Crossing paths with Justice RC Lahoti: A memoir

Justice Lahoti logged in to an arbitration moments before he left us for the heavenly abode, exemplifying the definition of a true karma yogi.
RC Lahoti
RC Lahoti

I had just returned to India after interning at the Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC). Hot on the heels of completing my Stockholm University LL.M. with an arbitration specialization, I was actively searching for core opportunities. Having gone to Sweden right after completing my degree at National Law University, Jodhpur, this was going to be my first job. Who knew that former Chief Justice of India Justice Ramesh Chandra Lahoti would be the one to give me my first break?

My reluctance to work in a firm, coupled with the lack of institutional opportunities, left limited options. One possibility was to work as an assistant to an arbitrator, as a Tribunal Secretary. But how was I, a first-generation lawyer with no connections in the legal fraternity, going to find an arbitrator, particularly when the country’s arbitrator community was a close-knit circle of retired Supreme Court and High Court judges? I began with the standard operating procedure of finding email IDs of arbitrators in Delhi NCR and dispatching impassioned cover letters. As an alternative strategy, I also extracted the office addresses of the region’s most sought-after arbitrators.

At that time, Justice Lahoti’s name was in the news on account of being the government’s nominee in the Vodafone arbitration. I realized that out of all the leading arbitrators, Justice Lahoti’s office was the closest to my Ghaziabad residence. I decided to take a shot in the dark and present my candidature to him, in person!

One fine morning in January 2015, I turned up at Justice Lahoti’s residential office in Noida. I was attended by the soft-spoken but firm Janaki Ramachandran, Justice Lahoti’s long-term secretary-cum-steno. After expressing her disapproval and astonishment at my audacity of turning up without an appointment, she indicated that Justice Lahoti had gone for hearings and that no vacancy was available at that juncture.

A couple of weeks later, I got a call from National Law University, Delhi (NLUD) regarding a job vacancy posted on their website to which I had applied a few months earlier. The vacancy advertisement in question was titled ‘Requirement of a LL.B. Graduate’ and simply described that a retired judge of Supreme Court was looking to recruit a recent graduate having an interest in arbitration. Imagine my disbelief when I was asked to present myself at Justice Lahoti’s office for an interview! He had routed his requirement through the NLUD website to reach a wider audience without disclosing his identity.

The next day, I suited up, took printouts of my published blog pieces and reached his office. Justice Lahoti conducted the interview himself. The last question posed was regarding salary. I shared that I was willing to work under his tutelage and that the remuneration aspect could be discussed at a later stage only if he found my work satisfactory and up to the mark. Many months later, Kaushalya ma’am, Justice Lahoti’s wife, told me that this answer had edged my candidature over and above other candidates.

Thus began my year long association with Justice Lahoti. I was suddenly catapulted into the epicentre of ad hoc arbitration in the national capital. Seated next to Justice Lahoti in his Volkswagen Jetta, we used to travel across venues ranging from Neeti Bagh Club to Indian Habitat Centre to various hotels across Delhi to chair arbitration hearings from morning to evening.

On my first working day, I vividly remember the feeling of butterflies in my stomach upon entering his basement office, which stored all the case files and records. It was a moment of truth for me. I realized that a once in a lifetime opportunity had come my way and I had to make the most of it. From that moment onwards, I had only one singular goal - to learn as much as I could from one of India’s foremost legal luminaries.

I received more professional exposure, personal development and even spiritual awakening under Justice Lahoti than what I received for the rest of my entire life combined. Professionally, I became privy to complex high quantum disputes being argued by lawyers like Promod Nair, Nakul Dewan and Ritin Rai, and Senior Advocates like Dushyant Dave, Gourab Banerji and P Chimbdaram, engaged by top tier firms like Amarchand, Luthra, Trilegal, in front of luminaries like Justices AM Ahmadi, AS Anand and GB Patnaik. It is difficult to quantify and put into words the lessons and impact of being in the same room with such stalwarts. Personally, I learned to be more humble, polite, patient and committed to the society and family. Spiritually, I became aware of the concept of Infinitheism.

I was wrong to think, upon relocating from Delhi, that my association with Justice Lahoti had ended. Fast forward four years, I was situated in Islamabad and serving as Assistant Director at the SAARC Arbitration Council (SARCO). Having already been in Pakistan for a year, my parents' desire to find a suitable marriage match for me had moved from desperation to hopelessness. When the point regarding my office’s location and my remaining there for the near foreseeable future had the effect of sending chills down the spines of ordinary people, imagine the reaction of those parents who had to mull over the idea of marrying their daughter and sending her off to live with me!

By March 2020, COVID-19 had struck. One of the unusual side effects of the lockdown was the reinvigoration of matchmaking efforts. This led a family to reach out to my parents through a common connection. Turns out the family hailed from Guna and lived in the same neighbourhood as that of Justice Lahoti’s ancestral home. Their NLSIU graduate daughter, Shivi (now my wife), had performed a thorough background check on me through Justice Lahoti’s extended family. Apparently, Justice Lahoti had vouched for me as a man of character and high morals! Not even in their wildest dreams could anyone, let alone myself, have anticipated that Justice Lahoti would be instrumental in making possible the best thing that has happened to me on the personal front.

Jump to August 2021. My SARCO contract was about to end and I was on the lookout for opportunities. I learnt through the grapevine that Ajay Thomas, then Director of School of Law, Manav Rachna University (MRU), had moved on and that the institution was looking to recruit faculty for courses in arbitration. Being UGC NET qualified and possessing a penchant for teaching, I applied to MRU. During the interview process, it came to light that Justice Lahoti was on MRU’s School of Law’s Advisory Board! I believe that having served under him instilled faith in the senior recruiters that not only was I competent, but was also someone who understood the ‘Vidyantriksha’ philosophy.

My last personal interaction with Justice Lahoti happened a few days prior to Diwali. I had gone to present him with a token of gratitude on MRU’s behalf. Despite not having met or interacted with me for almost 6 years, he expressed the same warmth as he used to when I was working as his junior. The nostalgic meeting ended with him blessing me to achieve greater heights of success.

Note by RC Lahoti
Note by RC Lahoti

Justice Lahoti was not only an avid reader himself, but encouraged others to read. Gifting people books containing messages on how to derive maximum benefit from them was something he relished. He was a champion of social causes and donated extensively, more often that not, anonymously. He was always eager to learn and open to experiment, which allowed him to remain ahead of the curve. A prime example of this is when he engaged me as a full-time tribunal secretary at a time when the concept was almost non-existent in the Indian legal market.

Justice Lahoti had been under the weather since January. After a brief period of precautionary hospitalization, he returned home and was doing fine. Despite being hospitalized again earlier this month, his vitals were pretty much stable, and he was attending hearings virtually from the medical facility. In fact, he logged in to an arbitration moments before he left us for the heavenly abode, exemplifying the definition of a true karma yogi.

He leaves behind a lasting legacy. For somebody like me, who had no background in law, no mentor and zero guidance from any quarter, Justice Lahoti was a guardian angel. His demise is not a personal loss just for me, but also for all other youngsters whose lives he touched and influenced. He will always remain in our prayers. May his soul rest in peace. Om Shanti.

Bharatendu Agarwal is an Assistant Professor at Manav Rachna University.

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