The Trials & Triumphs of a 1st generation Faujdari Vakil: Dhruv Gupta’s Story from Aarushi Hemraj to Delhi Liquor Excise Case -A Candid Conversation

This interview has been published by  Priyanka Karwa and The SuperLawyer Team

Could you please take us back to the beginning and share with us, what inspired you to pursue your career in law, especially in criminal law litigation and that too in Delhi only, despite having no law background in your family? 

I always wanted to do something different from what my family had been doing for decades i.e. a private business in Jammu. I always found law to be more fascinating and enthralling versus my family business. During my school days, I developed a special inclination towards becoming a lawyer, though there was no specific trigger for the same, and it was just a feeling, which gradually turned into an ambition, with time. When I discussed my aspirations with my peers, most of them initially advised me, in good faith, that as I had a good hold on science subjects, I should opt for courses like engineering, finance, etc, instead of law. But, with my family support, after completing my higher secondary education, in 2006, I got myself enrolled into a 5-year law course at Fergusson Law College, Pune.

During my undergrad, I made sure that I do plenty of internships in diverse fields of law, including civil, criminal, corporate, etc., at Delhi, which gave me practical insights into the legal profession. But even then, I was very confused as to which field I should initially pursue after graduating from law college. However, I vividly remember that during one of my internships with one of the renowned human rights NGOs in Delhi, I met a few people who claimed themselves to have been falsely implicated in criminal cases. I recall meeting the mother of a 23-year-old guy, who was incarcerated for almost four-years in an alleged cheating indictment punishable u/s. 420 IPC, and his matter had not even reached the stage of prosecution evidence and on account of his financial condition, he apparently had not even filed any bail application. I was deeply pained to listen to her agony. I assisted the office, where I was interning at that time, in drafting a bail application for her son, which ultimately came to be allowed and he was released. I remember, whilst I was present in court when the said bail was being argued, I was itching to argue it myself only. The said case is still fresh in my mind, it was one of those incidents that further catapulted me to pursue my career as a criminal defence lawyer. 

Choosing Delhi instead of my hometown i.e. Jammu, as the place of my practice, was a very difficult decision, even emotionally, as I was here all by myself and my kith and kin were in Jammu. But after my internships’ experiences in Delhi, I was very clear in my mind that I want to practice in Delhi only. I feel that here in Delhi, the professionalism and talent are quite high and it always keeps you on your toes and forges the best out of you, which I personally relish.

What challenges did you face, in the initial few years of finding your feet in the field of litigation, as a fresher? 

‘Challenge’ is just another name for ‘life’. After I graduated, I was pretty clear in my mind that I wanted to primarily pursue criminal law litigation only but the question was, “in which office?”. I had minimal contacts in Delhi as I hailed from Jammu and even my graduation was from Pune, so I had close to zero options. There almost came a  point when, instead of joining a criminal law litigation office, I almost decided to join a corporate law firm, where I was very hopeful of getting a job, on account of my past performances there during my internships in the said firm. Just at that point of inflection, I received a confirmation from an office to join them, where there were umpteen criminal law matters, besides civil law matters. I joined the same, instead of that corporate law firm. But the remuneration was another challenge, especially on account of the fact that Delhi was not my hometown and as we all know, it’s an expensive place to live. But I somehow managed to survive without thinking much about the remuneration aspect and continued to focus on the exposure I was getting not only in criminal law but also in other fields like civil law, arbitration, etc. As for me, ’exposure’ was far more important than the ’monetary aspect’.  

Another challenge that I remember facing in my initial days, almost daily, was how to effectively assist my seniors without getting scolded, not only in preparing brief notes, and basic drafts but also in providing them with appropriate research to bolster his arguments. Initially, there used to be mistakes, which gradually reduced with the passage of time leading to a point where my senior did not even have to vet my drafts, research work, brief notes, etc. I remember, within the initial months of my first job, while drafting a petition, on behalf of an accused, which had to be filed before the Hon’ble Delhi High Court against an Order on charge passed by a Ld. Session’s Court in a dowry death case, I drafted a criminal writ petition instead of a criminal revision petition. When I showed that draft to my senior, he was infuriated and straightaway pressed ‘Ctrl+A & Delete’ and told me to first find out the remedy against an order on charge and then get back to him with the correct petition. Even today, when I draft a petition against a Charge Order, that incident brings a smile to my face.

