Interview with Gopal Subramanium, Sr. Adv., Supreme Court of India & Former Solicitor General of India

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Mr. Gopal Subramanium is a senior advocate of Supreme Court of India and has served as the Solicitor General of India from 2009- 2011. He started out his career with Mr. Shardul S. Shroff and trained with the likes of Mr. D.P. Wadhwa and Soli Sorabjee.

He has been associated with some of the most significant cases of the country which have shaped the legislative principles of privacy, human rights and freedom of speech internationally. Sir has successfully defended the conviction of the sole surviving terrorist Ajmal Kasab in the 2008 Mumbai Terror attacks. As a part of the JS Verma Commission, he has contributed towards recommendations to amend Indian laws to promote the safety and dignity of women and children.

In 2013 Mr. Subramanium, set up his UK Office after building his name as a leading international commercial arbitrator. In 2015, he was appointed a Supplementary Judge at the Qatar Financial Centre Regulatory Tribunal. In 2020, he became the first Indian Senior Advocate to appear before the Singapore Court of Appeal.

In this interview, Mr. Subramanium discusses his journey in the legal profession and the dynamic experiences that he has garnered over the years.

Anukriti: How according to you the perspective about law as a profession has changed over the years? Why did you decide to pursue law?

Gopal Subramanium: The legal profession was considered to be a profession of freedom and independence, and one which was designed to secure the rule of law. Over a period of time, it has become more commercially centred around business and industry, as well as regulatory approvals. I became a lawyer because of a promise I made my mother, at the time of my father’s death.

Anukriti: You were one of the youngest lawyers to be designated as a Senior Advocate by the Supreme Court of India. Can you highlight your journey and your experience, especially while working under Mr. Soli Sorabjee and D.P. Wadhwa?

Gopal Subramanium: I first started working with D.P. Wadhwa, who also happened to be a student of my father at the Delhi University. D.P. Wadhwa was an extraordinary role model of humility, perseverance and dignity. Soli Sorabjee is a man of brilliance, deep knowledge, and is very clever at picking up legal points. He would do an internal rehearsal with the opposite argument before finding a solution. He too was a very inspiring and generous senior.

The journey to becoming a senior advocate was possible because there was a mutually resonate moral ethos which was inculcated in me, and the court also respected such an ethos. It was as if the standards had to be matched by both the aspirant and the court simultaneously. This wavelength was textured by purity, candour, dignity, and above all, fairness to the cause of administration of justice.

Anukriti: As the Special Public Prosecutor in the Ajmal Kasab case and several other such cases relating to terrorists attack, what are your personal views about the idea of capital punishment in such cases or generally as well? Organisations like the UN has been generating an international sentiment against Capital Punishments, do you think there can be a better alternative form of punishment in such cases?

Gopal Subramanium: While there is a substantial body of opinion that there should be no capital punishment, it is not inconceivable that cases of extreme terror or crime should be visited with such punishment. Indeed the standard of proof in respect of capital punishment is much higher, and the factors to award that punishment must be so clearly and strongly made out, that no other form of punishment would be appropriate.

We still, therefore, in India have some distance to cover before the abolishment of capital punishment.

Anukriti: The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Bill, 2019 empowers the government to designate even individuals as terrorists. Do you feel it can promote human rights violations to some extent in terms of giving the police the right to bracket any activity as terrorism?

Gopal Subramanium: I have grave reservations about the lawfulness of such a bill.

Anukriti: Due to the COVID-19 situation it has come into light that our judicial system lacks the infrastructure to effectively involve technology into their functioning. What kind of changes according to you can be made to develop a better framework to actually utilise technology to reduce the pendency of cases in India?

Gopal Subramanium: It is not that technology was not being used by the judiciary during COVID-19, but that some courts have been very unsuccessful in using technology. This does require some hand-holding for some sections of the judiciary. There are many things that are procedural in character which can be attended to by technology and does not require a physical presence in courts. To that extent, the workload on the judiciary and judicial time can be considerably diminished.

Anukriti: Out of the numerous number of cases you have been a part of, which one was the most challenging case for you and why?

Gopal Subramanium: It is difficult to say which ones stood out as the most challenging case because I have trained myself to believe each case is a compete for challenge by itself. However constitutional cases have been more challenging and also more rewarding because of the depth of constitutional scholarship belonging to a different plane.

I do believe that before I gave the final address in the parliament attack case, the amount of research and work I had put in is the largest I have done for any case.

Anukriti: A lot of law students do not wish to indulge in the criminal practice of law, considering that the same involves serious questions relating to the moral standards, which the lawyers have to overlook sometimes to support their client. How were you able to keep the moral balance intact while working?

Gopal Subramanium: If the fundamental role of a lawyer is clearly understood there would be no moral dilemma.   A lawyer is not supposed to sit in judgement over his client, he is supposed to do his duty fearlessly for the sake of his client, irrespective of his opinion.

Anukriti: It is usually considered that law as a profession as well as the judicial appointments entail nepotism within their scope. In what way do you think this has affected the integrity of the profession?

Gopal Subramanium: Nothing can affect the integrity of the profession than slanted or extraneous judicial appointments. Even a single vitiated appointment can affect the columns of the judiciary, therefore one must know that the institution while being characterised as strong, can be easily displaced by some bad appointments. Therefore there is a very high level of the constitutional obligation to be discharged in the matter of judicial appointments, which must have no trace of politics in it.

Anukriti: You have established a UK office and have also become the first Indian Senior Advocate to have appeared before the Singapore Court of Appeal. How different according to you is the legal system outside of India? What are the main differences you observed that should be incorporated to improve the existing structure?

Gopal Subramanium: The Singapore Court of Appeal is an outstanding court. This is a court which I would strongly recommend for emulation. The thoroughness, preparation, and the meticulousness of approach of the court and of the lawyers, is absolutely of the topmost ladder.

I have seen certain other jurisdictions also at the same level, but in Singapore, the sustained way in which that presence can be felt is remarkable.

The use of written submissions, carefully prepared memorandum of appeal, and very precise articulation before the court are fundamentally the outstanding features in the Singapore model.

Anukriti: As a person who has recognised the importance of Mental Health and has supported organisations creating awareness about the same, what would be your advice to the aspiring lawyers who are currently under the brunt of the slowed sown economy and lack of job opportunities?

Gopal Subramanium: Mental health is the most important attribute of health, it is in fact even more important than physical health, so the advice I would offer to all young lawyers is to find different forms of being preoccupied in a variety of knowledge learning and skill-based learning acquisitions during this period of slow down. A lawyer is actually a symbol of hope in a society and a lawyer must always keep his chin up.


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