“If one is truly spiritual, they have to be secular”: Senior Advocate Devadatt Kamat in a candid conversation with LawBeat

Read Time: 26 minutes

Devadatt Kamat, an alumnus of ILS Law College, Pune and London School of Economics hails from Karwar in Karnataka. He was designated a Senior Advocate by the Supreme Court of India in 2019. A deeply spiritual person, Kamat is also a philanthropist who believes in giving without advertising about it. Kamat served as the Additional Advocate General of Karnataka at Supreme Court from 2015 to 2019, he has appeared in a number of high profile cases including but not limited to appearing for the Congress legislators in the midnight of May 2018 after the declaration of results of the State Assembly Election. Recently, Kamat appeared and opposed the proposed expansion the commercial port at Karwar, his hometown. 

In this interview, Kamat speaks about why he became a lawyer, what made him what he is today and how spirituality helps him maintain his calm amidst the storm.

We know Mr. Kamat is an upcoming Senior Advocate who does a lot of charity but we would like to know more. Could you tell us about yourself?

I am from Karwar, its on the coast of on the border of Karnataka and Goa. I come from a family of lawyers, my grandfather Mr.P.S. Kamat was a freedom fighter and a lawyer. My grandfather gave up his sanad (certificate of practice) during the freedom movement pursuant to Mahatma Gandhi's call asking people to people to give up their profession, he resumed practice afterwards. My father is also a lawyer, at the peak of his career, he decided to slow down and concentrate on philanthropy. He has started several charitable organisations. There is a foundation for girls that my family runs. We have raised about 20 orphan girls. Many of them are married and some of them went abroad for higher education. This gives us a great sense of satisfaction. I have greatly been influenced by the atmosphere at home.

As far as I am concerned, there is a place called Joida where there is a sizeable tribal population, the medical facilities there are not up to the mar. These people have to walk about 30-40 Kms just to access the primary health centre. I was really touched when I was told by some people that pregnant women had to be carried to the nearest PHC in a gunny sack. So we decided to run a charitable mobile clinic, we have doctors and nurses who visit a designated route, every day of the week of the day. Over the last 10 years, we have treated over 2 to 3 lakh patients.

What brought you to Delhi?

I grew up seeing my father and grandfather, I wanted to be a lawyer but never at the Supreme Court. I was happy go lucky, I wanted to start my practice at Karwar, it is a beautiful place as you know. So I never wanted to shift. After I completed law, my father thought that maybe I would become lazy, sitting in Karwar. He had a case in Delhi with Mr. Kailash Vasudev, Sr. Adv, he told Mr. Vasudev that I had passed law and am whiling away mt time. Mr. Vasudev was kind enough to ask my father to send me to his chambers. So I was per force sent to Delhi and I started working with him. I worked with him for a year, it is during that time Mr. Vasudev advised me that I should go for my post graduation. I then left for London School of Economics to pursue my PG.

How did you join the chambers of Goolam Essaji Vahanvati, the former Attorney General of India?

When I came back to Delhi after my post graduation, I was doing my own work. Mr. Vasudev told me about his friend called Mr. Shailendra Swarup, an AoR, so I used to work with him on and off. In 2004, one of uncles Mr. Gurudas Kamat, who is no more now,  knew Mr. Vahanvati very well. Vahanvati informed Gurudas Kamat that he was shifting to Delhi and he needed a junior there. My uncle told me about this and that is how the offer came to me, it was not planned for. It was one of the best things which happened to me. I was with him from 2004 to 2014, the experience I got working with him, I probably couldn’t have got by being an independent lawyer for 25-30 years.

How is it working with Mr. Vahanvati?

He was one of the best in the country, I joined in July 2004. Before I joined him, I met him over the weekend at the Solicitor General’s chamber. I walked in and he said “Listen I have no time for juniors,” he had a colleague who had come from Bombay and he said I would have to work under her. I agreed to this as I was hungry to learn and it was a big opportunity. So I started working under his junior and for the first month or so, he never spoke or discussed anything. I used to do some work for his junior, she used to give me research work etc.

Fortunately or unfortunately, after a month or so, his junior fell ill. I had gone to his house after court work, I was sitting in a corner. He called me to his office and showed me an opinion and said “Have you seen this opinion?” I said no. So he told me that so and so has drafted it, and asked me to have a look and correct it for any grammatical or clerical error. I studied the opinion carefully, spent 3 to 4 hours , looked up the law etc. Then in the night at about 8.30 or 9 PM, he called for me and said, “What do you think of the opinion?” I said its all wrong. His face turned red, and asked me why I feel its wrong. I explained him the position of law and how it did not reflect in the opinion. He looked at it, took a red pen and crossed it. He asked me to redo it again. That is when he started respecting me, from then on it was a completely different relationship. Even when I wanted to start my independent practice in 2009, after UPA 1, he said "nothing doing and I am still a government counsel, it is a request from me, you stay in my chambers." We shared a different relationship, he almost treated me like his son. You can ask anybody, we had a completely different relationship.

