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.”

Nikam had made a “mockery of the prosecution,” Pasbola continued. “I am very much disturbed by these arguments. How can he make such elaborate submissions, cursing Abu Salem like he is Hannibal Lecter? What pleasure my learned friend took I don’t understand.” There were no ready answers to these questions. The next day, Nikam conceded to the court that the death sentence was not permitted in this case, and sought a life sentence. On 25 February, the court sentenced Salem to life imprisonment.

ON 20 MARCH, on the sidelines of the International Conference on Counter Terrorism at the Marriott Hotel in Jaipur, Nikam was talking about biryani. The subject had previously come up in 2009, when he served as special public prosecutor in the trial of Mohammad Ajmal Kasab, the sole surviving gunman responsible for the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai. As the prosecution’s lawyer, Nikam was the face—and voice—of the state’s case against Kasab, and in front of the television cameras, he had appeared as a sort of grand inquisitor. One day, Nikam told journalists waiting outside the courtroom that Kasab was asking his jailors for mutton biryani.

It was one thing for a man under trial to dream about food; to demand the richest and most fragrant of meals after having participated in one of the bloodiest assaults the city had ever seen, suggested a brazen lack of repentance. The story made headlines, entrenching an idea already held by many ordinary people—that in securing Kasab and giving him the benefit of the legal process, the state was subjecting itself to further victimisation at his hands.

It turned out that Nikam had lied. “Kasab never demanded biryani and was never served by the government,” he told a group of journalists in Jaipur, as a recording broadcast on the channel TV9 Marathi showed. “I concocted it just to break an emotional atmosphere which was taking shape in favour of Kasab during the trial of the case.” He freely admitted that he had made a “chutiya” of the media, or screwed them over.

The press erupted all over again, this time against Nikam, who had lied with impunity, and no apparent remorse. But this wasn’t even the first time Nikam had made such an admission. “I do not know why this mutton biryani was such a big issue,” he told me when I called him in mid April. “I had spoken about this episode in many functions, even with RR Patil”—the late Nationalist Congress Party leader who served as Maharashtra’s home minister in the previous government—“in one instance.”

The biryani episode has provoked the most criticism Nikam has ever faced in an exceptional career. For over 20 years, he has been one of Mumbai’s most best-known lawyers. He first shot to fame when he was appointed special public prosecutor in the trial of the culprits of the serial bombings of 1993, an episode in the recent history of Mumbai that was every bit as traumatic as the 2008 attacks and their fallout. Nearly a hundred men accused in the case were convicted, including Yakub Memon, whose death sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court in April this year.

The state government has since appointed Nikam as public prosecutor on some of the most attention-grabbing cases in Maharashtra. Since the Kasab trial, in particular, it seems that if a case makes the headlines, the demand for justice—whether from the injured party or the public at large—usually involves a call for Nikam. A public prosecutor who is able to get convictions—and death sentences—can help build a narrative about the case, and demonstrate the state’s zeal in combating injustice. He or she could also potentially skew public debate and inflame passions, while steering attention away from the state’s ineptness in probing a case or preventing a crime.

Perhaps this is why Nikam has been celebrated, praised and kept close by political leaders in Maharashtra for most of his time in the spotlight. “It does not matter which party is in power,” he told me. “I get cases anyway.” It was widely known in political and legal circles in Maharashtra that RR Patil and he got along particularly well; unusually for a politician, Patil attended the final hearings of the Kasab trial, as well as that of the Shakti Mills rapists in 2014.

Politicians of nearly every party and ideology in Maharashtra have lobbied at one point or another to give important cases to him. “Even on the floor of the House, the opposition parties have asked for Nikam’s appointment in certain cases,” Satej Patil, a Congress Party leader who served as Maharashtra’s minister of state (home department) during the previous government’s tenure, told me. “I have personally seen him in court. He is confidence-inspiring. He knows the exact issues to highlight from the government point of view.”

Part of his reputation rests on a real sense that Nikam is unmatched in his capacity for hard work, and that he will not take bribes to throw cases. “I do not know many prosecutors who bother about what the witness says on the box,” said Ramesh Mahale, the chief investigating officer in the November 2008 attacks case, who is now retired. “He takes a lot of care about how the witness deposes and whether all the points which link the evidence to make the prosecution story are covered.”

His tactics create disquiet in some legal circles, but his popularity is unsurprising. Neither victims of the sort of crimes he prosecutes, nor most lay observers, are interested in the niceties of procedure. Often, this means that the grieving parents of murder victims, or a local community outraged when a rape case hits the headlines, demand the death sentence—a penalty that raises several ethical questions, but is still widely seen as justifiable vengeance, especially when a case engages public emotion. In 2011, the Kanpur businessman Amarnath Grover, whose son, the young television executive Neeraj Grover, was murdered by the jealous fiancé of an aspiring actress, wrote to the state secretariat, demanding that Nikam be appointed public prosecutor when the convicted couple’s appeal came up before a higher court. They had already been sentenced to jail, but the bereaved Grover hoped for a harsher punishment. (The home department at Mantralaya wrote back to Grover saying that he could engage Nikam’s services himself, for R50,000 per hearing.)

