In conversation with Advait M. Sethna on being a Practicing Counsel and Special Public Prosecutor at Narcotic Control Bureau

Advait M. Sethna is a Practicing Counsel at the Bombay High Court, Supreme Court of India  and various other subordinate – civil, criminal courts and tribunals and also Special Public Prosecutor at Narcotic Control Bureau. He has been interviewed by EBC/SCC Online Student Ambassador Arya Madhani who is currently pursuing law from GLC Mumbai.

  1. Before we begin, please tell our readers a little bit about yourself.

Professionally, I am a Practising Counsel at the Bombay High Court, Supreme Court of India  and various other subordinate – civil, criminal courts and tribunals. I am also the Special Public Prosecutor for the Narcotic Control Bureau (NCB). Personally, I am an aficionado of food, inclination to travel to exotic destinations and passionate about expressing my thoughts, unconventional many times, through the medium of Pen which is truly mightier than sword.

 

2. As the NCB’s Special Prosecutor, what is it like being a counsel and working in court? What interests you the most about it?

From my younger days as a student and then at the Bar I was always fascinated by Criminal Jurisprudence. I was particularly intrigued by the works of John Gresham to reading live cases of Shri Ram Jethmalani the Doyen of Criminal Law in India that never let the flame of a lawyer practicing on the criminal side diminish in me.

 

Truthfully, in the early years of practice I did not get enough opportunities /openings to practice on the criminal side. But I was hopeful will happen someday. Then in December of 2020 as wings to my dreams came the opportunity of appearing for NCB as its SPP.

 

I am still vividly reminiscent of my first case where there was a mob attack on the NCB Mumbai Zonal Director and other officers who were at the call of their duty in a raid on intelligence information, busting a large drug racket. It was a difficult case.  The quantity seized was commercial (i.e. large) under the Narcotic Drug and Psychotropic Substances Act (NDPS ACT, for short). However, from the prosecution side it was an uphill task to represent against those persons from whom there was no recovery of contraband but had offences registered under IPC for attacking the NCB officers. All is well that ends well. We were successful in getting  most of all the accused arrested, their bails rejected and are in judicial custody (Jail) as on date. The real challenge was when one of them alleged torture / ill-treatment against the NCB officers during course of investigation. Defending such serious allegations for a lawyer who was relatively new to the field was a formidable task. I was facing stalwarts on the other side for the defense. With sheer hard work tireless efforts, grit and determination, we could successfully reverse the order of the Magistrate before the Special Judge in the Hon’ble Sessions Court and the allegations of torture were set aside.

 

Then as days have gone by, I am extremely fortunate to have handled high profile cases concerning large drug peddlers, television actor/ film stars, socialites and such heavy weights.  At this juncture, I will fail in my duty if I don’t express my deep and genuine gratitude to the Zonal Director NCB Mumbai and the entire team of officers with whose support, trust and confidence reposed in me that I am able to perform to the best of my ability.

 

Being a counsel for the Prosecution, is indeed stimulating and challenging. Especially when the seizure of contraband is in small quantity bail is pleaded as a matter of right by the defense. That is where the scheme of the law and its strict interpretation with case law has to be presented to convince the Judges conscience that though liberty is priceless, equally vital is the need to prevent the drug menace which is spreading its roots in our country and society, like wild fire.

 

As a Counsel for the NCB when I am briefed I have noticed that many of the accused both male /female are in their early 20s and 30s. That pains me. When narcotic drugs like cocaine, LSD, heroine (terms that were Greek  & Latin to me) are hidden in cavities made in study books and cash  ingeniously concealed in computers, you feel bad for the youth. At that time, perhaps the philosophy of the Bhagwad Gita and the words of Krishna to Arjun who in the Mahabharata says – it’s a battle of Dharma i.e. Righteousness, Rule of Law, against Evil, that inspires me profoundly. This is what kindles my passion and fuels my enthusiasm.

 

The sense of satisfaction is immense in fighting in high pressure situations against the very powerful widespread drug mafia and in doing that fearlessly I must say with all humility that it feels I am giving back to the society, where I belong. The contribution may be a drop in the ocean but it is worth it all. It is incredibly satisfying when the Defense takes you as a formidable opponent – who is here to call Spade a Spade and not give up till the Judge puts down the gravel, who too looks up to you with respect more importantly, trusts you as an officer of the Court.

 

3. How did you make the decision to do your LLM abroad? How was your experience and do you have any advice for aspirants who want to follow a similar path?

