The Mentor Who Taught Ujjwal Nikam How to Modulate the Evidence

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
18 May, 2015

In our May 2015 issue, Menaka Rao profiles Ujjwal Nikam, the Maharashtra public prosecutor who has fought many high-profile cases such as the 1993 Mumbai bombings; the Gulshan Kumar murder; Pramod Mahajan's murder; the terror attacks in November 2011 and the Shakti Mills rape case of 2014. Through the story, Rao documents Nikam's journey from his beginnings as a civil lawyer in Jalgaon in northern Maharashtra to his metamorphosis into Maharashtra's best-known lawyer. In this outtake from the story, Rao traces Nikam's fondness for using the tactic of turning an accused person into the witness who incriminates their co-conspirators to his mentor, Professor Achyut Waman Atre.

When the Mumbai police were looking for a public prosecutor to conduct the case against over a hundred alleged co-conspirators in the Bombay bomings of 1993, they turned to Ujjwal Nikam, a rising lawyer from Jalgaon who had no real connection with, and little love, for Mumbai. Now Maharashtra's best-known lawyer, Nikam is called in by the state for some on some of its most high-profile trials, and this is at least partly because of his ability to capitalise on the media's interest in a dramatic story—or to create buzz for a story where none exists.

Yet even the most seasoned legal reporters in Mumbai have not heard of the man whom Nikam considers his mentor. Professor Achyut Waman Atre, now 76 years old, had taught Nikam law in Jalgaon, and is the man Nikam considers his guru. When I went to Nikam's hometown in March this year in the course of reporting this story about him, I went to meet Atre at his home, and found evidence of two things that characterised Nikam's success. The first was his faith in a controversial legal tactic that became something of a signature for him. The second was his sheer capacity for hard work.

Atre had taught Nikam in college, and when the 1993 bombings case came to Nikam, he went to see Atre. "He told me that he was offered the position of special public prosecutor in the case. It was a big venture for him, and he wanted a senior to help him. I told him that I am prepared to help him provided he would work for the sake of the nation and not for the sake of money."  Nikam consulted him on the phone almost every night, Atre said; he even sought his advice when the chargesheet in the case was filed.

It was in this case that Nikam honed a tactic frowned upon by many legal experts—the use of an 'approver,' or a co-conspirator who is allowed to turn against others accused in a case, and testify against them, in return for some sort of amnesty. Atre told me that Nikam would call him before examining every important witness in the 1993 trial, and laboured especially over the approver's testimony. When I spoke to Atre about this, it appeared that the disciple had imbibed his fondness for the tactic from his teacher. "It is important to seek better particulars as compared to the police statement. The evidence of each witness should be consistent with the other witnesses," Atre told me.

“I would go through statements and tell him how to adjust the deposition," Atre recalled, of the 1993 case. "One is required to modulate the evidence."

Nikam used to phone him before nearly every case, he told me; but he was now an effective advocate and did not need Atre's training any more. “Nikam is very sincere, hardworking, keen on seeking convictions, and free from pressures of inducements from outsiders,” he told me. Nikam knows no Sanskrit, for example—but when he needs it, he asks Atre's wife for a shloka which pertains to his argument, and utters it over and over again, "until he gets his pronunciation right."

Read Menaka Rao's profile of Ujjwal Nikam here.

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