‘The greatest milestones of law have not been laid in cases of respectable people but with people who are disreputable’
FROM THE SUNDAY INDIAN EXPRESS FEBRUARY 14, 2010
COOMI KAPOOR: Ram Jethmalani has argued in many well-known, controversial cases, including those of economic offenders like Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parikh. Presently, he is representing Manu Sharma in the Jessica Lal case. Even Haji Mastan has been his client.
Name the worst.
COOMI KAPOOR: There have been politicians too—like L.K. Advani and Lalu Prasad Yadav. He’s also representing the Ansals in the Uphaar fire case and he is involved in the Ambani brothers gas rights dispute.
Everyone speaks of me as a lawyer. I plead guilty to that charge. But it’s a wrong impression that I am a criminal lawyer and only a criminal lawyer. I have practised law for almost 60 years and I am more at home in civil courts. The law of the Constitution is my specialty. Another important aspect of my life is as a teacher of law. Prime Minister Vajpayee used to ask me how, at my age, I was still so agile and I cited the example of King Solomon. He left the prescription for eternal youth: the older you get, the younger should be your company. I rigorously follow Solomon’s advice: I go to colleges and teach. It is true I have appeared for politicians, but I am also a politician of some sorts. I have my political views and hold them with tremendous strength. Finally, I may have made money from my legal practice but I have paid more taxes than are due from me.
COOMI KAPOOR: You are described as something of a political opportunist. The most notable example was when you were thrown out as the law minister in the NDA government. You turned against the BJP and took the support of the Congress to fight A.B. Vajpayee in Lucknow.
That is false. I have been used by political parties, I have allowed myself to be used by them. But I have never once changed a political party for the sake of getting some office or getting some economic or other benefit for myself. Tell me of one occasion when I have changed my party or changed my political views for any kind of worldly advantage.
COOMI KAPOOR: In the Bofors case, you said Rajiv Gandhi was guilty and campaigned against him when he was Prime Minster. Then, you turned around, defended the Hindujas and said Rajiv Gandhi was not guilty in the case.
About the Hindujas’ case, they talked to me and I looked into the case. I asked the Hindujas how they had earned money from Bofors. They produced documents showing they had an international contract with Bofors from the days of their being in Iraq and they had a standing agreement that whatever business Bofors had, they got something out of it. The Hindujas were completely innocent, you ultimately saw that they were acquitted.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: Are you surprised the UPA government has almost decided to close the Quattrocchi case?
What did the CBI do? The CBI was told that Quattrocchi was under suspicion. They didn’t arrest him for three days. Within those three days, he escaped. Then they pursued Quattrocchi to Malaysia. But they didn’t want Quattrocchi to be brought back; they were only going through the motions.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: You were the first person from the legal profession to raise the issue of corruption in the judiciary for which you lost your ministership. Could you tell us the story?
I wanted to become the law minister. This is my forte. But Jayalalithaa, who was in an alliance with the BJP in the government, insisted that she will have a law minister from her own party. I was asked to become the urban development minister. I fell in love with that department. I repealed the Urban Land Ceiling Act. As law minister, I have appointed the three best judges which any court can today boast of but I must also say I have made some bad appointments. I am the one who fought the case in the Supreme Court to stop the supremacy of the executive in the matter of appointments and I appointed those who the judiciary had recommended. But, even the judiciary has a very bad filtering process.
VINAY SITAPATI: The new Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill talks about a filtering process for disciplining judges. Do you agree with that?
The only solution is the appointment of a judicial commission with the power to appoint, the power to transfer, the power to remove. Who should be on the judicial commission? The Chief Justice of India or any nominee of his, the Leader of the Opposition, a representative of the prime minister—a government representative—a representative from the Bar Council provided the lawyer is an honest man. By and large, lawyers are in the best position to speak about a judge’s integrity and reputation. Then there must be somebody from the academic world. Also, someone from the social services must be there, someone familiar with labour problems. This kind of a commission has worked very well in other countries where it has been installed and I think it is the solution to our problem.
VINAY SITAPATI: You are recommending a commission where the judges will be in a minority. Will the Supreme Court accept this?
Parliament has to pass the legislation, the Supreme Court has nothing to do with it. Parliament should have the courage to exercise its legislative powers. See what has happened on the impeachment issue of Justice V. Ramaswami. The judge went through the entire process, a committee of judges was appointed as required by the Judges Enquiry Act and he was found guilty on 11 out of the 14 charges framed against him. The Congress rendered the entire process infructuous by issuing a whip to its MPs not to vote. A two-thirds majority is required in each house of Parliament, which could not be achieved. Even then, not single vote was cast in favour of that corrupt judge. Yet the motion failed and he continued to receive a pension from the tax-payers’ money.
RAKESH SINHA: What is it that makes you defend people who are considered criminals?