When one observes your arguments, there is a always a deeply spiritual yet a fiercely secular touch to your arguments, how do you strike the balance, you cannot necessarily say that they are two different tangents but they are not the same either

If one is truly spiritual, they have to be secular. Because true spirituality means that you respect everyone for what they are. Obviously they connote that you respect their views, their opinions and their actions. Only when one takes a narrow view of life, a materialistic view at that, these divisions happen. This gives rise to scope for people thinking that they are right and somebody else is wrong, therefore I think there is no contradiction between spirituality and secularism.

Recently, you were in the middle of a social media storm, you were being trolled, you were being called names etc. How did you manage to get past all this?

This is where my spiritual training helps. I meditate everyday, I follow the tenets of Hindu religion and being a Brahmin, I do Gayatri Mantra, it keeps you grounded. There is lot of noise outside but your spiritual practice keeps you grounded and makes you focus on what you want to achieve in life. If I get lost in the noise I can’t focus on my job, this is what Lord Krishna also says, “focus on your job, the noise will keep happening, you can’t stop it."

In a case that you argued recently, two of your arguments stood out. One was when you said that you are a Brahmin and it would not feel right when someone stops you from wearing your sacred thread, you compared it with the religious practice of another religion. secondly you quoted Rig Veda to say let knowledge come from all directions. Could you tell us what made you draw these analogies?

When you are arguing a case, you have to argue in a manner which the judge understands. One is merely citing the law, judgments etc. If you happen to listen to the arguments of legends of the field like Soli Sorabjee and Fali Nariman, they didn’t use bombastic language like some lawyers do, they used to argue by anecdotes, by examples and when you are doing that you are arguing at the intellectual level. One is the argument at the intellectual level but as a counsel, you also have to understand that the judge is also a human being and they also have a psychology. You have to also touch upon the psychology and the emotion of the judge, you will not be a successful lawyer if you argue a case de hors that. The crowd might not appreciate what you are doing but there is an underlying plan in an argument, apart from satisfying the law point involved, you have to touch upon the emotional quotient of a judge. Unless you touch upon the emotional quotient of a judge, you will end up presenting dry arguments, they will not make your day. So there was a plan when I made these anologies.

Now that Supreme Court is going completely physical, what are your expectations? Did you enjoy VC while it lasted?

To be honest I enjoyed VC, it was much more convenient, our reach was much more. But having said that physical arguments and physical presentation have their own charm. I would say that VC can make a host of difference to accessibility. Now a person sitting in Tamil Nadu or Karnataka can see what is happening in the Supreme Court. Earlier the client had to come to Delhi, brief a lawyer, stay overnight, wait for his case in the court. All that time is saved, a person can watch the proceedings at the tap of a button. I think it has made a host of difference to access to justice and they should continue the VC option at least for the sake of clients and journalists.

What do you think of judicial activism in this day and age? Quite recently someone filed a PIL asking the court to direct GOI to give Bharat Ratna to Ratan Tata. Do you think every societal issue should reach courts?

The courts are already inundated with regular cases deciding the lis between the parties. The PIL jurisprudence was developed to enable access to judiciary to marginalised persons. Over the years the Supreme Court has developed the PIL jurisprudence, it has expanded it. Of course, there is misuse no doubt about it but I think PILs are a vital part of our jurisprudence, just because there is misuse, we can’t let go of the PIL jurisprudence. It is because of this jurisprudence that we have corrected so many executive wrongs. In order to keep the executive in check and Supreme Court being the Sentinel On The Qui Vive, PIL jursiprudence can’t be wished away. Of course the court will have to come down with the iron hands when frivolous cases are brought in. But when genuine cases are brought before it, the court has a duty to look into it and decide them expeditiously.

What advice would you give young lawyers?

I think being a lawyer is a great opportunity to stand up for the causes you believe in. Very few career paths offer this opportunity. Sky is the limit in terms of financial remuneration. If you tide over the initial years with hard work, diligence and of course by keeping your fortitude and not losing heart, I think the legal profession can be rewarding and satisfying. The main issue in the formative years, a lot of people get depressed because the judge shouts at them or they don’t get paid enough. During these formative years, we need to mentor these kids as to what are the pit falls in the profession and how to manage them. Nobody tells you in the profession how to get work, these are the areas where seniors need to mentor the younger ones.