Media should know to draw a line in sensitive cases: Senior Advocate Aabad Ponda

Ponda speaks about his journey from powerlifting to litigation, why he chose specialised counsel practice over general practice and how he deals with the pressure of appearing in high-profile matters.
Senior Advocate Aabad Ponda
Senior Advocate Aabad Ponda

Although born in a family of legal stalwarts, Senior Advocate Aabad Ponda wanted to be a powerlifter. An injury and "timely intervention" of his parents brought him into the legal profession.

Maybe it is Ponda's love for fitness that enables him to swiftly glide between courts. He runs in, argues concisely and leaves in a huff for the next matter. He has appeared in many matters involving high stakes, heavily covered by the media.

Considered to be one of the busiest counsel of the Bombay High Court, Ponda cleared his schedule to speak about his journey in the profession.

In this interview with Bar and Bench's Neha Joshi, Ponda speaks about his journey from powerlifting to litigation, why he chose specialised counsel practice over general practice, how he deals with the pressure of appearing in high-profile matters and more.

Edited excerpts follow.

Neha Joshi (NJ): What prompted you to take up a career in law?

Aabad Ponda (AP): Both my parents were in the field of criminal law. It was something that was spoken of at home since I was a child. I also saw a great amount of potential to progress in life in this field as I saw it in the case of both my parents. It was like having it in my blood and DNA. So that is what made me take the plunge. Incidentally, when I was a student at St Xavier’s College, I was a powerlifter. And, if left unguided by parents about the realities of life, children can do things that are not in their best interests. I did not think that there was any need to be a professional, get married, have children, have a family and have success. I thought the best thing for me would be if I become a priest at St Xavier’s College, get free food to eat from there, use that protein to work out in the evening, achieve all my goals in exercise, earn ₹7,000-8,000 a month and be happy.

Senior Advocate Aabad Ponda
Senior Advocate Aabad Ponda

Unfortunately, when you are a kid and you don’t know life, this is supposed to be the most peaceful experience - to get a job and be happy with what you are doing. That’s where you need parental guidance and that is where this guidance changed my desire to become a professional rather than just be a priest. Thank God I did not become a priest. Thank God my back broke in 1988-89 when I was training for the world championships, so I am a lawyer today.

NJ: Were you powerlifting even in law school?

AP: I studied law at Government Law College (GLC). I was powerlifting in St Xaviers. In my second year of Bachelor of Arts (BA), I won the nationals. In my third year of BA, I was knocked out from powerlifting when I injured my fifth lumbar vertebra. I was drug-free, without any steroids, that is why.

NJ: How was your law school experience? 

AP: At GLC, it was like a culture shock coming from Xaviers. In Xaviers, we had six libraries, we had a quadrangle, we had a basketball court, we had 100% attendance and students wanted to attend. We had lovely teachers, they made everything interesting. The whole setup was like an American university with a lot of polish and class. From Xaviers, going to GLC was a completely different experience. I don’t want to comment much, but it was like a 360-degree turn which did not impress me at all. But I had to go through the grind to ensure I become a lawyer. So I took that part seriously and I began to study very hard. From the first day, I was very punctual in classes, because this was going to be my profession. And I said the more I put in effort, the better I will become. 

NJ: How was your journey after graduation? 

AP: I always wanted to do criminal law. My mother was toying with the idea of putting me up with a certain senior. She even spoke to my dad, they had a discussion, and they said, 'When we are in the field to guide him, nobody will guide him better than that, you will get to learn, you will get to do everything well.' So during my apprenticeship days in college, I was working with them. By the time I finished my law and came into the profession with a sanad, I was already sharpened up to some extent. I could conduct matters, and I could do things because of the three years of grounding I had.

NJ: When did you start working independently?

AP: I was with them (my parents) for some time, but then immediately after that, I started conducting my matters. The only thing is that it was very difficult to get matters in the beginning because you had two people in your family who were very accomplished. When you are dealing with criminal law, you are dealing with life and liberty, they want experienced people. So I had to work hard and put in a lot of effort to become stronger in my principles, law and grounding, so that people come to me, get attracted to me and I have something to give back to them.

NJ: What do you think was your breakthrough case?

AP: I conducted a very big trial in the first year. And it was a huge case. There were four seizures of drugs from a very big Pathan, who was an international drug smuggler. I did it more out of opportunity than money, because the money was hardly anything. But the two years that I conducted the trial, the cross-examination, was a breakthrough for trial court experience. I got a lot of confidence. I was examining a witness for 2-3 days at length. In the first or second trial of your life, to do all this gives you a lot of courage. Then I started taking up other IPC, murder cases, and slowly it started.

NJ: Do you consciously try to appear in trial courts?

