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LexTalk World Talk Show with Ashish Goel, Advocate at Supreme Court of India

LexTalk World Interviews Mr. Ashish Goel, Advocate at Supreme Court of India. Ashish is an Advocate practicing in Indian courts. Goel graduated in law from National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS) and holds a LL.M from King's College London. Before going independent, Goel worked at a law firm in London and New Delhi advising multinationals on their Indian in-bound business. Goel also briefly worked in the Law Chambers of a former Union Law Minister on matters before the Indian Supreme Court and the Delhi High Court. Goel has taught tailored courses on international tax law at NUJS and The Indian Society of International Law. Goel’s writings on constitutional and tax issues have appeared in Indian Express, The Hindu Business Line, The Telegraph, Deccan Herald, CNBC-TV18, and Bloomberg.


Host: Why did you choose law as a career and please tell us about your journey as a lawyer so far

Ashish: When I was just a child, my mother used to tell me Ashish you will succeed in whichever career you pursue, and you just have to pay attention and work hard. And these were two things I was lacking: I hated hard work and I was not at all attentive. I liked to play a lot. I was a bright child otherwise, by the way, with a razor-sharp sharp memory. But I was also notoriously argumentative, and no one would win an argument with me. I have lived my adult life realizing that it is important to leave arguments and keep your loved ones and not the other way round. I believe your career is only an extension of your being.

At school, I was exceptionally undisciplined. I would always have friends at my door. I would return late home from school as I would spend time with friends. But after I joined law school, I changed completely. I started spending time in the law library and had very few friends. Most of my time was spent in the law library writing research articles and reading. When you study law and practice law for some time, you start to see everything from a lawyer’s perspective. You question facts. You question people. Their values. Their morals. You question everything. Both inside and outside courts. That puts you into deep trouble at times.

It all started in 2007 and it has been many years now and to be very frank with you I do not even know why exactly I decided to accept the admission offer that came from NUJS in 2007. I mean NUJS is a great institution, and I knew it will be worth studying law at NUJS. Even today, NUJS has a very good name. and I never wanted to go to NLS or NALSAR because I just could not live without homemade food. Even looking at hostel food would make me want to throw up you know. Also, I had a bias for NUJS because it is in Calcutta, and I belong to Calcutta, and I did not have to leave my home to stay in university residence. But still I was not sure if I should spend 5 years in law school or not.

But what I can tell you with full conviction is that I have never regretted that decision. Actually, it was my father’s decision, and I am grateful to him for showing me the right path in life. See, your father knows every gene in your body and he will never make a wrong decision as to what you should do in life.

The 5 years of law school was about library and research. Books and teachers were my best friends. I was not staying on campus, so I did not have a lot of interaction with my peers. Thank God for that because some of my closest friends say that you should not join a law school if you want to make friends because everyone and his grandmother will try to stab you behind your back, cut your throat and try to outrun you in the rat race. I have myself realized this and I guess the number of people who hated or disliked me in law school is way more than who liked me or wanted to befriend me.

I spent few years in London and that was the testing time for me. I was working day in and day out trying to find my feet. I had to cope with studies and work. Classes and curriculum at King’s were rigorous and demanding. It was not like a normal day at NUJS where you sit in the last bench and read a book or a newspaper you carried to the class having no idea about what the teacher was trying to get at. All questions were based on classroom lectures and discussions and there is no way you could pass the exam if you did not pay attention in class and did not come prepared. Most of my daytime was spent working in the law firm so I had the night to study the materials for the next class. I was there to study at King’s because it has an excellent international tax program which I liked, and I somehow ended up working for a London based law firm which had good number of Indian files back in time. So, I worked during the day on very high-profile matters and studied in the evening. Weekends were free so I got ample time and opportunity to travel across London and the UK. See I was earning because I had a day job and most of my money was spent on travel, food and books. Anyhow, I somehow managed and got my degree.

There was no looking back after my LLM and after having worked in London for a year or two. The patriot and the son in me always wanted to come back to India and I applied for a job. I got interviews from top law firms in India. There were positive responses, but you will not believe me some of those emails are lying unopened in my inbox because I just did not want a routine law firm job. I mean I could have got that in NUJS itself because all top law firms come to NUJS for recruitment.

