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The King of Miscellaneous Days, Storyteller Supreme: Mukul Rohatgi, Court Witnessed

Mukul 'SLP King' Rohatgi
Mukul 'SLP King' Rohatgi
Court Witness: To experience firsthand what exactly happens when all hell breaks loose, visit the Supreme Court of India on a miscellaneous day.

Between 25 to 30 judges, spread over 12 to 14 courtrooms, attempt to dispose of 700 to 1,000 cases in about four to five hours of hearing.

Senior counsel hurry from court to court through the corridors, followed by a small retinue of juniors, with briefing counsel and clerks carrying the papers. The courtrooms themselves are a mess of files and law reports, jammed in tight with lawyers of every stripe.

Grey-suited court masters scurry between courts: they relieve colleagues every few hours from the stress and tension of taking down dictation, ensure the judge does not miss an application in a a to-be-decided matter, and handle queries from lawyers about this, that and other.

And that is saying nothing about the litigants occupying the visitors’ sections in the courtrooms, straining to hear and craning their necks to catch a glimpse of what’s happening at the bar.

Through this madness one formidable figure strides confidently, navigating his way like a many-turreted battleship ploughing through a choppy sea.

This figure is Mukul Rohatgi, the undisputed King of Miscellaneous Days.

Green eyes

The son of a well-loved former judge of the Delhi High Court, AB Rohatgi, the uncharitable would say that Mukul was another case of the “uncle-judge” system working to the hilt. So what if one doesn’t appear before one’s own relatives, they might say: after all, one can always be on good and friendly terms with one’s father’s colleagues to smooth one’s passage into the profession.

But, if one looks at this with a perspective other than those of the green-eyed monsters that often lurk at the bar, one finds that whatever natural and genetic advantages one may have had upon one’s entry into the profession, success, howsoever defined, is a function of ability and hard work.

Maybe Rohatgi’s filial connection to the bench allowed him to get a foot in the door, but the fact that he’s managed to barge his way in and possibly breaking even the proverbial doorframe in the process, is entirely his effort.

So what did get him where he is now?

To the untrained eye, it would seem that this imposing man (well over six feet tall with frame and voice to match) just shouts at the judges until they relent, or that all he does is act outraged and angry at some perceived injustice meted out at his client and simply won’t shut up until he gets the order he wants.

The layman might think that what he does requires no real training or ability, save for a certain strength of vocal chords and the ability to flit between the courts with the speed and grace of a ballet dancer.

To the trained eye however, Rohatgi’s success is as much science as art.


Rohatgi in argument is like watching a finely tuned performance. He possesses a quality that’s elusive even in most actors, and even more so among lawyers: presence.

He stands upright with no papers or files or books to distract him from maintaining the firmest eye contact with the judge during argument. He throws his head back just a fraction, aligning his eye-line with that of the judge, and places his hands in front of him to allow for their freest movement.

His hands move throughout his argument, which constitutes of gestures as much with hands as of words. And as much as his hands would make a Bharatnatyam dancer blush in admiration, his facial expressions would put a Kathakali dancer to shame

The key to his performance however, is his ability to tell a story. Advocacy, as opposed to the pure forensic analysis of the law, is an exercise in building a narrative.


In the vast tangle of facts that constitute any given special leave petition (SLP), it is a rare skill to be able to distil all of it into just the bar essentials, and weave this into a coherent narrative.

Presented with a thick brief and the anxiety to be “fully prepared”, many advocates (and some seniors too), get bogged down in the details and intricacies at the expense of the bigger picture.

But the shortened nature of hearings on a miscellaneous day requires its own set of skills to convince the Court of the merits of your matter.

This is where Rohatgi excels.

Legends, some apocryphal, most not, tell of briefing advocates who’ve told him no more than three words just as he was about to enter the courtroom from which he would produce a rich and complex saga of woe that results in notice and stay of the judgment of the high court.

There are the tales of how he handles about 30 to 35 matters on a miscellaneous day in the Supreme Court alone, memorising just the essential details, with nary a piece of paper on him, and he ends up getting notice issued in every one of them.

His ability to keep the facts and narrative straight in all the cases is quite astounding, but even on the rare occasion that he mixed up the facts of two cases, he usually gets notices issued in both.


While advocacy is all about telling your side of the story, clearly and effectively without lying or misrepresenting the facts, advocates really just play for an audience of one (or two, or three, or five, or nine, excluding the client).

It is for the judge to decide whose story is more believable, borne out by the material on record and in accordance with the law. A successful advocate is one who convinces the court that her client is the one who has suffered the grave injustice that must be remedied by the Court’s intervention.

Rohatgi follows a fine tradition of oral storytelling (or katha) that can be found in all the major sub-cultures in this country. The storyteller doesn’t stick to a text or a canon: a broad storyline is shaped and moulded to the audience’s tastes and ear and the story itself is as much acted and sung as it is told.

It’s a performance that requires great skill in improvisation and a keen understanding of the pulse of the audience.

What Rohatgi does best is to “read” his judicial audience.

Poker face

While any competent Supreme Court advocate can tell you much about how a certain judge thinks and acts after he or she has been observed long enough, Rohatgi picks up even smaller nuances that tell you what the judge is thinking.

A word, a phrase, a reaction to a statement and even a twitched eyebrow can give one a glimpse of what the judge is thinking during the hearing. Rohatgi picks up these small clues and tailors his arguments just so.

The oft-repeated moot court advice of “reading the bench” is easier said than done – but you wouldn’t know that it if you watched Rohatgi in action.

Such an approach however, has some inbuilt limitations. Kapadia cannot be convinced by a compelling story if the client has not followed the procedure under the Income Tax Act. Likewise, Rohatgi’s attempt to spin the complex legal questions in the Reliance Gas dispute into a simple dispute between brothers over a company fell flat.

In that respect, Rohatgi might even be in illustrious company – none other than MC Chagla and PB Vachcha, the grand historian of the Bombay High Court, agree that as unstoppable as the great Jinnah was as an advocate, he was ill-suited to the forensic analysis of law.

But if you wish to learn the art of advocacy or become a master storyteller, Mukul Rohatgi is required viewing.

Court Witness is an advocate of the Supreme Court of India and tweets @courtwitness1.

Legal website Bar & Bench has published an interview with Mukul Rohatgi today, for his side of the story.

Court Witness’ previous Supreme Court postcards:

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