His ability to talk to people and make them feel at home. One day, I found him chatting with Geelani’s younger brother Bismillah. Jethmalani found out that Bismillah was studying Arabic and said with a mischievous smile: “I also tried to learn Arabic.”
Bismillah, ever curious, asked why. Jethmalani said he had met a beautiful woman in some part of West Asia and had decided he wanted to be able to communicate with her. So he started learning Arabic, but when he tried to get in touch with her again she had disappeared.
A political lawyer
Jethmalani was a political lawyer. This meant that he knew cases were not won and lost merely by legal arguments. Unlike some lawyers who do not like media attention or campaigns around cases they take up, Jethmalani knew that it was the campaign which would determine the outcome.
Jethmalani would write a summary of his arguments and give them to me to give the press; he knew Kamini Jaiswal considered these acts of his not quite professional. Jethmalani also insisted that Geelani’s wife sit in court every day, a reminder to the judges that the case was about a human being.
It is not only Ram Jethmalani: JB Dadachanji told me right in the beginning of my career as a lawyer, “Miss Haksar, 90% of law is about psychology, only 10% is about law.”
Once after arguing on a technical matter for almost two hours, we returned to his chamber. The other lawyers were praising him for his arguments, but I was silent. He looked at me: “What do you think?”
I was always humbled by the way he would seek an opinion from someone who had not half his experience. With some hesitation, I said: “Sir, I know you have explained the legal point but the judges are not convinced of the truth.”
Although judges are trained to keep their feelings out of their assessment of the evidence, if their gut reaction is that the person is guilty, they can interpret the law to fit their feeling. The next day, Ram Jethmalani spent the day addressing the judge’s implicit assumptions, and I sat listening to him mesmerised by the powers of his persuasive arguments. This is a skill the older lawyers had, but we rarely witness it in the hustle and bustle of daily practice.
A shocking attack
The day in 2005 when Geelani was shot outside my house, my husband and I took him to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. I then left my husband at the hospital and took an auto. When I got into the auto, I realised I had no money. I did not have the energy to walk back to the ICU to get money from my husband, so I told the auto to take me to Jethmalani’s home.
Ram Jethmalani was awake and still at work. I told him what had happened. He was shocked. I hesitatingly asked if I could borrow money, and he handed me a bundle of Rs 10,000. I said I needed change and I did not know how to break the bundle. He told me to keep the money and go home in his Mercedes Benz. This was a small glimpse of his generous nature.
Yes, he liked women. I have seen him flirt with a Pakistani woman. But it was always with the consent of the woman. On one occasion, I had dinner with him and there were several women discussing pearls when Ram Jethmalani came in and asked: “Girls what are you talking about?” One of them said: “Pearls.”
“Okay, I will buy you all pearl necklaces.”
Then he turned to me and said a professional but warm hello. It was this reason I felt perfectly safe working late in the night because he would not say even a word that was inappropriate if he felt you did not want it. In other words, he was a true gentleman.
Ram Jethmalani won his case, and SAR Geelani was acquitted. Jethmalani was not in the court when the judge read the order. The media wanted our statement but Bismillah and I went out of the court quietly and went to jail. When we got Geelani out, we took him straight to Jethmalani’s home so he could address the media.
Jethmalani recognised the gesture and after the media had left, he came and said: “Thank you, Nandita.”
It was not the publicity that he was after. He was way past that. It was a chance to intervene in the Kashmir conflict. He wanted to win friends among Kashmiris by saving one of their own.
He believed in winning people over rather than imprisoning, torturing or hanging them. And in that I so strongly agreed with him that our ideological differences did not come in the way of working together, of defending the Constitution, each in our different ways.
Ram Jethmalani, was a great lawyer who understood the relationship between politics and law; a warm, charming and generous man who loved his country and as a fellow citizen, I salute him. It has been a privilege to have worked with him.
Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer and author, most recently, of The Flavours of Nationalism.