I wanted to have some freedom. I wanted to do something of my own. Money was not an issue for me because my parents were 100% supportive. So, what I did was I started meeting people and tried to drum up some work. I was working as a consultant for a small law firm in New Delhi, so I had time in my hands to focus on my work. I am very academic minded, so I also needed time to write and teach. Soon I just got so lost in what I was doing that I did not realize I have spent many years doing what I was doing. Let us say that today my work keeps me busy, I am financially stable, I write, I teach, I meet people, I spend time with my family, and I have all the freedom in the world to do what I wish to do. What else can you ask for?

Law practices has helped me grown as an individual. I have never been a money chaser and I do a lot of work for free to help those who cannot afford legal costs. Day in and day out you talk to people about their rights, and you even help them secure their rights. At times, against powerful people, against the state agencies. And you do all of this independently without having to listen to anyone. Which profession will give you this satisfaction?

My father and my mother played a huge influence in my life so far. I learnt from my father to not bow down before anyone, to hold my head high and to value my time. My mother – today is her birthday by the way – taught me to be humble and forgiving. These are attributes that has come handy in my career. It does not get said enough but let me tell my parents through this show that I have a lot of love and respect for them, and I would not be the person I am today if they did not make the choices they made.

“बुलंदियों का बड़े से बड़ा निशान छुआ,

उठाया गोद में माँ ने, तब आसमान छुआ।“

“सख्त राहो में भी आसान सफर लगता है,

ये मेरी माँ की दुआओं का असर लगता है!”

I do not like business, and I am not money minded. My interest always has been to fight for the rights of people and so without being bound by any bureaucracy. My heart has always bled for the poor and deprived. I have advised some of the largest companies in the world and some of very high-profile individuals in the country but whenever I see someone oppressed, I feel very bad. I try my best to work for free for those who cannot afford legal costs.

Host: You regularly write about constitutional issues in leading media outlets. Tell us about your interest in constitutional law and what role do you think the Supreme Court should play in protecting constitutional values and morality

Ashish: I was always interested in constitutional law. I was taught constitutional law by Professor M P Singh who is an authority in the subject. His classes were intellectual stimulating. My interest grew with time. I had the opportunity to work on key constitutional issues during my time at Dr. Ashwani Kumar’s office, the former Union Law Minister and a highly regarded Senior Advocate. I developed the habit of writing in law school itself. I was highly inspired from the writings of Professor Shubhankar Dam who was my senior at NUJS and started following his writings. Gradually with a lot of practice I was able to write clearly and frame arguments. When I was in law school, I was writing longer articles for law reviews and journals. In fact, my article on self-incrimination was published in a leading international tax journal when I was only in my 3rd or 4th year, I guess. I have written several pieces on the Supreme Court and the role it plays in protecting constitutional values and morality. As we all know the Supreme Court is the custodian of these values. Its role is to ensure that the legislature and executive work within the confines of the constitution. Our democracy envisages a certain degree of conflict between the legislature, executive and state and they do not have to necessarily work in tandem with each other. But what we have seen in the past few years under the Modi government is that the Supreme Court has become a lapdog of the government from a watchdog of the Constitution. This is a cause for concern, and many have pointed out their concerns. Supreme Court is an institution, but it is an institution run by individuals like you and me. So, it is not appropriate to paint the whole institution with one brush. Let us say there are some bad apples. I will not take names because you do not which law student in which part of the country watching this show will write a letter to the Attorney General seeking initiation of contempt proceedings against me. So, I would to end my answer here.

Host: There is a global debate on tax avoidance by multinational corporations, especially large digital businesses. How do you view this debate?

Ashish: If you read some of my articles and the quote I gave recently to Financial Times, you will see that digital economy has posed some real challenges to the manner and way in which countries tax business profits. See, large US digital businesses come to India and earn revenues but pay very little taxes because we have an archaic international tax structure in place. Countries like India are trying to change this. I understand tax is a mandatory imposition and is not a voluntary contribution like charity. So, it is not right to beg companies to pay their fair share. We need to make laws to exploit loopholes and catch up with the evolving business models. Let me tell you that howsoever watertight law you have, gaps will continue to be exploited by businesses and it is very difficult to put an end to tax avoidance. A government should show some humility and accept that it can only try and minimize tax avoidance. None likes aggressive tax measures. Some even call them tax terrorism. It is important to attract foreign investors and a certain and convenient tax system is very important. We undermine the amount of tax these companies pay in indirect taxes, levies, fees etc. and focus all our energy on corporate tax. So, there are many issues that are involved here, and I will take the entire day if you do not stop me.