As an independent lawyer, Nikam is hired for each case on a contractual basis. Last year, he was paid about R40,000 per effective appearance, including R10,000 as consultation fees and R5,000 as accommodation. For much of his career, he has been provided round-the-clock security, which costs lakhs of rupees per year. In comparison, an ordinary prosecutor in Maharashtra earns, on average, R3,000 for every effective hearing of cases of grave offences—such as murder, drug peddling or rape—and R4,500 for a special case under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act, or MCOCA, in Mumbai. Fees reduce further outside the city.

The aftermath of serial bombings in Mumbai in 1993. Nikam first gained fame as prosecutor in the mammoth trial that followed. Express archive photo

But money is not Nikam’s driving force; after all, he earns a fraction of what a defence counsel might earn on the same case. It seemed to me that the allure of being a household name had more to do with it. As he said to me one point in our interviews, “Is there a lawyer in Maharashtra better known than me?”

THE CITY OF JALGAON, the centre of Jalgaon district in northern Maharashtra, has the dusty, fast-growing look common to much of this rapidly urbanising state. It is a well-developed town, with good roads, hospitals and new malls, although Nikam, who was born and raised there, still describes it as “mofussil.” He was born here to Deorao Madhavrao Nikam, a barrister and politician, after whom the chowk near the family home is named. Nikam’s mother, Vimaladevi, was a school-going freedom fighter in the years just before Indian independence; she was part of the “Prati Sarkar” movement, which formed a parallel government to the British Raj in Satara district. The children grew up hearing stories of how she helped other nationalists ferry weapons, Nikam told me. “I feel I inherited my aggressive tendencies from her.”

We were speaking at his office in a room in Hotel Residency in Fort, Mumbai. He has lived in this room since 1993, eschewing police and government quarters. For five days out of seven, Nikam operates out of this large, pleasant building on the corner of DN Road and Sidhwa Marg, a stone’s throw away from the Bombay High Court, and even closer to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, from where he takes the overnight train to Jalgaon every Friday to go back home. He never really warmed to Mumbai. “Mumbai is so cosmopolitan and heavily crowded,” he said. “That is why I rush back every weekend. Even the judges co-operate with me and do not keep my cases for Saturday.”

The late RR Patil, former home minister of Maharashtra, was known to be close to Nikam. He attended the final hearings of the Kasab trial and the Shakti Mills rape case. BCCL

Nikam graduated from law college in Jalgaon in 1977, and started out as a civil lawyer. The money was decent, but he was dissatisfied with the work. “While I was winning cases, I wasn’t able to figure whether I was smart or not,” he said. He then joined the Jalgaon district court as a district public prosecutor, and began to work on criminal cases. This, he claimed, was how he first came to the attention of the press. The media “loved the way I could turn a case around or interrogate a witness from a certain angle. I was also getting threats from the accused. People in the district were asking for me as a public prosecutor already.”

One day, just over a decade into his career, so did the Mumbai Police. In 1991, a group of Sikh extremists was accused of orchestrating a series of incidents that had culminated in a bombing at Kalyan railway station, on the outskirts of Mumbai. Nikam was the public prosecutor on this case. MN Singh, who was Mumbai’s commissioner of police between 2000 and 2002, was posted in the city as inspector-general of prisons that year. “At the time, Sikh terrorism was a big deal,” Singh recalled, when we spoke in January. “I received a call from Mr Nikam one day seeking permission to visit the prison premises”—where the suspects were held. As Nikam assembled a case for the prosecution, Singh found himself “very impressed. I felt that this man had courage, initiative and appeared to be very sincere.”

In December 1992, after the Babri Masjid was demolished by Hindu fundamentalist forces, riots broke out in several parts of the country, overwhelming Mumbai as well. Several weeks of violence, largely against Muslims, had barely ceased, when there came a gruesome coda to the events of the winter. On 12 March 1993, 13 separate bombings killed 257 people, and injured 713, in addition to damaging property worth crores of rupees, including the Bombay Stock Exchange building and the Air India building at Nariman Point.

In the course of a massive investigation, the Mumbai Police first filed a chargesheet against 189 men, most of whom were believed to have links with the Dawood Ibrahim gang. Singh went looking for a public prosecutor to conduct the trial. “I spoke to some lawyers from Mumbai,” he said. “While some were reluctant, some were too keen—at the time, the underworld in Bombay had its roots everywhere. I wanted a total outsider, someone who could not be approached, someone who could not be bought, someone not known. I then thought of Nikam.”