AP: I don’t do trials now unless there is some old trial that is pending. You have to appear in trial courts for important matters, bail hearings, etc. Otherwise no. But one has to appear in trial courts, because the live criminal law is there only. At the High Court, there is more appellate and more paperwork. In trial courts, it is saving lives and doing things for liberty. Everything starts there only. Custom matters, PMLA matters, big cases, and important arrests, all come in trial courts or lower courts.

Mumbai Sessions Court
Mumbai Sessions Court

NJ: Did you ever feel like taking up matters on the civil side? 

AP: One thing I learnt at the beginning of my career is that specialisation pays. If you are a jack of all trades, it doesn’t work. Unless you want to go and practice on the government side or do a general practice in the Supreme Court, which I was told is not easy from Bombay when your set-up is here. Emotionally, friends-wise, family-wise, house-wise and atmosphere-wise, Delhi is a different ball game, a different DNA. I always believed that specialisation will help. So, I started specialisation in this field. I do a lot of civil work also, but not regularly, because it eats into my criminal practice.

Senior Advocate Aabad Ponda
Senior Advocate Aabad Ponda

NJ: How did senior designation happen?

AP: I was never interested. I was not aware of senior designation much. One of my batchmates who worked with a senior lawyer met me outside my old office and told me that another friend of ours is applying for a senior gown and that I should also apply. What is a senior gown? What is the concept? I didn’t know much about it. I just applied for the sake of it. I do not want to comment much about the system.

NJ: You have been appearing in controversial matters and those involving high stakes. How do you deal with the pressure?

AP: I am not pressurised with my work at all. Whether it is a poor person with no stakes or for someone with high stakes, I put in the same effort. Rather, I would say it is not stress that affects me, it is stress that I like. It is a driving force for me. I am very peaceful with my work.

Senior Advocate Aabad Ponda
Senior Advocate Aabad Ponda

NJ: What about pressure because of media coverage of the cases you appear in? 

AP: I am not affected by the media. Earlier, I used to give interviews. I was hauled up by a couple of judges not to do it. And I was told specifically ‘Don’t talk to the press, don’t talk to the media’. Therefore, the impression that I create with all of you is ‘he is a snob, he doesn’t even give an interview’. I am just trying to avoid controversy with the Bench. Judges don’t like it. It is something that is frowned upon. Going on television also, one of the things I was told was it affects your designations over the years if you go and give interviews. So I stopped giving interviews. I am giving you one, but interviews outside the court, bytes and all, are dangerous.

NJ: What are your views about sharing information with the media on ongoing cases? 

AP: I argued a petition against the media in the Supreme Court in 2012. I have no problem with sharing information with the media or anyone. The difficulty of sharing information is that it ruins people’s lives. Sometimes, the media does not intend to do anything wrong. I will give them full marks. They are doing their job, they are only educating the public. But it is a very dangerous territory they are stepping on. Dangerous, because the moment you say anything about a case that is sensitive, it can seriously cause a very negative vein against that person whose case meets its fate there. And very often, it can prejudice the investigation also. You go on certain channels or certain people who will be like 'The murder weapon is found!”'What about the recovery or discovery after 10-15 days? It becomes zero. Because the murder weapon was known on the TV channel.

The media should know to draw the line in sensitive cases. They should report in such a manner, that they try to look at the future with a magnifying glass and then only they should report. Otherwise, it is very dangerous. It can create havoc in people’s lives. Look at Rhea (Bollywood actress Rhea Chakraborty). When she was hovered by the press…her life! She was arrested only on suspicion, only on hype. It is not right. You should put yourself in her shoes.

Senior Advocate Aabad Ponda
Senior Advocate Aabad Ponda

NJ: A lot of cases are being discussed in public on social media. Does that affect the outcome of the case?

AP: Let them know what is happening, that is not a problem. Courts are expected to be open to everybody, unless it is an in-camera case. How many people actually log in and see it? Therefore, it is better than putting it in a newspaper. The forbidden fruit is always less eaten when you give it to them. So you say 'This is allowed, go take it, no problem' and then people do not bother. This live-streaming is healthy. Sometimes the connection is not good. Sometimes they cannot hear properly, so they cut you or stop you, that is the only difficulty.

NJ: What is your view on trial courts being hesitant to grant bail?

AP: I am telling you one thing, there is a lot of pressure on trial judges. Their actions are scrutinized by the superior courts. Even if they are told to be free in their thinking, even if they pass any bold orders, they are either transferred or questioned. They have a chair to protect, their lives to protect. They are servants of the government. They do not have a flourishing practice. They do not want to do anything which will jeopardize their seat. So, generally, they are very cautious and avoid doing anything controversial.

Senior Advocate Aabad Ponda
Senior Advocate Aabad Ponda

NJ: What is your take on judges making observations during a hearing?

AP: They have to speak. You cannot have a silent judge, who does not even react. Then you will not know what to say. The observation of judges, sometimes, guides you in your argument. You know where the judge is coming from and where he/she is going. You know where to pick up and where to stop.

