“Every friend you make lifts you just one notch higher. And being likable makes you lighter to lift.” – From village roots to Supreme Court heights, Naveen Kumar, Advocate-on-Record at Supreme court of India.

This interview has been published by Namrata Singh and The SuperLawyer Team

Mr. Naveen, your journey from the University of Delhi to becoming an Advocate-On-Record with over two decades of experience is impressive. Can you take us through the pivotal moments or decisions that shaped your path and brought you to where you are today?

While the journey from Delhi University onwards may be as good as it could be, the expedition from a village school to CLC (Campus Law Centre of Delhi University) is nothing short of a miracle. As it is said, if you believe in miracles they do happen. Today while I can boast myself as a modern english educated person having scientific temperament, I owe a lot to the scriptures, especially “The Ram Charitramanas” (by Goswami Tulsidas) without which I could not have grown even as an educated person.

As in the first page of the epic Tusidas ji has worshiped goddess of faith and belief by saying “भवानीशङ्करौ वन्दे श्रद्धाविश्वासरूपिणौ” (alute lord Shiva and mother goddess Parvati who are personification of faith and belief). In hindsight, I can trace my existence to the very faith and belief (in God and oneself) which shaped my early life. Thus, I have no hesitation in confessing that I could not have received even an elementary education but for my interest in spiritualism and mythological stories such as Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas etc which used to be daily ritual in my family, while growing up in a village of district Siwan (Bihar).

Of course, the spiritual light was sparked by the parents, especially my father, a deeply religious person, who used to narrate bed time stories of Ramayana, Mahabharata and Puranas etc.

In this backdrop even before starting formal schooling, I was able to recite Chaupai and Dohas. My father had a fixed routine throughout his life, he used to do puja (worship) every morning which included Path (recital) Ram Charitmans. The child’s natural curiosity led them to look through the pages of the epic, perhaps starting with the photos, and thereafter reading the stories. Soon I grew up as a favorite child to be called for reciting Dohas and chaupais in front of guests and visitors by my father.

I don’t remember anything more about my studies or schooling up to class 8th. A significant milestone (again in hindsight) was surpassed when I was shifted from the village primary school to high school in class 9th in the year 1984-85. Because of my interest in Hindi poetries etc., and the ability to orate them loudly in front of anyone, a few of my teachers somehow started admiring and encouraging me.

In the year 1985, during the 9th class, I won the first prize in antakshari on Tulsi Jayanti. Though it may not have seemed much worth at the time, today, it appears to be one of the significant events of my life. This achievement drew the attention of more and more teachers in school towards me, leading to special attention in my studies.  

Due to the encouragement of the teachers, I began to take my studies more seriously, ultimately becoming the highest scorer in the 10th board exams in the whole village. Even today, I can vividly recollect my first day as I started learning my alphabets in the sunshine on the auspicious day of Basant Panchami in 1985 when one my teachers, Shri Hiral Lal Singh, started teaching me ‘angrezi’ (English).  

Because of the encouragement (rather blessings) of my teachers I grew up to become the first person in the joint family (of about 30 people), consisting of all of my cousins, to study beyond Class 12th.

The first seed of big dreams were planted again by sheer coincidence (almost like a miracle). In 1987, my identity as a sincere student received a boost due to my good result in 10th Board. Simultaneously, an unrelated event occurred where a native of Siwan district topped the UPSC Civil Services Exam in the same year. Instantly, it became a matter of huge celebration and talk of every nook and corner of the district including my village. A number of inspiring tales of hard work and success left a lasting charm of civil services which stuck with me and played a role in drawing me to Delhi.

As I landed up in Delhi with big dreams and empty pockets the hard realities in the form of huge financial constraints and cultural shock put insurmountable challenges; in that backdrop few well-wishers suggested getting admission in a Law course in DU which would give access to library and other facilities. Accordingly, preparation for DU entrance started, and luckily, I secured a few tuition assignments to sustain survival in the life of the metro. After having secured good rank in the entrance test, doors of CLC opened and so the new horizon of hope, aspiration and struggle. 

During CLC days I was again dear to my teacher who inspired me to engage in the extracurricular activities as visits to Tihar Jail, Criminal Courts, Slums-areas, I used to perform in Nukkad-Natak etc,. as a part of our Legal awareness activities which opened the doors of real-life learnings and helped me to develop a keen interest in interplay of law justice (or injustice) at the crude level.

Thus, my journey is an intricate interconnection of how spirituality, education, and the quest for knowledge all played a role. Starting from the small village temple to studying law, each part of my journey has added to my life story, making me who I am today.