Another powerful supporter cropped up in the police force—the city’s then commissioner of police, Satish Sahney, who had crossed paths with Nikam during his time as head of Maharashtra’s Criminal Investigation Department. Nikam had come to Mumbai when studying for his masters’ degree in law, and disliked it so much that he left with no intention of returning. But with both policemen rooting for him, he took his chance, and came back to the city.

THE 1993 BLASTS TRIAL, which began in 1995, lasted 18 years, and called upon a total of 684 witnesses. Of the 129 accused, a special court convicted 100, of whom 12 were sentenced to death and 20 were given life penalties. “The judgment did not point to a single mistake in the investigation,” Singh said. “A lot of credit for that goes to Nikam.”

In this case, Nikam sharpened the troubling legal tactic that became, for a while, his signature—to turn an accused person witness, and get them to incriminate their co-conspirators. Section 306 of India’s Criminal Procedure Code permits the court to take as evidence the testimony of any accused person who has been directly or indirectly involved in the offence under trial. This person may then be pardoned on the condition that they make a “full and true disclosure” of their knowledge of the crime committed, and the other accused in the case.

The provision of the “approver” is an old and established one, but prosecutors use it sparingly because, in spite of its legitimacy, it raises serious ethical questions. First, there is considerable debate over whether a prosecutor should free a person known to have participated in a criminal conspiracy. Then there is the question of whether an accused person can ever turn approver without the manipulation of an investigating agency—a body which controls all the witnesses produced for a trial.

Further, if an approver is promised complete freedom in exchange for their testimony, it is difficult to say that the testimony is completely voluntary. A former judge of the Bombay High Court told me that this lack of certainty makes the use of an approver a dangerous proposition. “It is a very weak piece of evidence,” he said of an approver’s testimony. “There must be substantive evidence to which the confessional statement may be added. It is a shortcut method of proving guilt.” Using an approver to fix the other accused, he said, “always shows lack of investigation.”

In some legal systems, such as that of the United States, a state prosecutor—in the US, the district attorney—is actively involved in the investigation. Indian prosecutors, however, are not supposed to do this. Lawyers may be appointed as “police prosecutors” to help police patch up legal loopholes before the case is presented. But the public prosecutor is an independent agent who takes a stand for justice. They may use their discretion to determine how a case is conducted, and are allowed even to file for discharge of the accused if the facts of the case seem unsatisfactory to them. The use of an approver necessitates the prosecutor being privy to investigation, and involves the choice of the most “natural” witness from among the accused persons.

Nikam first used the approver provision while working as a public prosecutor in Jalgaon, he told me, although he could not remember when this was. The case involved the murder of a pregnant woman by her family members. One of those hired to commit the crime was made an approver, which led to the other accused being convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The criminal conspiracy under investigation in the 1993 bombing case was vast and complex, with each of the accused persons facing a variety of charges in addition to the main list of crimes. Some were found to have travelled to Dubai for a planning meeting, while others were supposed to have gone to Pakistan for arms training. Some had smuggled arms and explosives along the Konkan coast and met in Mumbai to prepare for the bombings.

Bhaiyalal Bhotmange (centre), sole survivor of the 2006 Khairlanji massacre, asked on television for Nikam to be appointed prosecutor on the case against the perpetrators. BCCL

Operating under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act of 1987—the feared and much-criticised TADA—investigators recorded 88 confessions. These were by and large admissible in court, even though several were retracted later. However, confessions extracted under TADA were, at least in the letter, required to be given voluntarily and recorded in perfect accordance with procedure. (It was another matter that the law, first enacted during the Punjab insurgency of the 1980s, made it so easy for law enforcement agencies to abuse the extraordinarily wide range of powers it granted them that it was eventually taken off the books.) But an approver’s evidence would stand, as Nikam told me, “on a different footing”: it was direct, and less likely to be rendered inadmissible on technical grounds. Singh told me that Nikam had brought up their need for approvers even before the chargesheet was filed. “He was quite firm on using the legal ploy,” he recalled. “When the prosecution uses an approver, it is willing to make the sacrifice of prosecuting a person who is fully involved in the case.”

In May 2010, Kasab was sentenced to death for his role in the November 2008 killings. According to newspaper reports, Nikam claimed to a waiting crowd outside the courtroom that his “score” stood at 38 death sentences and 600 life terms. Arko Data / REUTERS

Two accused men agreed to become approvers, which Nikam says was the clinching factor in the trial. “On the basis of this evidence we got so many convictions,” he said. But some of the lawyers defending the accused in these cases alleged that the approvers were coerced. “One of my clients, Nasir Dhakla, had alleged that crime branch officers were forcing him to turn approver,” Farhana Shah, who represented many of the accused in the trial, told me. Dhakla was found guilty of having obtained arms training in Pakistan, and participating in the conspiracy.

