‘Bhishma Pitamah’ of Indian law is no more
India’s most famous criminal law practitioner, Ram Bulchand Jethmalani, passed away on Sunday just six days short of what would have been his 96th birthday, bringing the curtain down on a career that recorded and analysed almost all significant developments in Indian criminal jurisprudence since independence.
Jethmalani is survived by lawyer-son Mahesh Jethmalani and US-based daughter Shobha. Daughter Rani and
son Janak died before him. He was cremated on Sunday afternoon at Lodhi crematorium here. President Ram Nath Kovind, PM Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah condoled the death while paying homage to the outstanding lawyer, considered a human encyclopedia on criminal law.
Born in Sindh province’s Sikharpur (now in Pakistan) on September 14, 1923, Jethmalani displayed brilliance by completing his bachelor of law at age17. He got special permission start practising at 18, when the minimum age was 21.
As a partition refugee, he initially struggled to find his foothold in Bombay. Some 65 years later, then CJI H L Dattu in 2015 referred to Jethmalani as “Bhishma Pitamah”, to bend rules and allow him to make a request for an adjournment before a five-judge constitution bench.
Jethmalani excelled in convincing judicial minds in favour of clients through wit, knowledge and repartee, all in a rich baritone. These traits stood him in good stead as he taught law students across Indian universities.
For the last two years, his vision had dimmed, preventing him from practising. For some time now, he had put up a big board outside his 2, Akbar Road residence declaring that he was not taking any fresh cases. But the man was amenable to persuasion. Since 2016 till he stopped practising, he had a common refrain in court, “I am in the departure lounge waiting for the flight to God’s land.” He took the flight on Sunday after two weeks of age-related illnesses.
Jethmalani, who married twice before the codification of Hindu law banned second marriage, was a regular badminton player, a sport he cred
ited for his youthfulness, allowing him to run from court to court till his late eighties. He was open about what he said was his “westernised” lifestyle and social life.
His career in law and politics saw him make foes and enemies with equal fervour. He fell out with BJP, whose founding vice-president he had been, but reconciled towards the end. Former attorney general Mukul Rohatgi has written that this came about through the efforts of Arun Jaitley, a little known fact as Jethmalani often targeted the late BJP neta with sharp verbal barbs.
After settling in Bombay, “the most important milestone” of his professional career came in the murder case of 1950s in which Commander K M Nanavati was accused of killing his wife’s lover Prem Ahuja. “My role in the trial court as well as in the HC was of protecting the interests of the family of the deceased. I was therefore confined to helping (prosecutor C M) Trivedi and (government pleader Y V) Chandrachud. But, for some reason, everybody seems to think that I was responsible for both Nanavati’s conviction as well as his presidential pardon that overturned the Supreme Court’s award of life imprisonment,” he had told TOIin 2010.
Jethmalani had a penchant for defending the most despised, such as the convicts in cases of assassinations of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, and Afzal Guru of the Parliament attack case. He succeeded in saving death row convict Balbir Singh by getting him an acquittal in the Indira Gandhi case. In the 1960s, he had represented smuggler Haji Mastan.
While defending Tamil Nadu government’s 2014 decision to commute sentences of Rajiv assassination convicts, whose death sentences were commuted to life terms by the SC, Jethmalani had created a flutter by arguing that the suicide attack to kill Rajiv was not a crime against India.
He loved the challenge of representing accused in cases that were considered “open and shut” by the public, took pleasure in riling the prosecution and mostly came good before the courts, as he did with aplomb in the Bofors case by getting the Hinduja brothers discharged. No wonder he was the highest-paid lawyer in India.
Full report on www.toi.in
PM Narendra Modi pays his last respects to Ram Jethmalani in New Delhi on Sunday