Landmark Decisions, Invaluable Contributions – Revisiting Ram Jethmalani’s Legal Journey

Update: 2023-09-14 14:42 GMT
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As we commemorate another year of Ram Jethmalani’s birth anniversary, we are reminded of the sheer presence and stature he brought to each case he argued – irrespective of the client he represented, the area of law the case concerned itself with, or any other extraneous factor. For him, his duty to the court was always paramount, and his allegiance to his client’s cause was undeterred....

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As we commemorate another year of Ram Jethmalani’s birth anniversary, we are reminded of the sheer presence and stature he brought to each case he argued – irrespective of the client he represented, the area of law the case concerned itself with, or any other extraneous factor. For him, his duty to the court was always paramount, and his allegiance to his client’s cause was undeterred.

As this year zooms past with each passing day, the Indian judiciary has seen judicial developments that foreshadow bringing epoch-making changes in India’s legal landscape. From arguments earlier this year in the same-sex marriage case before the Constitutional bench to the current constitutional challenge to J&K’s status change under Article 370, India’s constitutional paradigm – and its constituent principles – have been reiterated aplenty in the hallowed halls of its Supreme Court in the months past.

A man for the big occasion

And it was in exactly such cases – which raised the most poignant questions on institutions, state machinery and fundamental powers – where Ram Jethmalani came into his element. Mr. Jethmalani was one who was unfazed by the sheer occasion of such hearings, and simply let his legal acumen and arguments prevail in the courtroom. He courted his fair share of controversy, during the famous Jessica Lal murder case, when he defended the accused Manu Sharma before both the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court in a case that essentially defined the concept of a ‘media trial’ in India. The Court’s observations on media trials, and its didactic message to media outlets to ensure that coverage of judicial proceedings should remain objective and fact-based – since they are the messengers of such information to the public – continue to remain relevant till date. In fact, the observations of the Supreme Court found particular relevance during the recent controversy surrounding the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput and the ensuing aftermath, where media outlets continued to overlook the principles of presumption of innocence and objective fact-based reporting on a daily basis.

But perhaps Mr. Jethmalani’s most controversial, and some might say most daring, assignment was defending Mohd. Afzal in the aftermath of the Parliament attack case before the Supreme Court. Mr. Jethmalani’s trust and faith in the most fundamental of all tenets in criminal law – that any accused must be presumed to be innocent in a criminal proceeding till proven to be guilty by a court of law – was at the heart of ensuring that such a protection was equally given to Mr. Afzal. Despite much public uproar, including attacks at his office by outlaws, Mr. Jethmalani took up Mohd. Afzal’s defence in the case. While he was able to clear Afzal’s charges under the POTA – by establishing that he had never been a member of any banned organization – he was unable to prevent his conviction and subsequently award of death penalty by the Court for the offences made out against him.

While Mr. Jethmalani’s storied journey started with his involvement in the seminal K.M Nanavati case (which was India’s last jury trial, and still remains an important precedent on the principle of ‘grave and sudden provocation’ in criminal law), it was his defence of core constitutional principles in ADM Jabalpur v Shivkant Shukla and Indira Sawhney v Union of India which established not only his resolute stand on issues of derogation from constitutional values, but also his legal nous in making the most effective and thought-provoking arguments in Court.

The recent arguments before the Supreme Court in the Article 370 hearings, as well as in the same-sex marriage constitutional challenge, brought seismic constitutional questions to the fore, which raised pertinent concerns of interpreting the values which our Constitution holds salient. And for Mr. Jethmalani, these were exactly the values which deserved the hardest fight in Court. Mr. Jethmalani believed in the principle of providing justice for all, and his role as a lawyer was forever guided by that underlying principle. It was this principle which led him to passionately defend the most poignant of fundamental rights in Court every day, and fight against the derogation of these rights by illegitimate state action at every opportunity.

