The case of K.M. Nanavati vs. State of Maharashtra has been one of the landmark judgments in the post Independence India. It is unique in its own nature, because it was the last case to be heard by a jury trial in India. The case has always been the subject of much discussion, in the legal fraternity as well as in the media. It has also been immortalized on the celluloid as the movie Rustom starring Akshay Kumar, Ileana D’Cruz in lead roles. The case also involved a celebrated jurist and acclaimed criminal lawyer from the side of prosecution, namely Ram Jethmalani.
The facts of the case are as follows:
Kawas Manekshaw Nanavati, a commander in the Indian Navy, and second in command of the naval ship Mysore, lived with his English born wife Sylvia, in Mumbai. Nanavati was frequently away on official assignments, and in the meantime, his wife, Sylvia had fallen in love with Prem Ahuja, an automobiles businessman and a family friend of the Nanavatis. On the first of November, Nanavati returned home from one of his assignments and finding Sylvia aloof and distant, he questioned her. Sylvia, who now doubted Prem’s intention to marry her, confessed about the affair to her husband. Nanavati was beside himself, and even expressed his desire to kill himself. Afterwards, Nanavati quietly dropped his family at the Metro Cinema, for a show he had promised to take them to, but excused himself and headed straight to the naval armory. Under the pretext of “Self Protection”, he signed out a gun with six cartridges in a brown envelope.
Nanavati then drove to the Universal Motors Office on Pedder Road and asked for Prem Ahuja. He already left, he was told. Nanavati did not take the gun with him when he went in and looked around for Ahuja in the showroom. Then Nanavati drove to Ahuja’s home, and confronted him about his wife’s paramour with him. In the heat of the moment, Nanavati, an expert marksman, fired three shots at Prem Ahuja as what has been aptly described by the Blitz, as three shots that shook the nation. Subsequently, he went to the Provost Marshal of the Western Naval Command and confessed his crime, and on his advice, confessed and surrendered to the Deputy Commissioner of Police, John Lobo.
Subsequent proceedings and its outcome:
The case was tried by a nine member jury, consisting of 2 Parsis, 2 Christians and 5 Hindus at the Greater Bombay Sessions Court. On the basis of the evidence presented, and witness testimonies, which surprisingly included Sylvia as a witness for Nanavati, the jury returned a verdict of 8-1 not guilty under section 302 of Indian Penal Code. However, the sessions judge R.B. Mehta referred the case to the Bombay High court on the grounds that the acquittal was perverse, since the jury was heavily influenced by the media.
The crux of the case was whether Nanavati shot Ahuja in the “heat of the moment” or whether it was a premeditated murder. If it were a crime of passion that took place almost instantaneously, Nanavati would not have been charged under the Indian Penal Code for culpable homicide amounting to murder. This is because he could have invoked exceptions 1 and 4 of section 300 of IPC (which defines murder). However in case of a premeditated murder, he would be liable for culpable homicide amounting to murder. The Bombay High Court took into account various facts presented, such as Nanavati’s correction of the misspelling of his name in the police record after his confession. The High Court agreed with prosecution’s side that the murder was indeed premeditated and hence, sentenced Nanavati to life imprisonment for culpable homicide amounting to murder. The Supreme Court, on further appeal, upheld the High Court’s verdict. However, Nanavati was pardoned by the then Governor of Bombay, Vijaylakshmi Pandit.
To conclude, the dramatic, large- than-life case of K.M.Nanavati is undoubtedly one of the most famous trials in India, and had equally impactful imprint on the judiciary. Even after 50 years, the Nanavati case continues to have a tremendous recall value among a public infamous for its short memory. The case involved three pivotal points: abolishment of the system of jury trials in India, reversal of verdict on the grounds that the jury had been influenced by media, and distinguishing between culpable homicide amounting to murder and culpable homicide not amounting to murder on the grounds of grave and sudden provocation. It remains a landmark case in criminal law, even today, due to the circumstances extraordinaire that arose in this case.