Jethmalani’s tango with Hindu Nationalism

Ram Jethmalani was one of the most reputed experts in Law and politics in India. He served as India’s Union minister of law and justice, as chairman of the Indian Bar Council, and as the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association. He was noted in the Indian legal fraternity for his forte in criminal law and high-profile civil cases, such as his role in the persecution of K.M. Nanavati. However, beyond his legal genius, Jethmalani was an important figure in the rise of Hindu Nationalism. His relationship with right-wing Hindu political groups in India can be best described as turbulent. His refugee status after the partition of India laid the foundation for his entry into Right-Wing Politics.

Despite being a refugee, he advocated for a better relationship between India and Pakistan, unlike other refugees and Hindutva politicians- whose political narratives antagonized Pakistan. He was the Chairman of the Bar Association of India during the National Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi. His criticism of her not only led to the issue of an arrest warrant against him but also made him popular in the eyes of the public and opposition parties. He was first elected to Parliament after the General Elections of 1997 and was appointed as the Minister of Law and Justice in the Cabinet of Atal Bihari Vajpayee- the supremo of the Right Wing Bharatiya Janata Party. This was the beginning of a turbulent relationship between these two entities, which lasted for more than two decades.

Following an unsuccessful run for the ceremonial post of President, Jethmalani contested the 2004 Lok Sabha general election against Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the prime minister whom he formerly served. Despite this move, which put him directly in opposition to Hindutva Political Parties, he was elected to the Rajya Sabha on a BJP ticket just a few years later. By 2012, however, Jethmalani became a strong critic of the BJP and party president Nitin Gadkari, writing prominent public letters accusing the party of corruption. Following this, he was removed from the party for acting against its interests.

Despite his association with the BJP, Jethmalani maintained a relationship with other political parties as well, coming to the defense of leaders such as Jayalalitha of the AIADMK and Arvind Kejriwal of the AAP in his capacity as a lawyer. It is impossible to characterize Jethmalani as a member and supporter of the Hindutva narratives that currently dominate India. What is undisputed, however, is his role in shaping the legal profession in India, and his contribution to Indian politics and civil society institutions.