IT WAS A SWELTERING DAY IN DELHI in May 2013, and the bail hearing of a prominent regional politician was underway at the Supreme Court. Opposing the bail plea, the lawyer for the CBI recited, slowly and in a tone of utter disinterest, a litany of the accused’s alleged offences. This carried on for over an hour, and the politician’s counsel slipped ever lower in his chair. Then, in a voice loud enough for the entire courtroom to hear, he said, “Wake me up when he’s done.”
Sledging, that art of undermining one’s rival with barbs that are equal parts wit, aggression and sarcasm, has existed for years in the Indian parliament, on cricket pitches, and, increasingly, in frenzied television-studio debates. The proceedings of the country’s higher courts, however, are generally presumed to be more dignified. But this impression only exists because court proceedings are not broadcast to the public. In fact, underhanded verbal jabs are dealt aplenty in our courts of law, and the nation’s leading legal minds are experts at them.
In my own dozen years as a lawyer at the Supreme Court, I have seen several such tactics become standard practice. Often, a lawyer will adopt a Mark Antony style of attack against an opponent, first referring to him as “my learned friend” or “a colleague of such stature”, before attempting to demolish his submissions—usually deemed to be made “with his usual fairness”—as illogical and even dishonest. Lawyers’ high fees are also remarked upon. In one hearing, in which opposing corporate camps attempted to settle dues of a few crore rupees, the lawyers light-heartedly took digs at each other, declaring that no organisation that could afford such exorbitantly priced legal aid could possibly be short of such a pittance.