If we turn the clock back to 2011, when you were learning the ropes of criminal law litigation while working on a very basic salary, did you ever feel dissuaded from the idea of pursuing criminal law litigation when you saw your friends making a much higher amount practising corporate law or doing govt. job?

Not really. My clarity of thought was my strength. I was very content with what I was doing and as I stated above, for me, exposure was far more precious than remuneration. When my counterparts, who were getting much higher salaries, used to call me to seek my advice on various legal propositions, they had no clue of, it used to give me immense satisfaction, which was unmatchable and incomparable to any amount of salary. I was very clear that no matter what, I will pursue primarily criminal law litigation only, which is my forte. Today, those very people, who used to advise me to go for higher paying jobs (regardless of how the exposure was), come to me and tell me that my approach was indeed better than theirs. It reaffirms my conviction in myself. 

Being a 1st-generation lawyer from Jammu practising primarily in Delhi courts, you have certainly carved out a niche for yourself. But are there any challenges you face even today, despite being an established criminal law practitioner?

After I started my independent practice, the biggest challenge I faced was to develop a good client base for me. Despite the fact that I, being an out-stationed lawyer, did not have any close friends/ relatives/ contacts in Delhi, who could send some good references to help my practice and my self-respect never allowed me to go to anybody’s office to ask for work, so getting clients initially was quite a task. 

But then, I, alongside some senior counsels, secured an acquittal for the Talwar couple in the high-profile & widely covered ‘Aarushi Hemraj Double Murder Case’ from the Hon’ble Allahabad High Court, which gave me considerable media attention being a prominent part of the legal defence team. This success not only helped me in developing my legal practice in the beginning but it also gave me a lot of self-confidence and belief that I was definitely not wrong in choosing criminal law litigation as my career. However, even today, clientele development is an area where I still consider myself to be a ‘fresher’. “You can’t show your talent to a client unless he first engages you as his lawyer”, for which references are vital and, in my opinion, even various other far more talented lawyers face this challenge.

Another major hurdle that I faced initially was to build a good team of lawyers on whom I could rely, as in litigation, stakes are always very high and one petty mistake can really turn the tables, which can deeply affect your association with the client and his case as well. I remember, once, I was occupied in one court arguing a bail application and had told one of my younger colleagues to seek a passover in the other matter which was a criminal complaint listed before a different court, however, my colleague did not reach on time and the said complaint was dismissed on account of non-prosecution. I still remember the embarrassment when I told my client about it. One thing I have always been very particular about is that there can be no explanation/excuse for coming late to the court.              

Even today, one query that I often come across from various people is, “How can you defend an alleged rapist, murderer, etc?”, and they sometimes even judge you on that basis. It often gets very difficult to make them understand the difference between your professional duties and personal beliefs. However, I always tell them that one should not judge someone until the judicial procedure is taken to its logical conclusion and that everyone has a  fundamental right to be represented by a lawyer of his choice. I still remember, it was 2018, I secured an acquittal from the Hon’ble Delhi High Court in a rape indictment involving a visually challenged prosecutrix, and when I shared the news with a friend, he said “What are you so proud of?” and I immediately hung up the call. These sorts of challenges have become part and parcel of my journey, and I have reached a point where I don’t really become impassive about what others think of it. I am sure that after reading this particular anecdote, even some of the readers might be looking at it critically, but like I always say to my younger colleagues, “Becoming a faujdari vakil is no cake-walk, especially when you are an out stationed and 1st-generation lawyer and one should take such things as part and parcel of our esteemed profession”. 

Could you tell us about any key experiences or moments whilst you were representing clients in any criminal law matter, be it a white-collar crime or a heinous crime or any other legal matter, including some anecdotes from your extensive experience of cross-examinations?