In 2006, when I was a reporter for the Indian Express, I met one such approver, whom the journalist S Hussain Zaidi called “Badshah Khan” in his landmark book on the bombings and the investigation, Black Friday. At one point in our interview, Badshah Khan told me he felt remorseful about the whole incident. I had tracked the 1993 case in the special TADA court, and saw over a hundred accused persons brought up. I wondered what it was about him that got the investigators to choose him as approver.

“The approver had a good photographic memory,” Singh told me. “He rattled off names and dates easily. He appeared to be a natural witness.”

“It has often been remarked that Nikam’s record shows an unusually high reliance on approver evidence,” the Mumbai-based human rights advocate Yug Mohit Chaudhry told me via email. “While making a person approver is permissible in law, how a person is made an approver leaves many questions unanswered. The manner in which it is done, the tactics used, are often very questionable.”

For his part, Nikam seemed nothing but proud of his reliance on the provision. Prosecutors did not use approvers in cases very often, he admitted, but the law “is based on practical wisdom. One has to set a thief to catch a thief. In cases where there is no direct evidence, the law allows one criminal to depose against others. While the approver’s evidence is looked at with suspicion, if there is corroborative evidence, the evidence can be relied upon.” The question of skill was not irrelevant, either. It was very difficult, Nikam said, to get a person to turn approver. “He can turn either ways in a trial. The prosecutor has to be very careful.”

MUCH AS HE ONCE ATTRACTED the police’s attention, Nikam began to be noticed by the Maharashtra government. Over the years, the authorities have sometimes gone so far as to announce his name to the press even before they tell him. Last November, even before making the official appointment, the Maharashtra government announced his name as public prosecutor in the case of the murder of a Dalit family in Javkheda village, Ahmednagar district, although there was little movement on the case until Dalit activists raised a hue and cry over the incident. Nikam actually refused to take the case. “I am not interested,” he told me when I asked him about this. “The accused persons are family members of the deceased people.”

To bereaved families of victims, Nikam is a sort of legal superhero. In June 2014, a Pune-based IT manager, Mohsin Shaikh, was murdered, allegedly by members of a Hindu extremist group who wanted to avenge a Facebook post which supposedly mocked the Maratha king Shivaji, and the deceased Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray—the Sena’s twin idols.

Mohsin’s father, Sadiq Shaikh, met Prithviraj Chavan, then the chief minister of Maharashtra, and pleaded for the appointment of Nikam as special public prosecutor in the case. “The people who killed my son belonged to Hindu Rashtra Sena,” Shaikh told me when I spoke to him earlier this year. “These people are terrorists. In the past, Nikam has secured conviction and death sentence for terrorists such as Afzal Guru”—Nikam actually had nothing to do with that case—“and Kasab. I had read about him in newspapers and seen his interviews on television. With Nikam, we can get a death sentence for the accused.” The parents of the Youth Congress leader Kalpana Giri, murdered in Latur in March 2014, made the same request to the media and to politicians.

Eight years earlier, another bereaved parent made the same request before television cameras—but what transpired raised serious questions about Nikam’s intentions, and those of the state that sought his expertise. When members of the Bhotmange family were humiliated, raped and murdered in a vicious anti-Dalit crime in a Maharashtra village in September 2006, the state lost no time in asking him to fight its case against the perpetrators. In a television interview, the sole survivor of the killings, Bhaiyalal Bhotmange, whose wife and children were murdered, asked that Nikam be appointed as public prosecutor, too.

The Khairlanji massacre penetrated a habitual obliviousness to caste violence in many drawing-rooms in India; protests raised by Dalit groups and caste activists made it to front pages and prime time in mainstream news outlets. Punishment, it seemed, would have to be dealt swiftly and sternly, as much for the sake of justice as to assuage public anger. Yet a team called the Khairlanji Action Committee, made up of local Dalit activists, which tracked the action on the case on a day-to-day basis, were deeply dissatisfied by the proceedings. This group claimed that Nikam, even as prosecutor, was underplaying the role that casteism had to play in the crime.

The murderers of the Bhotmange family were upper-caste men who had had a long-standing dispute over a matter of land with them. But important witnesses, including Bhaiyalal Bhotmange and his friend Siddharth Gajbhiye, were never asked questions pertaining to these disputes. Bhotmange’s daughter, Priyanka, was reportedly subjected to sexual harrassment well before the fatal afternoon on which she and her mother were raped and killed; yet this  allegation was never brought on record by the prosecution.

Milind Pakhale, a lawyer associated with the Khairlanji Action Committee who attended the trial every day, alleged that Nikam had been appointed so that the state could control the framing of the trial, and get it to be seen as a crime of revenge rather than one motivated by caste hatred. The implication was that this helped Maharashtra save face over its social injustices.

