To dress up or to dress down — thats the question that haunts Ujjwal Nikam each time he leaves a courthouse to face the television cameras.
The Maharashtra special public prosecutor loves to be in his dark safari suit when he appears on TV because he feels the colour of his dress will make him look more telegenic. His son Aniket and daughter Sharbari dont necessarily agree. If anything, the children give him an affectionate dressing down in private for his dress sense.
My children feel that the dark safari suit makes me look like the security men who shadow me all the time and they chide me for insisting on wearing it, says the 56-year-old tough-talking prosecuting lawyer in the Ajmal Kasab case with a broad grin, not unlike the one he had on his face the day the 22-year-old sole surviving gunman of the November 26, 2008, Mumbai attack was handed down a death sentence.
Nikam is now a household name — and not just in Mumbai. From the 1993 serial blasts to the murder of music baron Gulshan Kumar to the 2003 Gateway of India blasts to the murder of BJP leader Pramod Mahajan to the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack, Nikam has handled almost all the high-profile cases in Indias commercial capital on behalf of the government. His legal score so far: 628 life imprisonments and 38 death sentences, including that of Kasab.
Today Nikam is the countrys most celebrated public prosecutor. To many, he is a hero, a doughty seeker of justice for victims of untold crime and terror attacks. To others, he is nothing but an unabashed seeker of publicity.
Whats wrong with getting publicity if your work draws it, he argues. But it upsets him no end when some members of my own legal community try to muffle my voice, Nikam says, referring to a gag order issued by the state director of prosecution in connection with the Ajmal Kasab case last year.
It is nothing but pure jealousy, he says.
The order was withdrawn after Nikam took it up with the Maharashtra chief minister and home minister. This, if anything, only reflects how indispensable he is as a public prosecutor.
How can you ignore the media these days as a public prosecutor and not brief them when defence lawyers are always willing to give their side of the story, Nikam argues.
We are meeting in the empty restaurant of a timeworn hotel on Mumbais D.N. Road, within shouting distance of the famed Victoria Terminus railway station. For the last 17 years, Hotel Residency has been Nikams home away from home.
A native of Jalgaon, a district town some 430km from Mumbai, Nikam spends five days a week in this hotels room No. 310 before catching a train home on Friday evenings to spend weekends with his wife Jyoti and other members of his joint family.
This has pretty much been his routine since 1993 when he first stepped into Mumbai at the request of the police brass to take up the serial blast case.
As we talk, his gold Mont Blanc-framed glasses shine in the light of the setting sun. Behind the lens, his eyes are friendly but piercing.
Outside, the street hums with home-bound traffic. He has just come back from the court. Yet he looks fresh, his black hair swept back and his moustache trimmed.
He is wearing, well, his dark safari suit, not dissimilar to what the hovering security men have on. The sharpshooters in safari suits never lose sight of him, the countrys only public prosecutor with a Z-plus security cover for the multiple death threats looming over him.
Apparently, Nikam likes dark things — be it the dark underbelly of Mumbai that he takes on in the courts or his dark attire or the dark dial of his slick Rado watch.
At the moment, he is not wearing his dark Tiffany glasses, though. And he is not in a dark mood, either.
But first, the special public prosecutor wants to set the record straight and makes it clear that he is not a government lawyer in the strict sense of the term. I am a practising lawyer who works for the government on contract, he says. Nikam calls himself a daily wage earner, charging the government on a case-to-case basis. In the just concluded Kasab case, he charged the government Rs 15,000 for a court appearance and another Rs 15,000 for consultation. The government foots his hotel bills, too.
His Rs 30,000-a-day bill may seem inordinate by government standards but he argues that he could earn a lot more than that if he were to take up cases for the accused rather than for the government. Money has never been a consideration for me, he says.
After all, he comes from a wealthy land-owning family. His two brothers now look after the familys 150 acres of land, growing cash crops like wheat and bananas.
His late father, D.M. Nikam, was a barrister trained in England. The father desperately wanted him, the second of his three sons, to follow in his footsteps. But a lawyer was the last thing Ujjwal Nikam wanted to be when he was at a Jalgaon college in the early Seventies, studying for a degree in science. For one thing, the profession never appealed to him. For another, he says there was little demand for lawyers in the marriage market of rural Maharashtra in those days.
But his father would not take no for an answer and Nikam completed his law degree with a first class in 1977. He became a civil lawyer, taking up cases for Jalgaons ubiquitous co-operative societies and sugar mills.
Ironically, a victory in a hard-fought court case changed all that. He was dismayed when he learnt that he won the case because his client, a sacked director of a sugar factory, had rigged the judgment with the help of some unscrupulous judicial officials.
In the early 1980s he decided to try his hand at criminal law. But each time he took up a case for a person accused of a crime, he confronted a moral question. Should I fight for or against criminals, I kept asking myself, he recalls.
Four years later, Nikam became, as he puts it, a legal Robin Hood or a public prosecutor. He tasted success in his very first case as public prosecutor when he successfully turned one of the accused in the murder case of a pregnant woman into an approver.
Having spent two decades as a special public prosecutor on contract in Mumbai, Nikam says he has virtually lost his desire to fight for any accused in a criminal case even though he technically remains an independent lawyer.
He says he has got used to a different way of life now, travelling in a bullet-proof car with two police escort vehicles packed with commandos. His presence draws crowds wherever he goes these days, either to inaugurate hotels or stores or to give away prizes at school or college functions.
Yet much like an advertisement for a Korean mobile brand on billboards, the question that keeps popping up in his mind these days is Next is what?
When he got his law degree in 1977, he wanted to become a judge, but his father talked him out of it. He told me rightly that if I joined the state judicial service and became a judge, I would learn nothing and would do a job with a boss always dictating to me, he recalls.
Thirty-three years on, the last thing Nikam, a fitness freak with a fetish for expensive watches and glasses, wants to become is a judge.
If there is one thing that holds some attraction for him now, it is politics. Though he says he is on friendly terms with most senior political leaders in Maharashtra, no one has asked him to join any party. On the other hand, Nikam says his family, especially his mother, is implacably opposed to his joining politics. They feel politics is not an option for a decent person, he says.
Nikam doesnt necessarily agree with his family, though. Politics is certainly one way of serving people, he notes. But to be in politics, one needs to have the financial muscle. Politics means big money and I have no black money, he says.
Whether or not he joins politics will depend on the kind of opportunities he gets, Nikam stresses. I am certainly not ruling out joining politics in the future. I am a God-fearing person who believes in destiny, he says.
But for the moment, he is busy doing what he does best — handling the rape and murder case of a woman call centre employee in Pune.
Clearly, Nikam is not one to rest on his laurels.