This decision was frankly not mine alone. It was my late father’s aspiration who was a reputed Senior Counsel who actively practiced for 55 years. Blessed with a First Rank at the Final LL.B. from Government Law College and 2nd Position at the Mumbai University which was rather a pre requiste for me to pursue LL.M. abroad. As that would instill possibility of some scholarship / financial aid without which it would have just remained as a dream.

 

My experience to do LL.M. in International Comparative Law from Chicago Kent College of Law, Illinios Institute of Technology was the most rewarding and enriching. It was like a complete personality development training program for me. Where I not only understood and learnt law from a global stand point but the practical approach to the profession which is unfortunately amiss in our education system here, is what I realize is inevitable to build a robust foundation. Importantly besides helping me develop an analytical thinking, I owe my Drafting skills to the LL.M. Program.

 

I will firmly and incessantly advise all students to opt for an International LL.M. Please don’t worry about the job prospects. If you wish to transform your self and experience the winds of mixed cultures, different perspectives, practical learning and inch towards perfection which manifests in education, please go for it. These 9 months will metamorphize your career whether you practice there, doesn’t matter.

4. How important is doing proper legal research and how should law students equip themselves with legal research skills?

Legal Research is to Law what water and air are to life; what Chanakya did manifesting in the world famous Chanakya Niti.  According to me a lawyer always begins learning and never stops learning. This comes from legal research which is the single centrifugal force in developing analytical thinking and articulation  in ones career as a practicing advocate.

 

Right from first year in law school students should embrace technology which has changed the earlier norms, contours of legal research. Now at the hit of  the right click you get judgments. To build a strong foundation which starts with facts its vital to keep researching and updating oneself by reading good commentaries followed by using different tools like SCC Online, search engines, applications, live legal updates and notes taken in courts in a live hearing can enrich ones approach and perspective going forward.

5. What do you think is the most defining moment of your career? How do you define success?

To be fair and most candid  as it is a continuing journey which has a beginning but no end, it is not possible to crystallize and or callibrate one such moment.

 

Success to me lies in doing sheer and persistent hard work.  Work is always a pleasure. For me, when my conscience /inner voice says that I have done my best which is manifest in the efforts that I put in, is success to me.

 

In the context of Success, I must say that what has always  fuelled my motivation and keeps me going in times of triumph and despair, is the Verse from the Bhagwad Gita Karmaney Vadhikaraste Ma Phalechu Kadachana, Ma Karma  Fala Hetur Bhur Mate Sangostva Akarmani (We are bound only to do our duty to the best of our ability; irrespective of the result that ensues which is not for us to see, as any action is always better than inaction)

6. You have represented the Service Tax Department in the famous case against Mr Vijay Malaya. How do you think has that case impacted you professionally?

One of the most memorable experiences in my professional career which endowed me with recognition, fame and an unparalleled learning experience is this. I gather that when I was opposing Mr Mallaya’s bail for his prosecution in the Service Tax case for non payment of about 100 crores of admitted tax dues to the Government, I was opposed by the giant Mr Amit Desai Senior Advocate and Abad Ponda Senior Advocate, the legal eagles in criminal law.

 

Aggressive in Court as I am and having immense pressure of not being senior enough as also the sensitivity of the case, we faced the opposition bravely. Mr. Mallaya wanted to step out of Court for a bit during the hearing. I learnt reliably that it was in relation to some bidding for the IPL Match that was taking place in Mumbai, we opposed such leave vehemently and intimated the Court the purpose of the leave sought. The matter was argued for the entire day a marathon hearing from 11am to 6pm. However as destiny would have it, his and Sanjay Agarwal’s Bail was granted subject to stringent conditions.

 

My Junior and I faced anonymous threat calls. My movements were stalked. There was immense pressure even from the family that I shouldn’t do this case. We have also received calls from USA random numbers at 10 pm at night pressuring me to withdraw. But somehow the invisible hand of the Almighty, blessings of parents support of my better half propelled me continue this fight unabashed and unnerved.