In November 2007, during the trial, Pakhale wrote a letter to the then chief minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh, which said, “The basis of this crime i.e. casteism, is not highlighted in the evidence adduced by the prosecution. It seems the case is being treated by Shri. Nikam, SPP, as a mere murder trial. The basis of all that happened in Khairlanji is casteism and this must be emphasised in all its nakedness. That will only describe the crime in the correct perspective.”

On 15 September 2008, the Bhandara Sessions Court convicted eight people accused in the crime. Six were given the death sentence. Three other accused were acquitted entirely. None of the convicted men was found guilty of violating the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which concerns caste crimes. The Central Bureau of Investigation, which was involved in the enquiry, challenged this judgment, seeking for the accused to be convicted under the POA act, but the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court upheld the view that this was not possible, since the evidence advanced by the prosecution on these grounds was insufficient. The High Court commuted the death sentences to life imprisonment in each case. Pakhale was furious. “If the caste atrocity was proved, the accused may have got the death sentence,” he said. “Nikam treated the case like a simple murder case.”

ONE HAS TO UNDERSTAND the grinding boredom of most courtrooms to understand why trials in which Nikam is the prosecutor stand out. Legal dramas on television are full of richly entertaining orators, passionate arguments and urgent moral quandaries. In real life, court proceedings are achingly slow and drab. Lawyers’ arguments are typically based on previous judgments handed down by high courts and the Supreme Court, and consist of reading paragraph after paragraph from these texts to the presiding judge. It is not unusual to see lawyers dozing off while waiting for their case to be called.

By contrast, a trial in which Nikam is the prosecutor is replete with histrionics, and he is always the star. Almost everyone I spoke to for this story independently brought up the fact that Nikam was adept at playing to the gallery. He is hardly ever boring, especially for reporters listening in. He lightens the atmosphere of the courtroom by punctuating very serious arguments with humour. (Sometimes it is unintended: his unpolished English becomes comic relief for those more fluent in the language.) The Abu Salem trial earlier this year was a textbook Nikam spectacle.

By creating drama that enthralls his audience and the media, Nikam can build the sort of narrative that raises the clamour for a conviction. Yet questions have been raised about how this aids justice, or brings relief to the victims on whose behalf he acts. Some of these questions became darkly relevant to the  trial of the rapists in the Shakti Mills attack in Mumbai in 2013. In August that year, two young journalists, exploring the deserted mill area in central Mumbai, had been accosted, and the woman raped and threatened with murder by five men. Public uproar was instantaneous, and interest in the case had already reached fever pitch when the matter came to trial.

After Nikam was appointed on this case, 50 public prosecutors wrote to Prithviraj Chavan and RR Patil, then Maharashtra’s chief minister and home minister respectively, raising the point that he had been appointed in spite of Supreme Court guidelines which mandate all-women courts in cases of sexual assault. “His appointment in these cases also means that the other cases are not important enough or we are not capable enough,” said Anjali Waghmare, the additional public prosecutor who led the campaign. (Waghmare was, for a time, Kasab’s defence lawyer in his trial.)

Nikam approached his duties in the manner of an avenging angel—he secured convictions for all the accused, and three men, found to be repeat offenders, were sentenced to death. But his methods met with criticism again. Flavia Agnes, the feminist lawyer and co-founder of Mumbai’s Majlis Legal Centre for women’s rights, who appeared for the rape survivor, said that at the beginning of the trial, Nikam had disregarded the rape survivor’s request for her statements to be recorded via video-conferencing, instead of in person. Testifying was hard on her, and she lost her composure when Nikam asked her to identify the pornographic clips that the rapists had played while attacking her.

“She went to the judge’s chambers and puked a little,” Agnes told me. “In her absence, Nikam went out of court and told the media that she had fainted during her deposition.” The matter was adjourned. Agnes was unimpressed. “Because of this drama, she could not complete her deposition.” As the story broke in the press, a murmur of discomfort rose around Nikam’s behaviour from some feminist lawyers, and was not forgotten easily. The lawyer Indira Jaising, writing earlier this year about the controversy around the BBC documentary India’s Daughter, recalled: “During the trial of the Shakti Mills rape case, the prosecution virtually asked the survivor to reenact the rape in court, and showed her the clips on the mobile phones of the accused, leading her to collapse in the court room. Even then we protested—is this necessary to get a conviction?”