Your career spans over 24 years in litigation, with a focus on diverse areas like Energy/Natural/Mining Laws, Intellectual Property, and more. Can you share a case that significantly shaped your approach to law and advocacy?

After having completed my LL.B. degree in 1998, I got my bar registration and plunged into practice; the obvious choice for me was to start from Tis Hazari court as some of my friends as well as seniors were practicing there. I drifted for about 2 years in various chambers of Tis Hazari court. In 3rd year through a senior’s reference, I joined the chambers of Mr. Gopal Jain, (now a senior advocate). This opportunity proved to be a very huge milestone as I got access up to the highest echelons of litigation practice. Because of my initial training in district courts and hardworking nature my senior started giving independent briefs for subordinate courts and showed full faith in me.  I got various chances to handle the cases independently which ultimately turned out to be a good grooming process. While working with Mr. Jain, I had numerous opportunities to brief various senior advocates, including the most renowned ones and these opportunities enhanced confidence and enriched my understanding of diverse legal areas.

Like any other young aspirant, I too was fascinated by the grandeur of the Apex Court. I was a regular visitor to the premises of the highest court of the land. However, I didn’t get any case in the Supreme Court despite my sincere wish for that. As it is said, that every thought is a prayer, my purposeless visits manifested into a reality when I got my first Supreme Court case in the year 2005 with reference to one of my distant relatives. Later on, another milestone in my career as an advocate of the Supreme Court was achieved when I got one case involving eleven policemen accused of murder in an encounter in Jharkhand, which later on became a landmark judgment on Section 482 of the Cr.P.C. 

During the grooming days striving to become a practitioner in the Hon’ble Supreme Court and High Court(s) of India, my mentors/seniors instilled the ethos of “working like a horse and living like a hermit”. A junior is expected to be very thorough with the list of dates, comparative analysis of rival pleadings, argument points, compilation of case laws and also possible arguments of the other side (devil’s advocate) etc. As I always aspired to be a litigation lawyer in higher forums, I was constantly asking my seniors to provide me more and more work or opportunity to read files, also, I used to ask for those matters, which were not assigned to me. In that process and during my association with Mr. Jain I gained invaluable experience and professional maturity.

A significant turn happened in 2011 when I handled a case related to illegal mining before the Supreme Court of India, arguing against a renowned Senior Advocate and securing a favorable outcome for the mining lease holder. The controversial and politically sensitive nature of the case gained widespread attention in the State of Odisha consequently I started getting a lot of mining cases which eventually created my reputation as a mining lawyer and till date I have handled almost 500 mining cases before Mines Tribunal, NGT, different High Courts and Supreme Court. In fact, in 2018, in one of the most controversial mining cases, a bench of the Apex court asked a super senior to give way to me to address the court, and after five days of full day arguments a reported judgment was delivered. This provided firmness in Supreme Court litigation practice, marked by strong desire, hard-work, consistency and consequent abilities to overcome the hindrances/ barriers created by language, lack of family background, or financial or other support from parents.

Your extensive list of publications showcases a keen interest in legal commentary. How do you decide which topics to delve into, and what impact do you hope your writings have on the legal community or society at large?

In determining the topics for my legal commentaries, I am guided by a dual purpose – a passion for the subject matter and a commitment to addressing issues that hold relevance for the legal community and society at large. Each publication represents a careful selection based on contemporary legal challenges and emerging issues.

For instance, my book titledSand Mining Laws in Indiadelves into a crucial yet often overlooked aspect of environmental law. Through this work, I aim to shed light on the intricacies of sand mining regulations, contributing to a better understanding of the legal framework surrounding this environmental concern.

The articleJudicial Restraint in Tender matters – A perspective,” published in SCC Online, reflects my interest in exploring the nuanced application of judicial restraint in the context of tender matters. By sharing this perspective, I hope to initiate thoughtful discussions within the legal community and contribute to the development of jurisprudence in this area.

Similarly, my writings on topics like “Principles of Bail in Financial Crimes,” “Goal of Net Zero,” “Ban on Single-use-Plastic,” “Gender Pay Gap,” and “Compensatory Afforestation” aim to bridge the gap between legal theory and practical implications. These pieces in Bar and Bench and Live Law are designed to prompt reflection, foster informed dialogue, and potentially influence legal discourse and policy-making.

Ultimately, my goal is not only to contribute to the legal scholarship but also to bring about positive changes and make contribution in the legal discourse. I aspire for my writings to serve as catalysts for discussions, policy reforms, and a deeper understanding of the legal complexities surrounding these critical topics.

