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Hamarsan Singh Thangkhiew is much sought after in the north-eastern state of Meghalaya. In this interview with Bar & Bench’s Aditya AK, the Senior Advocate HS Thangkhiew talks about the evolving legal practice in Shillong, Sixth Schedule matters in the North-East, and more.
Hailing from the Khasi Hills District, a tribal area under the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution, Thangkhiew’s family had no lawyers. In fact, he took up law after witnessing the prolonged legal battles his mother fought.
After obtaining a law degree from Delhi University, he came to Gauhati, where he began his career under former Advocate General of Meghalaya, NM Lahiri. Now Lahiri, is quite a legend in the legal profession in these parts.
“At that point of time, he was the doyen of the Gauhati Bar. He was the authority on the Sixth Schedule; he was like a walking library. What you learn from him, I don’t think you can learn from anywhere else.
His chambers produced judges like Justice Goswami and Justice Chaudhury [sitting judges at the Gauhati High Court]. I worked very closely with them.”
After working in Lahiri’s chambers for a few years, the time came to set up an independent practice. It was not the easiest thing to do back then in Shillong, given the fact that the legal profession in the area was rudimentary in some aspects.
“My independent practice started because of Mr. Lahiri’s support. I come from a place where there are not many lawyers and the laws are still very unclear because we are governed by customary law. He told me to go back and help my people.”
I come from a place where there are not many lawyers and the laws are still very unclear because we are governed by customary law. He told me to go back and help my people.
Up until a couple of years ago, Meghalaya did not have a High Court of its own, making do with a circuit bench of the Gauhati High Court. The High Court of Meghalaya came into being in March 2013, with his practice steadily growing ever since.
“We didn’t have a separate High Court, so the interaction between the judges and the Bar was very limited. They would only meet at parties and other occasions.
Things have changed since the High Court of Meghalaya came into being – there is more interaction, more friction, and therefore more healthy growth, both for the Bar and the Bench.”
HS Thangkhiew feels that on a national level, competition within the profession has increased significantly. And this change is mirrored in Meghalaya as well.
“Nationally, I think the Bars have become a lot more aggressive, in the sense that there is a lot more competition among lawyers. The more the lawyers, the more the aspiration, and the more they expect out of the Bench. One negative effect is that any little thing gets amplified and becomes an issue.
Competition is starting to increase here as well. Earlier, in Shillong, you would have only six lawyers joining the Bar per year. Shillong Law College was the only law college back then. But now, there are so many lawyers coming here from different parts of the country, passing out from colleges in Pune, Bangalore etc. This is because law has become an attractive profession. Before, it was a last resort for people who couldn’t get jobs.”
Meghalaya is an autonomous region under the Sixth Schedule, meaning that the people are more or less governed by customary law. And the fact that each region has its own laws calls for a nuanced approach.
“A lot of cases came from the North-East states; every region has its own peculiarities, so we had to handle the matters in a sensitive manner.
When matters go from here to the Supreme Court, they are given that special treatment, all the peculiarities are considered. If it touches the Sixth Schedule, it becomes a Constitutional question. When that is the case, usually parties are promptly given notice and heard.”
Having appeared in the Supreme Court for a number of matters, HS Thangkhiew says that the atmosphere there is a far cry from how things work in Shillong.
“Practice is very slow here, in the sense that we have very few cases. Even at the Gauhati High Court, things are slow compared to the Supreme Court, where things happen at a supersonic speed. Lawyers from here sometimes find it difficult to put their senses together when appearing before a Supreme Court judge!”
I realise he is being modest to a fault, given the high regard his peers hold him in, despite his relatively young age. He was called to be a Senior Advocate at the age of 42.
“When I was called to become a Senior in 2008, I was very young, so I was unsure of whether or not to accept it. I told Mr. Nilay Dutta [Senior Advocate at the Gauhati High Court] that I don’t know enough for this honour to be bestowed upon me. But he told that it was not for me to see but for others to see. Later, in 2010, I was designated by the Gauhati High Court.
I think lawyers should be allowed to apply, because in most cases, only lawyers who are noticed by judges are designated. There are some very good lawyers practicing at district courts, who don’t come to the High Court at all. They too deserve their place in the sun.”
His answers so far have been precise, and at the same time, genuine. It is perhaps force of habit, born out of the style of argument he has adopted over the years.
“A lot of it is influenced by your mentor, and other senior lawyers. You learn how to temper your arguments. My senior used to say that a lawyer must have more light than sound. He was very precise and concise with his arguments. He was against using adjectives! I try to be like him, and focus on getting my point across to the judge.”
The close-knit community of the region brings with it a unique predicament for a lawyer. HS Thangkhiew is often faced with the task of appearing against someone he knows personally.
“When cases come in a small place like this, you know the people you are going to be fighting against. That makes it all the more difficult. But as a professional, people who come to you don’t judge you, so who are you to judge them? So at the end of the day, you just do your job.”
But as a professional, people who come to you don’t judge you, so who are you to judge them? So at the end of the day, you just do your job.
He is old school in some aspects, and not so much in others. For example, he staunchly believes that juniors too should be recognized for their work.
“I am totally against not paying juniors. When I was a junior in Gauhati, it was a big struggle; some chambers never paid their juniors at all, even though they worked day in day out. I was fortunate to be under Mr. Lahiri. He had a system of giving a certain percentage of what he earned from cases and a fixed monthly amount to his juniors. I have continued that system with my juniors.”
And what advice does he have for budding and future litigating lawyers?
“Litigation gives you a high which no other branch of law can give you. When you start off, there is an amount of insecurity, but you have to remain focused. You have to suffer and be a nobody for 5-6 years.”