In 2014, the men accused in the Shakti Mills case were also tried, almost simultaneously, for the rape of another woman in the mill compound, which had occurred prior to the young journalist’s rape. A paper in the Economic and Political Weekly by Agnes’ association, Majlis, recounts that Nikam’s manner during this trial left them “unnerved.” This rape survivor, a telephone operator, was told by Nikam that she could beat the accused in court if she wished to. “He even looked at her footwear and said it is too flimsy and asked the crime branch to purchase a new pair with a thick sole for the desired impact,” the paper noted. When it was time for the victim to identify the accused, she did say she wished to beat them up, clearly instigated by Nikam. The judge explained that the law had to take its own course: Nikam only looked away “sheepishly,” Majlis wrote. Later, however, he announced to the waiting media that the girl was so overwhelmed with grief that she wanted to hit the accused “with her chappals from the witness box,” according to the paper. (When I asked Nikam about this version of things, he denied any wrongdoing. “I am a senior person and I do not need to give justifications,” he said, “least of all to an NGO.”)

Prosecutors such as Anjali Waghmare, who was Kasab’s defence lawyer for part of his trial, have criticised the Maharashtra government’s tendency to favour Nikam over others when making appointments in sensitive and high-profile cases. Rajanish Kakade / AP Photo

In Nikam’s trials, it is not uncommon for families of victims to cry out in court, point fingers at the accused persons and beg the judge for justice, nor is it strange for Nikam to conduct his cases with the outlandish exaggerations of a storyteller. Arguing against the actor Sanjay Dutt, who was indicted in the 1993 blasts case for illegal possession of arms, he argued that Dutt possessed a “weapon of mass destruction”—it was really an AK-56 gun—and that releasing him on probation would lead to “anarchy.”

While I waited for him in his room at Hotel Residency, two people came to seek Nikam’s help as a prosecutor. A woman had accused her brother-in-law of rape and had suffered serious psychological trauma after the incident. She had even tried to commit suicide before her husband rescued her and helped her file a first information report, the victim’s family told me.

“See how these people come to me because they have faith in me as a prosecutor,” Nikam said to me. “I will try to help them, but I do not think I will take this case. The complaint was filed too late.”

THE SHAKTI MILLS TRIAL was perhaps the first time in recent years that any media, at least in English, devoted even a part of its coverage of a Nikam-led trial to criticism of his ways. Yet all of Nikam’s tendencies to grandstand and manipulate public emotion had also been in full force during the Mumbai attack hearings, perhaps the pinnacle of his achievements. Even before his falsehood about “mutton biryani” came to light, the Kasab trial stood as an example of how completely journalists can sometimes comply with the dominant narrative of a trial.

Police escorting a man accused in the Shakti Mills case in 2013. Feminist lawyers found Nikam’s prosecutorial methods “unnerving.” Rafiq Maqbol / AP Photo

In one extraordinary diatribe, after he had laid out some basic arguments about the prosecution’s position, Nikam virtually reduced Kasab to a sort of animal. “I have to stretch my dictionary,” he said in English. “The only phrase that comes to my mind is a mad dog.” While there was a law for cruelty against animals, he said, there has no provision made for animals in the shape of human beings. “I never believed in rebirth. But after seeing him, I believe that demons have rebirth,” he said. He repeatedly labelled Kasab a “snake”—one that would spit poison no matter how much milk it drank, as the old saying goes in many parts of India.

“Even the snake would feel ashamed,” he concluded. “If the snake could talk, he would say—Mr Nikam, we bite sometimes. Why do you compare us with a human being who bites all the time?” If Kasab were given a life sentence, he told the judge, thousands of people would knock on the doors of the court, demanding the extraction of every drop of poison that filled Kasab’s body—presumably killing him to do so. Yug Mohit Chaudhry, among others, said this was entirely improper, as well as cynical. “He does this to prejudice the public and inflame judicial passions against the accused, thus hindering a dispassionate evaluation of the evidence,” Chaudhry wrote in our email interview this March.

In 2006, the US scholar Sara Sun Beale, a professor at Duke University School of Law, published a paper that analysed how news media in the United States covered criminal trials. In The News Media’s Influence on Criminal Justice Policy: How Market-driven News Promotes Punitiveness, Beale wrote: “Television emphasizes ‘filmic’ stories—discrete, dramatic, visual incidents between individuals. Coverage of the investigation and trial of violent crime fits this profile because it is dramatic and lends itself to replays of the gory details of the crime itself, as the appellate process generally does not. In contrast, television is less well suited to covering procedural failures in individual cases or the system as a whole.”

Nikam came to prominence just as network laws in India changed, and the television industry boomed. From what several journalists told me, his talents apparently included an instinctive understanding of how television worked. If newspaper reporters had attended the day’s proceedings, or caught hold of court documents, they would not always need a quote from him for their stories—but television reporters always would. He responded well to this requirement: some television reporters jokingly started to call him “Visual” Nikam.

