By Bhavya Dore
Mumbai: On Thursday morning, Ujjwal Nikam coaxed and wheedled. He prodded and parleyed. More than 13,000 kilometres separated the state’s most visible legal face from terror’s most visible face. Standing patiently in Mumbai’s Tada court, Nikam was gentle and encouraging as he urged David Coleman Headley on by video camera. “Yes, perfectly right”, he would tell Headley, or “yes, correct”, as if urging a student on in a viva voce. If Headley conceded he didn’t know something, Nikam was kind. “It’s okay,” he might have said and then there would be a nudge of encouragement: “your memory is very sharp, Mr Headley” or “stretch your memory”.
Nikam has been used to standing in front of cameras, more often outside rather than inside the courtroom. But here he was, conducting a trans-oceanic deposition in what is among the biggest cases of his career — facing not a watching audience, but a much-wanted man. His raspy voice ricocheted off the courtroom walls; he was a man in possession of this room and the next one, thousands of kilometres away.
Until Saturday, he will continue to examine Headley, one of the key men behind the 26 November, 2008 attacks and equally, a key to understanding Lashkar-e-Taiba and the terror landscape in Pakistan.
Nikam is Maharashtra’s — if not the country’s best known — most visible public prosecutor. He has argued the big cases. He was seen as close to some time home minister RR Patil — “RR” to his friends, Nikam included. He is the big gun that is brought out in high-profile cases: Blasts, attacks, rapes.
It has become a great and timeless witticism to now dismiss the public prosecutor as the publicity-hungry prosecutor; an honorific he has done every bit to preserve. He has been castigated for besmirching the office of the public prosecutor and for seeding excessive drama. And yet, he carries on, seeming to be getting the job done.
It was almost fitting then that another lawyer said he had only argued with Nikam a handful of times: On television. “He is very media-conscious and knows how to climb the ladder,” said this lawyer, adding, “Moving around with four security guards also adds another layer of aura around him.”
On Wednesday morning, the guards hung back as Nikam patiently gave separate interviews outside the court complex to all the television channels, one by one. “The video link did not work today,” he repeated, several times, explaining why the deposition had been adjourned for the day. The routine briefing, the post-event press conference; these flashes of showmanship have irked many.
Some time in 2013, I was with another reporter who was covering the Shakti Mills gangrape trial, when she got a call.
“Oh, she said that?” asked the reporter, quickly scribbling into a notebook. The next day’s papers all carried reports on how the victim had expressed to the court her desire to slap one of the accused. As it turned out, the man on the other line was special public prosecutor Nikam. He was just calling in to give reporters his account of the in-camera proceedings. The media wasn’t allowed in the courtroom when the two victims in the case deposed.
Not to worry. Nikam was there.
The slapping story had been preceded a few days earlier by a 'fainting' story: That the other rape survivor had fallen unconscious while deposing in court. This was entirely untrue, according to someone else present in court that day. Consciousness was, by this person’s account, lost by no one during the deposition. But truth is sometimes a minor obstacle in a criminal trial. When there is theatre to be had, what danger can a reinterpretation of events do?
This was vintage Nikam.
A man of bombast with a penchant for the dramatic, the very impulses that led to him crafting that other bit of popular folklore: That Ajmal Kasab, public enemy number one had asked for biryani in his jail cell. Imagine that! The temerity of the man. The public didn’t have to do much imagining; it had been born in the prosecutor’s head and arrived into public discussion fully-formed. (He chose not to comment this week on that nearly one-year old revelation).
“He has a good news sense,” said one lawyer, a description more fitting for an editor than a legal functionary, “he knows what the public wants to hear”.
On Wednesday evening Nikam declined to speak on his media-savviness or comments about how he enjoyed the warm embrace of the cameras. He was happy though, to respond to generic questions. What does it take to be a good public prosecutor? “Sensitivity and honesty is the basic requirement of a public prosecutor,” he began, warming to the topic, “but that alone will not suffice. You have to anticipate and go beyond your brief."
There was more. "You have to keep in mind that you are representing society, and conviction should not be the only aim,” he said. “As a public prosecutor, you represent both the state and society at large." Nikam couldn’t recall how many cases he had prosecuted for the state of Maharashtra, but he had the rest of the scoreboard on his fingertips: 630 life sentences and 35 or 36 death penalties.
He was emphatic on the point that he pursued not just legal convictions, but his own personal convictions, choosing not to prosecute where there was no evidence.
Born and raised in Jalgaon, Nikam's career fortified on criminal trials and a public image nursed assiduously over the years. Many people may take shots at they way he seems to be in love with his own voice and image, but some also say one other thing. “He works tirelessly on every case,” said Prakash Salsingikar, a defence lawyer in the Shakti Mills case and another case in which Nikam was his opposite number. “He makes every effort to get the best possible results”.
This might include, as one lawyer said, a combination of “mischief” and “presence of mind”. “If my cross-examination is going well, he will try and interject or help out the witness,” he said, adding, “He might throw a bouncer to distract you.”
The lawyer said this with an air of both exasperation and admiration.
“There are small tactics you can learn from him,” he conceded.
And yet, there is one other resounding chorus: He only takes the open-and-shut cases — those in which convictions are almost certain. “He only takes matters where the probe is watertight and the conviction is there for the taking,” said another lawyer, adding, “He has never appeared in cases in which there is a plausible defence.”