14 Sep 2022 12:49 PM GMT
In the memory of Ram Jethmalani It's three years since we heard the stentorian voice of Mr. Ram Jethmalani echoing through the halls of the court room. His legal career started before the partition that created modern India and Pakistan and it spanned the entire history of post-colonial India. The milestone of India's politics and history have shaped his career and many of the milestones of...
In the memory of Ram Jethmalani
It's three years since we heard the stentorian voice of Mr. Ram Jethmalani echoing through the halls of the court room. His legal career started before the partition that created modern India and Pakistan and it spanned the entire history of post-colonial India. The milestone of India's politics and history have shaped his career and many of the milestones of his career have left their imprint on the history of India. His lessons especially in the form of the landmark judgments, are the greatest treasure we have in time of Mr. Ram Jethmalani. The learnings from his landmark cases and application of the said principles in the ongoing landmark issues before the Apex Court, gives us a wide perspective of law on wide ranging issues-which is unmatchable. Although he is not with us anymore but his principles and his teachings have been and will continue to guide us for the years to come.
His life was inextricably woven with the law and the courts of justice. In his book "the Rebel" he mentions that "a lawyer's life exists in the fast lane; as one hurtles between research, conference and appearance, time ticks relentlessly. Law is an insanely jealous mistress as the old saying goes". People who've known Mr. Jethmalani were privy to the kind of schedule he used to follow, even when he was 90 plus. He used to start his day very early with meditation and thereafter compulsory one hour devoted to badminton (and mind you this was even till the age of 94 years. After his badminton and routine activities, he used to work for more than 12 hours, at a stretch. He has played the role of a mentor, in the life of possibly every young lawyer who has got the chance to work with him.
Often described as a maverick by those who knew him closely, Ram Jethmalani's name always resonated with fighting for the causes which were either too controversial, or too important, for others to even touch with a barge pole. While he is often renowned for his defence of high-profile political leaders, and earning his name through the famed Nanavati case, his love for fighting the lost causes, and defying the odds, led him to take a plethora of pro bono cases, using his inimitable skills for the benefit of those who need it the most.
In his eyes, there was nothing more sacrosanct for a criminal lawyer than entering every case with an impartial mind, and defending the hallmark of the presumption of innocence, he said:
"I decide according to my conscience who to defend. A lawyer who refuses to defend a person on the grounds that people believe him to be guilty is himself guilty of professional misconduct."
It was his belief in the virtues and values of the law that made Mr. Jethmalani overlook any and all personal characteristics while defending his client. While he came under the limelight for the wrong reasons in defending notorious white collar criminal Harshad Mehta, and others, his faith in the underlying principle of the criminal justice system – that every person must be presumed to be innocent unless found guilty – led him to shake any cold shoulder from his peers or the public. Much like American legal luminary Alan Dershowitz, Mr. Jethmalani too was unperturbed by the public perception in performing his duty to defend his client, which was always his paramount motivation.
The values and principles which underline our criminal justice system were passionately espoused by one of the finest criminal lawyers at the Bar in Ram Jethmalani. A fervent advocate for ensuring speedy and efficient disposal of criminal cases, and for protecting the procedural safeguards of the accused, Mr. Jethmalani was a proponent of speedy trials in criminal cases. He firmly believed that any detention or incarceration in criminal cases, which violated the procedural safeguards under the CrPC, and protected under the Constitution, was a violation of the accused's rights. He was called the father of the Evidence Act. He used to tell his juniors that "Cross-examination is a skill you acquire through long experience and long introspection. If somebody wants to really read what interesting cross-examination can be, you should read the cross-examination of Oscar Wilde in his defamation case which was filed against (Lord Alfred) Douglas' father."
Arguing in the epochal AR Antulay v RS Nayak case, Mr. Jethmalani pleaded for ensuring that the rights of the accused are protected at all stages of the criminal trial. The importance of the criminal justice system to be just and fair at all stages to its most vulnerable actor – the accused – was often the cause which Mr. Jethmalani fought for in his many years of practice at the Bar. Under Articles 20 and 22 of the Constitution, the procedural safeguards which protect the rights of the accused in the criminal justice system is accorded salience under the Constitution, and is in consonance with the protection of every individual's right to life and personal liberty under Article 21. And for Jethmalani, a violation of these safeguards was a dereliction from the values enshrined under the Constitution itself.
If the system were to turn back on the enshrined procedural safeguards, and make the process itself feel akin to punishment, it would defeat the salience accorded to them under the Constitution, and leave the accused with no protection or recourse. Ram Jethmalani's legacy as a criminal litigator and icon has provided umpteen examples where the importance of upholding these safeguards has been seen in numerous contexts, with Mr. Jethmalani representing a number of influential political actors and leaders in his vast array of cases.
The lesson which Mr. Jethmalani's legacy left us with was one of equality and uniformity, and the unparalleled importance of the rule of law. For the procedural safeguards which our criminal justice system endeavours to jealously protect applies to everyone, irrespective of any personal, social or economic characteristics. For the accused to be well informed of their rights, and the offences which they have been accused of, along with a protection of their right to bail under the principle of presumption of innocence to uphold their right to liberty, are the pillars on which the criminal justice system rests. The fate of our criminal justice system, and the Supreme Court's evolving jurisprudence, will stand on firm footing if it heeds to the legacy of Ram Jethmalani, and his contribution in entrenching the adherence to procedural safeguards as the fundamental right of any accused.
His undisputed mastery and experience in criminal law and evidence, bestows us with plethora of landmark authorities, which not only has a great precedential value but also carries with it an impactful learning which indubitably can be used by the bar in the ongoing landmark issues concerning political, economic and social questions of law.
Ram Jethmalani's legacy and his penchant for finding the silver lining in every adversity must remain a source of constant motivation and drive. His work has been a constant source of motivation, and he has earned reverence from the bar and the bench in such great measures. The reflection of his work and his guiding principles will continue to remain with us even after the world has lost a colorful, charismatic, and revered friend in him.
Tanvi Dubey is a practicing advocate in the Supreme Court of India and Sumit Chatterjee is a practicing advocate in the Karnataka High Court.
The Authors also want to thank Ms. Anjali Singhvi and Ms. Shrestha Narayan for their contribution and assistance in research.