You’ve authored “Sand Mining Laws in India.” What inspired you to write on this specific subject, and what challenges did you face in distilling such complex legal issues for a broader audience?

So far as the sand mining is concerned, from my experience in appearing before NGT and Supreme court, I realized that there is a serious discord between the authorities who are granting quarry leases for sand and those who are regulating and implementing the environmental regulations concerning the sand mining. Through interactions with numerous lease holders, it became evident that they were uninformed about the intricate statutory rules, regulations, circulars and office memorandums etc., governing their business of sand mining. Due to the lack of awareness, many miners incur the ire of NGT, resulting in the imposition of significant penalties. Many times, penalties are computed by the committees constituted by the NGT, which are based on an eye estimation, surmises, conjectures and which is far beyond the paying capacity of the respective quarry holders. This mainly inspired me to write a book on this specific topic with a purpose to spread awareness amongst the stakeholders about the required compliance as sand the most extracted materials from the earth’s crust and a lot of environmental, social, sustainability concerns do arise from it. Thus, it underlined the necessity of basic awareness within the mining community and other stakeholders. Another aim is to provide a view point to the policy makers, researchers and to facilitate informed decision-making in this crucial sector.

Your practice extends to various tribunals like NGT, NCDRC, NCLT, NCLAT, and more. How do these forums differ from appearing in courts like the Supreme Court or High Courts, and how do you adapt your advocacy style accordingly?

Practicing in different forums like NGT, NCDRC, NCLT and NCLAT is little different from that in higher courts like the Supreme Court or High Courts. These tribunals specialize in handling specific cases, such as those related to environment, corporate and financial matters. The rules and procedures in these tribunals are designed specifically for the types of cases they adjudicate, showcasing a nuanced and specialized approach in contrast to the broader scope of the Supreme Court or High Courts.

On the other hand, the Supreme Court and High Courts have a broader jurisdiction, dealing with a wide range of legal issues beyond specific specialties. Appearing in these courts involves navigating more general legal procedures and practices.

The main difference is that tribunals are specialized, allowing for a more focused and streamlined approach to cases within their specific areas. This sets them apart from the broader and more diverse settings of the higher courts, with their own dynamics and nuances.

Usually when we prepare for cases, we do extensive research of all the relevant case laws and topics which are germane to that particular matter. To adapt my advocacy style accordingly, I focus on the specific rules and procedures of each forum. The key is to be flexible and adjust my approach based on the unique requirements of each forum.

You’ve presided over workshops on legal awareness. Why is legal education and awareness crucial in today’s society, and what challenges do you see in bridging the gap between legal intricacies and public understanding?

Legal awareness programs hold immense significance for several reasons, and if we impart basic legal awareness to the masses, it will be the most effective tool for empowering them. Equipping people with fundamental information about their legal rights and responsibilities is a necessity, as it enables them to deal with injustice which they face on a daily basis by the police and other administrative machinery. In fact, when we used to do street plays, we ensured that through that play we educate the public about their rights and duties and create legal awareness. These events provided a unique opportunity to establish direct connections with the masses, offering valuable insights into the practical application of laws.

The challenge in bridging the gap between legal intricacies and public understanding lies in making the law simple and accessible to everyone. Legal terms and processes can be complex, and people might find them difficult to grasp. As an advocate, my role is to break down these complexities, use simple language, and provide real-life examples that the public can relate to. Therefore, conducting legal awareness programs, using plain language in legal communications, and engaging with communities directly are some ways to overcome this challenge. Making the law less intimidating and more understandable for everyone is crucial for ensuring justice reaches every corner of society.

As someone with experience in arbitration, what advice would you give to businesses entering into arbitration agreements to safeguard their interests?

Having observed the evolution of Arbitration as the most effective mechanism for alternative dispute resolution in India, I have gathered insights into the crucial aspects that need consideration by all stakeholders. The challenges which arise from court interference, delays in arbitral award execution, and concerns about the quality of arbitrator asks for careful attention. To my clients, I have always been advising that they should be objective and fair while negotiating and drafting clauses in arbitration agreements. Where the arbitration clause and the terms of the arbitration agreement are one-sided, then the scope of interference from the courts would be much wider at different stages. I have always advised my clients that the arbitration clauses should provide for selection of an impartial and experienced person as an arbitrator and both the parties must have fair chances and stake in the appointment of the arbitral tribunal and conduct of the arbitration proceedings and the clauses of the agreement should be drafted accordingly.