Though, there are so many highlights which are still very fresh in my mind. But some of the most memorable moments are: 

  1. Once, I got the opportunity to argue a petition against an order of charge before the Hon’ble Delhi High Court when I was still a newbie in the profession. My god! I was bombarded with various queries by the Hon’ble Court like “Have you read this judgment i.e. against your contentions…?” to which I immediately reverted “Yes, my lord, I am carrying a printout of the same also and it is completely distinguishable from my case and my apologies that I didn’t bring it up earlier”, and then I argued as to how the said judgment was not applicable to my case. I thoroughly remember, after I concluded my arguments, I was told by a very senior lawyer, who was also present in the courtroom, “Your presentation today was better than a 10-year experienced lawyer”. 
  2. I was cross-examining a witness on behalf of the defence in an alleged rape indictment, and after my lengthy cross-examination running into various pages, the witness started crying in the middle of the court. The witness was none other than the Investigating officer of the case and was a very senior and experienced police official. When the Hon’ble Court asked the witness why is she crying, I still remember her answer given by her,“mjhe wakil sahab ke cross se bahut dar lag raha hai aur mujhe lag raha hai ki kahin vo meri naukari na khaa jaye”. The attempt on my part was to show that the entire investigation was shoddy and biased leading to false implication of my client. Thereafter, the matter was adjourned on account of the same and finally, my client was acquitted in the said case, though obviously not on this ground but on the merits of the case.
  3. Another case I remember clearly is when I got the privilege to cross-examine a witness at Kolkata, who was a very renowned Indian cricketer and had also been the Captain of the Indian men’s cricket team for a significant number of years. I was very confident rather overconfident that I would be able to demolish the testimony of the witness to corroborate the version of my client through the art of cross-examination, as he might not be very well-versed with the intricacies of the art of cross-examination, being a very renowned personality. However, within a few minutes of my cross-examination, I realised that I was being very overconfident and my perception was misplaced and that if I don’t improvise and change my line of cross-examination, I would achieve nothing. Accordingly, instead of continuing with an aggressive style of cross-examination, I switched to a very polite & subtle style, which is usually not my way, and finally, I could see the tides turning in favour of my client. 
  4. I recall that once, I had to argue one application on behalf of an old lady who was accused in a builder-buyer dispute, but somehow on account of my prior engagement in some other matter, by the time I reached the Court, the application had already been dismissed.  Though, I had already told the client before getting engaged that I might not be able to reach court on time on account of my prior engagement in some other matter, and in that event, their lawyer on-record should argue the application. However, when I reached the courtroom, the client insisted that I should request the court to re-hear the application, to which I had my reservations. However, as the stakes were very high and the client was repeatedly insisting, I thought of at least making an attempt for the client and accordingly requested the Hon’ble Court to take up the case file again, to which I was initially reprimanded and rightly so. However, on my polite persistence and some theatrics, the matter was taken up again and the Hon’ble Court heard my arguments for about an hour. It was a one-of-a-kind incident because the Hon’ble Court had already dictated the order but as they say, “luck favours the brave”. Though, the fate of the application remained the same, but the client’s words after the proceeding’s conclusion, still echo in my mind, when she said, ‘You will go a long way beta and, irrespective of the outcome of the application, I am most grateful to you for what you did today for me’.
  5. Another case that I still remember is when, I besides other counsels, had to go to All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, to cross-examine the prosecutrix in an alleged rape indictment, where a special court had been set-up for 3-days inside the  hospital premises itself, upon the orders of the Ld. Trial Court. When we used to enter the hospital in our lawyers’ uniform surrounded by full security, commoners used to be totally astounded and shocked as to how come lawyers and the Hon’ble judge are conducting trials inside the hospital. During the lunch break when we used to have lunch in the common canteen, a lot of people used to come to me and ask “Why is the trial being held in the hospital premises instead of the court complex and which case is this?” and the only answer I could give them was “we are just rendering our professional duties”. The intense atmosphere of those 3-days still feels like yesterday.