He claimed otherwise to me, but Nikam is evidently interested in how the media sees him as a public figure. It is not uncommon for him to pause, swipe through his hair with a tiny comb, and then step out of the courtroom at the end of a hearing to address cameras in English, Hindi and Marathi. This willingness to speak to television reporters is unusual in Mumbai, where even high-ranking police officials, who see it as part of the job to maintain good relations with the press, do not go on record to reporters on a daily basis.

Just before Kasab was sentenced in May 2010, a television channel caught hold of a ten-year-old who had lost her leg in the carnage; on camera, this child demanded that Kasab be hanged immediately. This was a dream come true for most news editors anxious for high ratings—and it was exactly in tune with Nikam’s own performance through the trial. When he came out of the Bombay High Court after Kasab’s death sentence was pronounced, he intoned: “Badle tumne rang bahut, bahut badle nakab; phaansi taq humnein tumhein la hi diya Kasab”—you changed colours, and you changed your masks, but I have you at the gallows after all, Kasab.

Other American scholarship has shown that media attention focuses disproportionately on crimes eligible to be punished with the death sentence, which is indubitably true in India as well—and a fact that Nikam, who works extensively on murder and terrorism-related cases, is acutely aware of. When I spoke about Nikam to Vikas Shrivastav, a journalist with the television channel News Nation, he recalled a 2004 case of honour killing in Vasai, a suburb of Mumbai that falls in the Palghar district area. It was being tried in the Palghar sessions court, about a hundred kilometres from Mumbai. A day before sentencing, in 2006, Nikam let the news out to television journalists. “Normally we would not go to Palghar unless we have an assurance that there will be some news,” Shrivastav said. “He assured us that there could be a death sentence in the case.” Three of the accused were indeed sentenced to death, and the case became a big story.

Abu Salem in 2007. In March this year, the extradited gangster was convicted of the 1995 murder of a Mumbai builder. MANAN VATSYAYANA / AFP / Getty Images

“He used to call me his Hindi teacher,” a former NDTV India reporter, Sunchika Pandey, told me. Nikam, she said, used to ask reporters to help him communicate eloquently in Hindi; he even asked journalists for suggestions on what clothes or spectacle frames he ought to wear. “He was a delight for TV,” Pandey said. “He was dramatic and articulate. It could get so boring otherwise. Every time he gave a byte he spoke from a different angle.” Jitendra Dixit, a senior editor and Mumbai bureau chief for ABP News, also said Nikam asked him for advice about clothes to wear in front of the camera (darker colours; no micro-checks on jackets or blazers, Dixit told him). Once, Nikam asked him to tea at Hotel Residency to discuss how he could present himself to the camera better.

Yet every journalist I interviewed about Nikam, with the exception of one, told me independently that it was impossible to corner him with uncomfortable questions, especially if he had lost a case, since he rarely made himself available after an acquittal.

ON 7 MAY 2010, an article in The Telegraph described the public celebration that ensued once Kasab was sentenced to death, that same day. Outside court that afternoon, Nikam was reportedly asked, “Sir, what’s your score?” Nikam “beamed like a gladiator” and responded, “Thirty-eight death penalties and over 600 life terms.”

The crowd, not entirely made of journalists, could not resist the temptation to celebrate.

Crackers were burst, drums beaten, cheers whooped, effigies hanged and mock funerals held in an outbreak of exultation. “Death to Kasab! Hang him! Hang him!” they cried; Nikam waved heroically and flashed more Vs—the prize fighter who’d delivered the knockout punch for India.

The rapturous scenes played themselves out in several pockets in Mumbai after Ajmal Kasab was sentenced to death today.

“He manipulated public emotion during the trial,” Abbas Kazmi, Kasab’s defence lawyer, told me last month. “His statement”—about the biryani—”could have led to a mob lynching.”

“Nikam speaks for the government, not for himself or as a defence counsel,” Yug Mohit Chaudhry said. “Hence, when he briefs the media, he is expected to speak the truth. Taking advantage of the fact that Kasab could not reply or contradict him, Nikam has deliberately and cynically spread falsehoods to prejudice the public mood and inflame public sentiments. This skewed public debate to a great extent.”

After his admission about the biryani story began to blow up in the media, nearly every outlet in Mumbai, including major Marathi television news channels, which support Nikam whenever he makes the news, ran some comment against it. To TV9 Marathi, the former High Court judge BG Kolse Patil said that Nikam had demonstrated immaturity.  “This kind of statement does not suit a respected lawyer,” he said. “An accused is also a human being.” He also levelled a more serious charge against Nikam. “He has only taken up cases where the police is interested in conviction and police cooperates in the investigation. These cases do not require a lawyer to be a legal brain.”

A senior public prosecutor claimed that Nikam cultivated politicians if they could help him land sensational cases. “It’s well known that he can walk into the CM’s chambers. He could ask for any case he wanted,” this person said. Another prosecutor claimed that he was constantly seen to liaise with ministers in Mantralaya.