It is true that when I appear for notorious characters, the case gains so much publicity that people think that is the only work I do. One of the charges against me is that I defended the murderers of Mrs Indira Gandhi. What do you mean by murderers of Mrs Gandhi? The Supreme Court found the case against one of them was false. I saved an innocent man from the gallows. I appeared for Haji Mastan in a preventive detention case, but on interpretation of the law, I got the order of detention quashed. Then, Sharad Joshi was detained under the National Security Act and it took me exactly five minutes to get that order of detention quashed. What did I do? I quoted the Haji Mastan judgment. The greatest milestones of the law have not been laid in the cases of respectable people but with people who are disreputable. Some people should have the courage to defend those people who are assumed by society to be guilty. Nobody is guilty until the last court has its say. That is our system of law.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: What about Manu Sharma?
Manu Sharma’s case is still going on in the Supreme Court. I have finished my arguments and the government’s lawyer is arguing the case. God willing I will win
MANEESH CHHIBBER: What about the Ambani brothers gas dispute?
I think this case should have never gone to court. The way these brothers fight, even enemies don’t fight like that.
PRAGYA KAUSHIKA: You have criticised the media but you have invested in a new paper, Sunday Guardian. Why this sudden interest in the media?
It was due to my disenchantment with the press. I am a habitual writer but nobody has been publishing my articles. So I started this paper with a sense of total frustration with the press.
ARCHNA SHUKLA: What made you take up the cases of people like Haji Mastan? Was it money, were you convinced of their innocence or was it the Bar Council principle that when somebody comes to you, you can’t say no?
At the beginning of my career and for a long time after that, it made no difference to me whether the man was a crook or not. I believed my professional success mattered to me at that time. Now that I have arrived at an age where I am in the process of winding up my practice, I do go into the ethics of the case—even those cases in which I receive money. But otherwise, I follow the judgment of the Bar Council of India. Please understand this is the question which lawyers have had to face ever since the legal profession came into existence. Society has made a rule that nobody should be punished unless there is credible evidence to prove his guilt. When I appear for a man whom you believe to be guilty, I don’t give the judge my personal opinion that he is innocent; I don’t give false evidence in favour of my client. I don’t get into the witness box and testify to his good character. What I tell the judge is that this evidence doesn’t appear to be convincing enough. A lawyer doesn’t lie, people think that a lawyer is a liar but that’s not so.
VINAY SITAPATI: When you argue for someone who is reviled outside, you bring your name, you bring your reputation, your credibility to the case. So it’s not just the simple case of someone paying you money and you appearing as a professional. Many of the people you represent are very rich, they have access to top lawyers. They don’t need Ram Jethmalani.
You have misjudged them. They still need Ram Jethmalani.
VINAY SITAPATI: You criticised the media, but a large part of Ram Jethmalani is a media creation. You are constantly invited to TV news channels.
Media does invite me but they invite me for opinions which they like and they also invite me because they think that more people will view their channel.
VINAY SITAPATI: Many of the views that you give are picked up by millions of people and surely some of it is designed to be that way?
I am not finding fault with the press .Yes, it is a two-way relationship.
K. SOBHANA: There are no strong Opposition voices in the country. After your long association with the BJP, do you have any advice for them?
The ultimate solution for this country is that good men from the BJP and good men from the Congress should come together. The BJP must be revived because there has to be an Opposition party in the country. But the BJP has to modernise, it has to improve. Today if the BJP says it is no longer concerned with building the Ayodhya temple where the mosque once existed, that it will create a university of secular education and religious harmony at that site, see how the young will follow them. I think that every RSS boy should abandon his chaddi and start wearing jeans. If they don’t even modernise, what can you do with them?
ABHINEET MISHRA: My friends who are studying at and graduating from renowned law schools are tilting towards corporate law. Their reason is that if you argue against the media sentiments, you get a bad name. Also, there is big money in terms of placements in international firms. Please comment.
If you ask me, the national law school has ceased to be number one in the country. Our main objective of creating better practising lawyers has, by and large, failed. A young graduate receives offers of something between Rs 50,000 and Rs 1 lakh as salary. Big companies are picking up these bright youngsters at salaries which are three or four times the salary of their teachers. Even the professors we get now are substandard.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: What is the answer to growing instances of corruption in the judiciary?
The current method of appointment is wholly inadequate for the job. In retrospect, the earlier methods where the executive’s will was paramount, was probably better. From 1947 till about 1980, that earlier system worked because there were good men of good character in the law ministry. The Prime Ministers were people like Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri who never interfered with the appointments in the judiciary. Executive interference started in the ‘80s so the alternative was to give primacy to the judiciary. And through judicial decisions, we made the judges paramount. Now we find that this method is slightly worse than the earlier one. So we have to try the third, of having a judicial commission. If India is unlucky, the third will also not work.
Transcribed by Mohit Sharma