The Avenger

How Ujjwal Nikam became Maharashtra’s most popular lawyer

01 May 2015

IN FEBRUARY THIS YEAR, a special court in Mumbai convicted the extradited gangster Abu Salem, along with two others, of the 1995 murder of the builder Pradip Jain. The public prosecutor on the case, appointed by the Maharashtra government, was the 61-year-old Jalgaon native, Ujjwal Nikam. At one point in the trial, Nikam argued that Salem deserved nothing less than the death sentence for this murder. In aid of this, he invoked the landmark cases of Bachan Singh and Macchi Singh; like the crimes under trial in those instances, he said, this counted as a “rarest of rare” case. (Case laws require that every aggravating and mitigating circumstance be listed and weighed before considering a case “rarest of rare,” which, in turn, is necessary to pronounce a death sentence.)

The reporters in the room sighed. They had heard exactly the same arguments in at least two other cases Nikam had handled in the last year. A journalist joked that she could just have used her previous notes, instead of coming to court. Only the name-calling changed. Nikam called Salem a rakshas avtar—a demon in human form—and a sadist. The court typist asked him for the spelling. “S-A-D-D-I-S-T,” Nikam said confidently. He went on to declaim Marathi proverbs, a verse from Byron, and, to no evident end, the “To be or not to be” monologue from Hamlet.

When it was his turn to speak, Salem’s advocate, Sudeep Pasbola, pointed out that Salem had been extradited from Portugal on the condition that no Indian court sentence him to death. “I fail to understand whether they are legal arguments or for some other object,” Pasbola told the court. “These arguments could make successful politicians envious. The arguments were for the fourth estate, who may not be conversant with the law regarding death sentence. These arguments are in the lines of retributive theory where the sentence should be maximum and no crime should go unpunished.”

Menaka Rao is a freelance journalist from Mumbai. She writes on law and health.