“His family background and his own contacts ensure he gets the necessary appointments,” a Maharashtra politician from the Bharatiya Janata Party said. “He is also very good at building public relations and has cultivated an image that he stands for the government and the culprits will be punished. Politicians also feel compelled to go with the public demand.”

A few days after the story of the mutton biryani falsehood broke, the state minister Eknath Khadse announced that the government would look into the matter. Yet at the time of going to press, no action had been initiated. On television, an array of Maharashtra politicians took to defending him. “Why did the BJP leaders who visited jail not clarify?” Raju Waghmare of the Congress Party demanded. (Khadse and Devendra Fadnavis, now Maharashtra’s chief minister, visited Kasab in jail in 2010.) “They politicised the issue, to the extent that even Modi would talk about it in his speeches,” he said. The BJP leader Ram Pawar, however, said that Nikam’s work was beyond reproach. “Without paying heed to the danger to his life or his family’s safety, he fought the case and ensured that Kasab was hanged to death,” Pawar said. “He provided justice to all the victims who lost their life in the terror attack. What does it matter what he says now?”

WHEN I VISITED JALGAON in February this year, I told an autorickshaw driver that I needed to go to Ujjwal Nikam’s house. He told me everybody in Jalgaon knew the way there, and drove me without needing directions to the Sagar Park residential complex. The house is a landmark for nearby establishments; outside, a posse of policemen and a giant name-plate speak for themselves. About 15 years ago, Nikam renovated the house, which was built by his father. His family, which includes his wife and children, as well as his brothers and their own families, all live here. Nikam’s children are grown, and work in Mumbai as well; his son Aniket is a lawyer, and also practises out of his father’s room at Hotel Residency.

Nikam briefing the media in 2008. According to several journalists, Nikam understands the demands of television news well, and tailors his public persona accordingly. Some television reporters jokingly called him “Visual Nikam.” INDRANIL MUKHERJEE / AFP / Getty Images

When the 1993 bombings trial catapulted him to the big time, his family’s life changed. MN Singh had stipulated that Nikam move to Mumbai from Jalgaon, and warned him that the job entailed threats to his security. The children were twelve and eight years old at the time, and setting up a household in Mumbai would be impossible. But his wife, Jyoti, fought his corner. “I felt this case will display his talent better,” she told me, proudly, when we met in Jalgaon. Even before 1993, after all, “he was barely involved in home affairs,” she said. “I did not feel like disturbing him. It would affect his work.” She still worries about his diet; the flour for the rotis that Nikam eats in Hotel Residency comes from her kitchen.

In his Jalgaon office, which stands in the same compound as the family home, scores of trophies and certificates are on display; these are usually given to him at functions he attends as chief guest or speaker. At one point, he sent me to see his photographs while he attended to some business, and his security staff placed a pile of albums before me. It turned out that all the snaps were mementoes of these public functions, pictures of him lighting ceremonial lamps, standing on the dais, smiling at an organiser, taking a bite of food. (“The organisers send it across. I keep it. What to do?” he said, when I asked him why he had all these.) He said he attended at least one of these functions in a week. During the three hours—give or take—that I spent in the office, four people arrived to invite him to their events, in Dhulia, Jalgaon, Pune and Nagpur respectively. He accepted one of these.

“There are many good lawyers. But I am the only one who attends social functions,” Nikam said. “None of the lawyers I know have this kind of a mass appeal,” Nikam’s son, Aniket, told me. “This kind of appeal is seen only with politicians.”

One of the BJP politicians I interviewed for this story told me that Nikam was interested in politics himself, and claimed that he had even tried to get a ticket from the party for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. “He would have won the seat, even,” the politician said. Nikam flatly denied this. “I have no interest in politics. I do not belong to any party. People spread rumours about me,” he told me.

Among the only people who now dislike Nikam’s work are Mumbai’s policemen, some of whom told me he constantly puts them down and shouts at them. After the 1993 case, the Mumbai Police has rarely recommended Nikam as public prosecutor for the cases it considers important or sensitive. There is too much work involved: unlike other prosecutors, whose support infrastructure usually includes a workplace with stenographers and office assistants working on computers, Nikam works alone. In Jalgaon, where he continues to be district public prosecutor, he has one government stenographer who sits with him on weekends. All legal applications are usually made with the help of investigating officers. Sometimes the policemen have to look for case studies on his behalf.

“I am very strict with the policemen,” Nikam admitted candidly to me. “While they are well-meaning, they are not very knowledgeable about the law. I shout at them if the work is not done.” In spite of this, they grumble, he gives no credit to anybody else once a trial is concluded. “Chamkeshbahut hai,” a police officer remarked, Mumbai-style—he likes to sparkle.

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