Always putting principle before everything else

It was also this principled approach which led to his PIL before the Supreme Court in 2009, seeking specific actions and measures against the dissemination of black money, and the hoarding of black money in offshore accounts by HNIs and other delinquent individuals and entities. For Mr. Jethmalani, the cause was one which he believed him deeply, and the PIL led to a number of important measures in not just increasing awareness about the menace of black money, but also in investigating and initiating action against individuals involved in such transactions.

This year saw us reminisce the most recent demonetisation of notes before the Supreme Court, where the Court ruled that the exercise of demonetisation did not suffer from any constitutional irregularities to merit interference. While it is perhaps hard to predict whether Mr. Jethmalani would have been fully in support of how the demonetisation exercise was carried out, he would have found solace in the fact that the exercise had his broader aim of eradicating the menace of black money at its core.

His fascinating history with defamation cases

While Mr. Jethmalani’s stint in politics was not as illustrious as his career in the law, his interaction with political leaders in their (de)famous (pun intended) courtroom episodes often made front-page headlines. Back in 2006, Mr. Jethmalani locked swords with another household name in the legal fraternity – Mr. Subramanium Swamy – over the latter’s comments during the inquiry proceedings into the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Owing to a number of ad hominem remarks made by Mr. Swamy during his cross-examination and submissions before the Justice M.C. Jain Commission of Enquiry against Mr. Jethmalani, the latter filed a defamation suit seeking damages – in which he prevailed. But Mr. Jethmalani’s tryst with the thin line between defamation and truth didn’t end there. In 2017, Mr. Jethmalani defended current Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal in the defamation suit filed against him by late BJP leader Arun Jaitley, which became another cause celebre for the tabloids – for more than one reason. Mr. Jethmalani’s passionate cross-examination of Arun Jaitley led to tempers flaying over in the courtroom, with Mr. Jethmalani later stepping down as Mr. Kejriwal’s counsel, and catching eyeballs with the astronomical fee quoted for his services. While we hear the current cases making seemingly flattering headlines, there’s always a feeling of sorrow that we can’t hear his voice in the courtroom anymore and imagine him being in his element while arguing those cases- but that sadly remains in the realms of speculation.

Above all, his enduring legacy

Ram Jethmalani was an institution and a phenomenon. His learnings, and principles developed in cases which he argued – is the greatest treasure for any young lawyer. With lawyering in his blood and teaching in his heart, he was indeed an inspiration for every young lawyer who saw him argue in any courtroom. He indeed contributed immensely to the history of India and kept on fighting for deep-rooted problems such as corruption. His love for law is also seen in ways he gave back to the profession – one of which was seen in his role as a lifelong legal educator. quintessential lawyer and his role as a grand master of rules of evidence and cross-examination merit him a place of great honour. He was part of the cases which changed the constitutional landscape. Even at the age of 93, Mr. Jethmalani would not skip even a day at his badminton court – his healthy routine was also something that several lawyers looked up to.

While we honour the inimitable legacy of Ram Jethmalani – we are reminded of his strong court presence – which in true sense was magical. As we honour his legacy, we are reminded of the phenomena that was Ram Jethmalani. He prospered day by day and brief by brief into a legal pioneer. His legal journey gives us imprints of the maverick that was Ram Jethmalani- that will never fail to inspire generations to come.

The authors would like to acknowledge the efforts of Mr. Harshit Jindal (B.A. LL.B (Hon’s) fourth year, NLSIU) and Mr. Archit Sinha (B.A. LL.B (Hon’s) third year, NLSIU).

Tanvi Dubey is an independent practitioner at the Supreme Court of India, with a diverse practice ranging from civil, commercial and constitutional disputes to service matters before the Supreme Court and other fora in Delhi. Sumit Chatterjee is a civil and commercial dispute resolution lawyer at Arista Chambers, practicing before the Karnataka High Court, trial courts and a wide array of tribunals in Bangalore. The authors can be reached at and respectively. 

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