Away from the legal arena, what are your hobbies or interests that provide a respite from the complexities of your profession? Any particular activity that helps you recharge?

I engage in hobbies that offer an escape from the intricacies of my profession. Reading historical and spiritual books, immersing myself in the calming melodies of classical music, and enjoying moments of solitude are my chosen activities. Additionally, I find fulfillment in social initiatives, interacting with people on my own accord. These pursuits not only provide a break but also contribute to my overall well-being. They bring to life the childhood dictum, “विद्यां ददाति विनयं, विनयाद् याति पात्रताम्,” reinforcing the importance of both knowledge and humbleness. Engaging in these diverse activities provides me with energizing distractions from my high demanding profession and allows me to return to my legal responsibilities with a refreshed perspective and renewed energy.

Simultaneously, participating in social initiatives deepens my connection with the community, instilling a sense of responsibility and empathy. This active engagement not only broadens my understanding of societal issues but also provides an avenue to contribute positively. The synergy between these diverse activities creates a harmonious rhythm in my life, enabling me to navigate the complexities of my demanding profession with resilience, a balanced perspective and a genuine appreciation for the multifaceted tapestry of my life.  

With your extensive experience, what advice would you give to young lawyers aspiring to build a successful career in litigation and advocacy?

My rocky journey in this profession may have some advice for younger stars such as-

Ø Consistent Hard Work- While I was traveling in the DTC bus a co- passenger while interacting made a statement that “it is very easy to get a law degree but it is extremely difficult to become a good lawyer”. This statement of a stranger echoed in my mind throughout my struggle period and it holds good even today which is evident from the fact that we have a huge pool of young law graduates but there is a dearth of good lawyers in each court of India. What shaped my life in initial days is that I had inculcated a few small but good habits such as I used to read bare acts, legal magazines and cases even though I do not have any brief relating to the respective subject. These seemingly small habits paid off, as clients recognized me as a well-read individual, enhancing my “likeability factor”. My advice to budding lawyers is to keep learning, even in the absence of immediate briefs, as continuous learning prepares one for future opportunities.

Ø Work is worship- One small event which I could recollect is that one of my clients advised me saying that “one’s commitment to work should supersede all other priorities”. The advice came roughly because I had got delayed in reaching the court and because of my being late the matter was passed over. Being late for a court appearance taught me a direct lesson. The client’s advice was straightforward – giving preference to any family event or anything else instead of work would not bring either the success or happiness or even the admiration of family members. This lesson stuck with me every for the whole of my formative age in the professions. I can say with conviction that a legal profession is a very high demanding profession which requires the highest degree of focus and dedication and that too without much reward in initial days of practice.

Ø Patience and Big Goals- Overcoming initial challenges requires patience and a larger vision. Although the situation has improved significantly due to the emergence of numerous law firms, opportunities in the corporate sector, and academia, young law graduates now have a variety of choices. Despite these growing opportunities, struggles persist. In the early days, I had few techniques to keep myself inspired. While practicing in district courts, I regularly visited the Supreme Court and High Court to observe the legends of the legal profession and used to idolize them. Seeking inspiration from legendary lawyers in the Supreme Court and Delhi High Court kept my ambitions high.

Ø Learn broadly and with focus- Another ritual of observing the court proceedings of all the courts helped me in staying motivated. Thoroughly reading legal documents, bare acts, law magazines etc. proved very beneficial. Later on, one of my seniors advised that you must flip through (using tai-lopez method of speed reading) the bare acts and rules whenever you get a case relating to that subject.

I would like to quote an excerpt from David J. Schwartz- “The Magic of Thinking Big” which is a must for this profession “likeability factor”-

Mark this point well. A person is not pulled up to a higher-level job. Rather, he is lifted up. In this day and age nobody has time or patience to pull another up the job ladder, degree by painful degree. The individual is chosen whose record makes him stand higher than the rest. We are lifted to higher levels by those who know us as likable, personable individuals. Every friend you make lifts you just one notch higher. And being likable makes you lighter to lift.

To sum up, my advice to the young lawyers is simple – Dear young lawyers, here’s a piece of advice: alongside your legal studies, make sure to gain practical experience. Real-world situations teach you valuable lessons that books alone can’t provide. So, dive into the practical side of law to become a more skilled and effective legal professional. embrace hard work, treat work as worship, practice patience, think big, and focus on continuous learning as well as ensure to have a likable personality. These principles, from personal experiences, pave the way for a successful legal career. 

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