NJ: Do you think that with live-streaming and media coverage of hearings, they will be tempted to play to the gallery?

AP: Judges do not play to the gallery. They are not bothered at all about the gallery. They do not know that they are being looked at. They are dealing with a case and a lawyer. They are human beings, they also make mistakes. But ultimately, you cannot say that mistakes are made by the Supreme Court, there is no one to correct that.

NJ: What is your take on PILs which are filed to initiate criminal investigations?

AP: PIL in a personal matter is not entertainable. You have remedies. You have writ courts. You have Section 156(3) of the Code of Criminal Procedure (private complaint to the magistrate). You have hundreds of other remedies. Therefore, those PILs are not very effective. But if there is a large-scale death, like Union Carbide or something, and nothing is being done, then that PIL has a different flavour where the public at large is involved. Then there would certainly be some substance in it and it is worth pursuing such matters.

NJ: What do you think courts can do to weed out frivolous PILs?

AP: Heavy costs and pre-deposit costs. That is the only way to stop and deter unnecessary litigation. Sometimes, they give you pre-condition costs before the hearing.

NJ: Is there a lawyer you look up to?

AP: A lot of lawyers have charm. A lot of lawyers have great flair. Everyone has their own thing. Today, I am indebted to my parents for whatever they have done for me in the profession. The minute things that I have learnt from them, I will never forget them. When they were both there, I could look up to them as mentors to guide me. They are the best people. Apart from being my parents, in their field, they are prime and best. So rather than going to some extremely super senior from Delhi, I look up to them. But they have their limitations, they have their problems. I am very grateful to God for whatever he has done for me. I do not need to compare with others. I can only say he has given me more than what I deserve.

NJ: What are your views on allegations of nepotism in the field?

AP: There is going to be criticism of the system and criticism of nepotism, etc. I will only say one thing, there are certain things you cannot change. There are certain things that you must learn to accept. It is not just in judges. Sometimes, indirectly it happens with lawyers also. When you are arguing in a court also. With opponents also. You may feel sometimes that judges have been a little unfair to you and fairer with another than they should be. It is certainly unintentional and not something they would personally do or that they have grudges against you. It is all part of the system that you have to learn to live with. Sometimes you win, but you have superior courts where you lose.

It is not something that you can completely knock out. And it is not only in the legal fraternity. In medicine too, you may have the same kind of problems. So I think certain things in life you have to accept. Life is not fair, is the first rule you have to accept. Many people do not deserve anything and get so much. And people who deserve a lot do not get it. So if you accept that truth, then this is very small.

Senior Advocate Aabad Ponda
Senior Advocate Aabad Ponda

NJ: Do you think there is a dearth of arguing female counsel in our courts?

AP: There are many arguing female counsel. Unfortunately, I have a lot of empathy. I have a different take on female lawyers. Generally, females have a very tough job balancing family and work. My mother was a top-class counsel and I have seen how she used to balance both. And females have a greater amount of capacity of giving love to their children than a male would. Being the backbone of the family, seeing that all fronts are looked at. They have to give up their practice when they become mothers. They want to bond and spend time with their children. So to that extent, this profession is a little unfair to females; where females do not get the opportunity or unlimited access as males do.

Many of them stick on. But as far as arguing female counsel go, some of them can even defeat males. Some of them are as good as men, if not better than men. So the numbers are not a true representation of their capacity. It is just that males have lesser on their platter to do other than law. Females have much more, so their balancing act may sometimes make the numbers fewer. But as far as skill and ability go, there is no difference.

Senior Advocate Aabad Ponda
Senior Advocate Aabad Ponda

I would say something to you with pride. When appearing in a case, Ram Jethmalani was praised by somebody. He said, “Don’t praise me. Go to Bombay and see Ms Freny Parekh (Ponda’s mother). See how she cross-examines. She is better than me.”

Advocate Freny Parekh Ponda
Advocate Freny Parekh Ponda

There was a High Court judge at a wedding party I went to. He told a person, who was very close to Ram, praising him, “Ram is good, but I am saying there is a lady lawyer in Bombay called Ms Freny Ponda who is better than him. She knows her law very well. It is just that she is not a person who is into so much active practice, because she is looking after her family also, and is more or less semi-retired.” This was in the 90s after she had put in 40-45 years of practice. "She is fantastic", the judge said, “No disrespect to Ram, but she is better than Ram”.

So what I am saying is that there is no dearth of skills in women. I have seen that in my mother. I have seen her turning High Court judges in murder appeals, rape appeals and various matters with the sheer flair that she had. And her command over language and law that she knew, some males would never be able to do it.

NJ: Any advice to young lawyers?

AP: Three things - honesty, integrity and hard work. Nothing else will work in this profession. All three have to be done. If you become dishonest, you will not be able to achieve the heights, because you will not work hard. If you do not have integrity, the same thing. And unless hard work is there, that hunger in the belly, you are never going to be able to achieve anything.

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