 

Thereafter we filed extradition proceedings in the CMM Court. A very different experience yet again. In those proceedings we were victorious in the sense that an open ended non bailable warrant was issued against Vijay Malaya and Sanjay Aggrawal. For his extradition I recall that we needed to file an exhaustive Dossier of about 1000 pages in this case to be sent to Ministry of Home and External Affairs. Every page of this document has to be signed by the concerned Magistrate himself / herself. That was a herculean task where my chamber juniors took it unto ourselves. I remember personally visiting the Registry of the CMM Court motivating the staff to have it filed. We used to Mention the matter almost daily sometime in the morning, afternoon , evening as late as 7pm to request the Judge to sign it so that it can be despatched. I must say the Judges and staff of that Court took this as a clarion call for the country and co operated in an exemplary manner. As bureaucracy  would have it about 3 times the voluminous, bulky dossiers were returned from the Ministry on technical grounds. We did not give up. Each time these came back we motivated ourselves went back to Court again pleaded again and again and went though the grill till it was done.

Considering the good performance, I was then briefed as the Special Counsel by the Service Tax Dept to represent them before Debt Recovery Tribunal (“DRT” for short) at Bangalore. We battled successfully there where Service Tax Department intervened in the proceedings filed by the Bank for their 9000 crores before the DRT. Our intervention was formidably opposed by a very senior and much revered Senior Counsel of Karnataka High Court who came specially for this. However, the Judge after hearing arguments on the issue of Service Tax Department being a proper and necessary party to the said proceedings, finally gave a thumping Order of about 75 pages allowing the Intervention Application of Service Tax Department . Thus, Service Tax Dept. found an entry to secure sovereign tax dues.

7. Tell us about your experience as a counsel for CBFC in spite of the close criticism. What are your views on “media trial”?

In responding to the above, let me share with you that as a Counsel for the Central Board of Film Certification which is often mis quoted as Censor Board you are always critically evaluated much different than an offbeat film that at least claims a critics award. Here, when you are pitching your point against creativity of the film maker, it is indeed hard to convince the Court that you are espousing a cause and doing what the law, the Act envisages which is firmly anchored in public interest. The famous Udta Punjab case is a living example, a turning point in my career where I accidentally appeared and defended 14 cuts in the film for CBFC before a very tough Bench at the Bombay High Court. I did face the Court’s wrath and criticism. But not giving up ground, was able to convince the Court what our perspective was resulting in the Petition being partly and not fully allowed.

 

In my humble view Media Trial is a mis nomer. When Media takes on to it the task of an investigating agency and goes on to pronounce some one innocent or guilty it is impinging upon the constitutional function of the concerned agency and also the judiciary which are well defined and ear marked under our sacrosanct Constitution.

8. You seem to be very enthusiastic about sharing knowledge. What inspired you to set up online webinars and lives?

The famous saying Knowledge is Power has been the mantra all through.  I am  deeply inspired by the words of the very famous Steve Jobs who always said Stay Hungry Stay Foolish. I believe that expressing Gratitude for what you have multiples though sharing. Rather than hoarding knowledge I have gathered if I am able to disseminate it with interns, juniors inculcates a feeling of immense fulfillment and contentment.

 

Last Year, the Covid -19 pandemic had got us all to a grinding halt and virtual / online started becoming the new age trend. Then, Swami Vivekananda’s words of wisdom – Everything is easy when you are busy; but nothing is easy when you are lazy, echoed to me.  I was thus inspired to share the knowledge from indoors though the boon of technology by hosting these webinars. I un learnt and learnt in the process each time and the live session were like live lessons teaching me and giving me a fresh perspective unleashing a new stream of thought each time I was hosting these events.

9. What kind of work environment do you like to create within the chambers? Are there some qualities you look for in your juniors and the people you work with?

I expect and strive to usher in a congenial atmosphere in our Chamber premised on mutual trust dovetailed with team work and mutual respect for each other. Interns and or Associates are treated at par, when it comes to allocation of work. Work Hard Party Harder is what I encourage my team to follow.

 

I believe that hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. The quality that impresses me the most in juniors is the thirst to learn more; an inquisitorial approach backed by willingness to share ideas perspectives and grow holistically together. It is like once a part of of Sethna Chamber always a part thereof.  We believe in nurturing healthy and long term relationships whereby we are always there for each other in times of need, whenever, wherever.

Before I formally close, I must record my sincere appreciation for Ms. Arya Madhani a third year law student at the Government Law College for the questions posed to me. Besides putting very interesting questions, some not easy to answer exhibits so much maturity and an unquenchable thirst to learn and excel, in this young student.

Before I formally close, I must record my sincere thanks to SCC Online and appreciation for Ms. Arya Madhani a third year law student at the Government Law College for the questions posed to me. Besides putting very interesting questions, some not easy to answer exhibits so much maturity and an unquenchable thirst to learn and excel, in this young student.

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