Your portfolio features an impressive array of high-profile cases, including representing Dr. Rajesh and Dr. Nupur Talwar in the ‘Aarushi Talwar – Hemraj Double Murders’ case or ‘Delhi Liquor Excise case’ or ‘the riots case in Panchkula’ or ‘Unnao rape case’? Do you adopt a different strategy for a high-profile case than that of a routine case?

For me, every case is equally important and I try my level best to do justice with every brief irrespective of the fact that whether it’s a high-profile case or otherwise. It doesn’t matter how much coverage a case is getting in the media as I like to prepare my brief on the basis of the documents and the instructions and not by what’s happening in the media. However, I must admit that media-covered cases are more difficult to defend as everybody is on their toes and one small mistake can really put you in a bad light. But if you are confident in your preparation then ultimately, you will not be swayed by any outside attention. 

I remember in my initial days I was requested to defend a pro-bono murder case for an accused who had come to me through his very aged father from a rural background who could hardly make ends meet. He wanted to engage me after seeing my arguments in some cases when he was standing in the same courtroom waiting for his son’s case and wanted me to lead the case of his son. I took up the challenge and never charged a penny to them and even bore basic expenses for the case all by myself, as I was deeply moved by the agony of the old father according to whom his son had been falsely implicated. To be very honest, I was also very excited to know that I would get to cross-examine various witnesses in a murder case all by myself, which was running into more than 70 witnesses. The said case got over somewhere in the year 2015 and amongst other accused persons, my client was the only one to be acquitted of the murder charges. It was this case that actually made me learn the nitty-gritty of cross-examination in the initial years of practice. I still remember, that after I secured an acquittal in the said case, the old father while gifting me three cartons of mangoes, said, “main apko aashirwaad ke ilawa yeh hi de sakta hun, vakil babu” and he hugged me and left. Though, despite securing an acquittal for the accused, the accused never came to meet me even once, which over a period of time, I learnt to be a part & parcel of our profession. I still keep that judgment in my drawer as a souvenir as a self-claimed achievement of mine. But yes, it still gives me a lot of confidence and perseverance to wade forward in this ever-demanding and highly challenging profession.

Though, in white-collar crimes, usually, the prosecution complaints, relied-upon documents, digital evidence, etc. collectively run into thousands of pages, unlike heinous crime cases, and if you are comparatively a young counsel, you will be often asked to brief designated Senior Advocates in such matters. Therefore, in such matters, I ensure that I make a detailed list of dates & events and brief notes for the cases so that you don’t have to rummage through thousands of pages every time and the task gets easier whenever you have to address arguments or brief a Senior in such cases.  

Therefore, if you have worked hard on your brief, irrespective of the nature of the case, you can really change the outcome. I feel that if you have built up a strong defence in the trial court, wherein the art of cross-examination is the best weapon in the hands of a defence lawyer, you can really give the prosecution a run for its money. 

In the realm of corporate litigation, you argued one of the most landmark cases titled “BK Educational Services Pvt. Ltd vs. Parag Gupta Associates” before the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India. How was the experience in arguing such an important case? 

The experience was very exciting and challenging. I was not conversant with the subject as the matter pertained to the provisions of The Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016. However, after I did thorough research and study on the subject, I was very excited to argue such a one-of-its-kind case. I still remember, after arguing for 2  days straight before the Hon’ble Supreme Court, I was feeling on top of the world, as the entire day I got quite a few phone calls from some lawyers who saw my arguments that day. I still remember one of them asking me, “Why don’t you shift your entire practice exclusively to the Supreme Court”, to which I humbly replied, “Sir, it’s definitely not my choice to make and it all depends on the client that engages me.”

Do you ever get nervous when you are cross-examining, as the stakes in the same are extremely high, and the odds are desperately stacked against you and a minor mistake can deliver a permanent fatal blow to the client’s case? 

