Advocate Amit Prasad is one of the Special Public Prosecutors (SPPs) representing the prosecution before the Delhi High Court and special courts in over 20 cases connected to the Delhi Riots of February 2020.
As SPP, he is the face of the prosecution in the Delhi Riots matters and has argued in the much-highlighted conspiracy case under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the murder case of 85-year-old Akbari Begum and the Sedition case against Sharjeel Imam.
Prasad, who otherwise maintains a low-profile, opens up on his legal practice before the Riots cases, the reasons behind taking up the SPP role and more.
Edited excerpts follow.
Tell us something about your beginnings.
I began my legal career as a student during the first year of my law college. I was fortunate to be acquainted with a well-known journalist covering courts, Mr Shailendra Kumar. He advised me to start working in courts at the first available opportunity and gave me a lead on the recruitment option from the Delhi High Court notice board.
Although my father knew many eminent lawyers at that time, I had reservations to start working with his friends or acquaintances. The very next day, I went to look at the recruitment board without my father’s knowledge.
The first notice I saw was for a Central Government Standing Counsel and Additional Public Prosecutor in the Delhi High Court. I straight away went to the chamber and the next thing I knew, I was a part of the chamber.
I must say, my first senior was very kind to have given me unfettered access to the files and the opportunity to draft a lot for government departments. Most importantly, I had independent meetings with the officials, who would come with comments.
My senior was very kind to have also given me a stipend; that was a great motivation not only for the money, but also for the fact that my work was appreciated. I would religiously attend my law college in the mornings and then rush back to the Delhi High Court and work till late evening.
At one instance, I was the complainant in a case and made friends with the investigating officer. He literally taught me police investigations, what case diaries were, how they were and what was the way forward to crack blind cases - all skills of an investigator. Slowly, things opened up and I worked in multiple offices before graduating, and then continued to work for another two years thereafter.
I eventually set up my own office. No one gives their place to lawyers on rent. I liked a place and could manage the rent too, but the landlord wanted the reference of one of the lawyers he knew. Vikas Pahwa (now Senior Advocate) graciously vouched for me and I got the place, where I continued for a good eight years. Now that I had an office, I needed work to come in. My dear friends Ameet Datta and Shamnad Basheer helped me get work.
They, apart from my partner Advocate Madhukar Pandey, had a big part in where I have reached today. I would say God has been very kind to me to give me the right mentors and really good friends like Ameet, Shamnad and Madhukar. Unfortunately, we lost Shamnad, which was a huge personal loss to me and a big loss to the entire legal fraternity.
What was your practice like before you were appointed as Special Public Prosecutor?
My preferred way of working was to do very limited, but quality criminal and civil matters, mostly out of Delhi. I have been doing matters almost in all states in India and a couple of countries overseas. I have also been fortunate to be deeply involved with issues such as cross-border structuring, restructuring and tax planning.
I was part of International Trademarks Association (INTA), which was useful for me to connect with lawyers across the world for my work related to cross-border structuring. Usually, I prefer doing one matter a day or four matters a week professionally, and one matter pro bono every week - primarily matters of defence personnel families.
Sometimes, the equations might differ depending on the dates given by the courts or my other commitments. I am a firm believer of work-life balance and like to spend time with family. Prior to my appointment as SPP, my practice included lots of travelling within India and abroad. Being an SPP has definitely changed that.
How challenging was the transition from having a regular practice to arguing as an SPP in one of the most highlighted cases in recent times?
The biggest challenge I faced was definitely the long hours of work and the onerous burden of large number of cases that have encroached upon my dedicated family time. Initially, I did not spend any family time and ended up sleeping at 3 am and waking up at 6 or 7 am to prepare for the day.
Even while my father-in-law was in the hospital in his last stages, and being the only son-in-law in India, I had night duty at the hospital. I would carry my iPad and notepad to read through the voluminous charge sheets. I read approximately 2,000 plus pages in a day. Being new to prosecution, I did not want to miss the key points. I diligently get notes prepared from my colleagues and revisit them meticulously.
When we started, luckily the judges understood that being SPPs, we were new to prosecution and needed time to settle into that mode.
Initially, I did make mistakes of accepting the defence version on face value, since I had the moulding of a defence lawyer. I was also lucky to have had amazing support from the regular prosecutors assigned to the Riots courts. I was open enough with them to candidly admit what I did not know and they were kind enough to guide me through.
After this assignment as the SPP, I realised that there is a whole other side to being a lawyer, a new set of skills and acumen, which I am trying to learn every day.
How do you cope with the pressure of handling so many Riots cases? How has life changed?
Life? Today I'd ask, what is that? Honestly, as I said before, there is no life. Life is when you have quality time with first yourself, then your family and thereafter with friends. I have practically stopped doing regular exercise.
I exited from the WhatsApp group of my extended family as well as the ones having my school and college friends. Now, the only WhatsApp groups I am part of pertain to Riots, Riots and Riots and updates from law reporting portals like Bar & Bench.
Recently, my classmate travelled from the USA and couple of friends were planning to meet in Gurgaon. My reservation was that I couldn't travel that distance due to paucity of time. My cousin got married and I couldn’t attend the wedding.
When I attended a marriage while orders were passed, it was widely publicised in the media that the prosecutor was wilfully absent. There is a fine balance which needs to be kept between my professional commitments and personal life, while handling these Riots cases on a day-to-day basis. Some courts are more accommodating than others. I try hard not to let down my appointing authority, the honourable President of India, in these cases.
Prosecution, as I said earlier, is something I had never endeavoured before. I still remember my first effective day when I had 30 matters listed. All were crucial and the reputation - both mine as well as that of the investigating agency - was at stake apart from public confidence.
It was a great deal of pressure and exhaustion. I have always believed never to restrict oneself: dream, plan and execute with perfection. As a special prosecutor, I face a lot of anxiety and it is hard to remain equanimous. But having no option, I try to remain calm, at least on the exterior.
Frankly, without the support of my family, I would not have been able to manage my schedule.
What prompted you to take up the role of prosecutor?
I was in the Uttarakhand High Court at Nainital to argue on the constitutional validity of a statute when I got a random message from someone I know, that a team of prosecutors for the Delhi Riots cases was being considered and whether I was interested. Thinking it would be a great learning experience from a whole new perspective, I responded in the affirmative.
This ‘someone’ had no relation with the investigation of these Riots cases. He just learnt about it and shared the information with me. When I said yes, he asked me to submit my consent in a particular format.
Thus, it was pure luck. God wanted me to see and learn the challenges of prosecution and investigation closely, as part of my learning curve as a lawyer.
Let me put this in perspective by saying that getting appointed as SPP for one case is quite different from getting appointed for a host of riots cases that are under the public glare. It is really tough and challenging.
What suggestions do you have for the new crop of lawyers, especially those who want to get into prosecution?
Prosecution is an extremely demanding, but rather thankless job. It is very tough and serious work, as the prosecution needs to prove evidence beyond reasonable doubt, while for the defence, you just need to create doubt on one stand-alone point, for which you need to lay your defence at the right time.
Public faith in the justice delivery system depends equally upon how well the prosecution is represented. I would definitely suggest lawyers to try prosecution, as it teaches a lot of skills and abilities. It also teaches how to manage time, which I, personally, found a little strenuous.
With that in mind, if we look at the bigger picture, it is high time for the government and the law colleges to look at prosecution more seriously. There are no special courses for prosecution in law colleges. There is no specialisation and finishing course in prosecution.
Often, the prosecution has no assisting hand, be it for preparation, drafting, research, etc., while the defence has a battery of lawyers who work as a coordinated team to discredit prosecution evidence.