Definitely not. I can’t recall a single day when I would have gone unprepared for a cross-examination. Rather, I feel absolutely thrilled to test my skills. I feel that your job as a criminal defence lawyer is like that of a cricketer as, no matter how well you have performed in the past, if you fail on a particular day, your entire case can go for a toss. One bad cross-examination can cause irretrievable damage to your client, so if you are nervous, that’s perfectly fine, but your nervousness should never be able to overpower your confidence and the rigour of your preparation. It’s very important to know what NOT to ask a witness in a cross-examination, as sometimes, unnecessary questions in a cross-examination can cause more harm than good to the case.

In your 12 years of experience, when is the right time when one may consider before going independent as a criminal law practitioner?

There is no hard-and-fast rule to it. It is quite subjective but I feel before going independent, one should definitely have a few years of experience at district courts, so that one can also learn the art of examination and cross-examination. The stage of evidence is very crucial for a criminal defence lawyer because, unlike civil law, the concept of filing a plaint, written statement and replication is not there and the cases are decided on the basis of the chargesheet, examination-in-chief, cross-examination, statement of accused recorded u/s. 313 CrPC, documents on-record, etc.

I would also suggest that even if you want to pursue your career as a criminal defence lawyer only, you should also have some experience of civil law because the drafting work is more in civil law as compared to criminal law and it enhances your drafting skills if you have also laid your hands in civil cases. For example, if you are, as an independent criminal lawyer, engaged to draft a petition to be filed before the Hon’ble High Court or Supreme Court and your drafting skills are not up to the mark, it can be very problematic. Therefore, having a blend of experience of a few years, in both civil and criminal litigation at the district court level as well as higher courts, would be an ideal situation. But it doesn’t mean that those who don’t get such a chance cannot be good criminal defence lawyers as you can also choose to argue cases directly before the higher courts and still do justice with your work.

Your journey in the legal field has undoubtedly been filled with challenges and accomplishments. Considering your vast experience, what advice would you give to freshly graduated lawyers?

It’s a tough one! I would say that patience, hard work, sacrifice and perseverance are the basic qualities one must inculcate from day one. You should choose a field which you genuinely enjoy practicing. To be very honest, I love practising criminal law litigation as it’s my passion and I don’t even remember the day when I got this crazy about my career and I love it when I am called a “faujdari vakil”. Though, when I think of my college days, I was not even certain if I would actually practice law after completing my graduation or I would end up joining my family business only. But as the days passed by, I became more and more motivated and passionate towards my career.

  • So, don’t get swayed away by extraneous considerations and short-term monetary benefits, but one should strive towards her/his long-term goal, which can happen only after putting in a few years of practice. 
  • One should be ready to burn the midnight oil and make sacrifices for holidays for at least 3-4 years. Undergo training with full honesty and dedication towards her/his work. Because, remember, whatever you are doing today, even as a younger colleague or a senior, it would ultimately reap benefits for you only in the long run. 
  • Adopting unethical shortcuts for lucrative monetary benefits should never be done and you should have a firm belief in your abilities, while also being practical at the same time.
  • I have seen that sometimes new-grads are more eager to work only on higher-profile cases than on ordinary cases, which approach, I would advise, should not be adopted. 
  • In your initial days, you must read case files inside-out, try to have a good grip on facts of the case. 
  • Don’t get afraid of voluminous files. 
  • Try to make a chronological list of dates and events and also whatever petition/ application you are assigned to draft. 
  • Try to read as many judgments as possible.

I know it’s quite a task to do all these things, but at the end of the day, like I said above, litigation is not a cake walk and no matter who you are, if you want to be a successful lawyer, realistically speaking, be ready to face the heat and yet continue to believe in yourself! I know, initially, you may have bad days at work and you will be reprimanded for your inadvertent mistakes, but when you will perform well and will be told “very well argued Mr. Counsel”, you will be on cloud nine and you will be even more fueled to continue your journey. There will come a time, when after concluding your arguments, you will be walking out of the courtroom and every other person will be asking for your visiting card and that day you will be extremely proud of yourself and would give you more boost to continue doing what you are doing. I am confident that if it can happen with a below-average lawyer like me (as against being termed as an “established” criminal law practitioner in this interview), then I am sure that the future holds much, much, much better for you!

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