Jury system in India: K.M. Nanavati Case

As a law student, there are always a few special cases which are taught to us with extra attention and detail because they subsequently brought about monumental law and policy changes. One such case is the sensational K.M Nanavati v. State of Maharashtra[1]. The 1973 crime drama Achanak, 2016 Bollywood film adaptation of this famous case, Rustom, and most recently a 2019 web series has re-ignited interests of many regarding the incidents of this case over the years, and remains as a symbol of its fame. While in a law class, the discussion of the case is majorly related to illustrating the application of various provisions of the Indian Penal Code which largely comes within the field of knowledge of those associated with the legal field. One related fact which can be considered as a general knowledge among many, is the popular perception that the K.M. Nanavati case was the last jury trial case in India and led to the fall of jury system in this country.

India has always been a diverse country in every sense of the word. Historically and traditionally, various mofussils engaged in their own legal systems most noteworthy being the Panchayats. In 1858, the establishment of the British Raj after the war of 1857 led to the consolidation of a Code of Criminal Procedure in 1861. It was under this code which formally brought in provisions for Jury and Assessors in India[2].

Trial by Jury is therefore a British judicial practice which was brought to India during the colonial era. Most common law countries therefore, even if currently have abolished the jury system, did have it in place at some point in the past. Simply put, in contrast to the current practice where a qualified judge trained in the subject of law gives a reasoned decisions after applying his mind based on the arguments and evidences presented by lawyers, in a jury trial, the verdict of a case is given by the jurors who are citizens of a country. This system existed in colonial India as well as independent India for some time before it was finally abolished. A lot of credit is given to the infamous K.M. Nanavati case for being the supposed case which ultimately led to the abolition of Jury system in India. However, this article aims to dispel such assertion by tracing the opinions of the British regarding implementation of jury trial in India, absence of support for its continuance among Indians after independence and its ultimate abolition in the 1973 Code of Criminal procedure.

Pre-independence India

Even the 1861 Code of Criminal procedure did not make the implementation of jury system uniform and mandatory cross tall regions. The Act made it obligatory to conduct trial by jury in criminal cases only in High Courts of the presidencies and the mofussils were free to choose to adopt or not adopt the system[3]. Thus, the reach of jury trial was never too widespread in India to being with. Many British officials were also in fact, skeptical about the transplantation of the jury system in India owing to the fact that majority of the Indian population were not capable of understanding a foreign legal system. It was believed that the cultural, religious, ethnic differences made it difficult for a non-homogenous population to deliver unbiased impartial verdicts[4]. The requirement as established by the Criminal procedure Code that time was the requirement of a decision made by the majority and not a unanimous decision. Therefore, gradually the selective use of trial by jury only in certain cases as the later amendments to the Act provided, came to be used in favour of the Europeans to escape getting sentenced, often in grave cases were atrocities were committed against natives[5]. The native Indian population recognized the gross discrimination in the working of the jury system and also viewed it as a foreign system which would not work out for India.

Post-independence India

Immediately after independence, there were many who favoured the abolition of the jury system. A constitutional right to trial by jury was duly not accorded to the citizens of India. Citing many reasons such as delay in adjudication, its economic inefficiency, presence of religious and caste differences, corruption etc. all of which effected impartial verdicts. The most prominent arguments against jury trial in India in fact was voiced by people in law[6]. For example, Mahatma Gandhi expressed his distrust over the foreign system as early as 1931. Justice K.N. Wanchoo also published a report in 1950 in which he stated his anti-jury sentiments on the basis that he believed that adequate number of the ‘right class ‘of people did not exists in India to serve as jurors and therefore it must be abolished. The 14th Law Commission Report also concluded that the jury system had failed in India owing to the reasons also stated above. The chairperson of the committee also emphasized that the Indian population simply wasn’t suited to adopt the English mannerisms which led to its success in England.

Among popular demand for the abolition of the jury system in India, there were also those who stood their ground for not letting jury system die in India. The argument that Indian people were not well suited to serve as jurors did not sit right with the then Home Minister K.N. Katju and he vehemently opposed the popular demand. Similarly, C.N Chaterjee, a Calcutta High Court judge also defended the continuance of jury system in India and established his confidence in the fact that India did possess fair-minded people, capable of administering justice.

The K.M. Nanavati case and its aftermath

In the midst of the back and forth for or against keeping of jury system in India, the K.M. Nanavati case happened. Naval Officer K.M. Nanavati was a naval officer accused of the murder of Mr. Prem Ahuja, with whom his wife Sylvia had an affair with. The facts of the case were so dramatic that it immediately grabbed the attention of the media which in turn sensationalized the story even further by selectively highlighting the murder as a crime of passion, and distorting what actually happened. The influence of the media was so effective that it lead to the acquittal of Nanavati despite availability of clear evidence against the accused. Although the Bombay HC did reverse the verdict and incriminate K.M. Nanavati, he was ultimately pardoned by the governor. The popularity of the case was many due to the thrilling facts of the case which is why it became of public interest. Even though this further fueled the anti-jury arguments even more and trial by jury and largely disappeared in most regions, it was not the last jury trial case in India. In fact, Calcutaa High Court continued the jury system until the actual last jury trial case in India: the Prakash-Rabindranath case of 1973[7].

By way of the 41st Law Commission Report the parliament finally agreed to complete removal of jury system from the Code of Criminal procedure. All jury and jurors related sections were repealed. Therefore, the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 contains no reference to the jury system.

Conclusion

The K.M. Nanavati case is widely misunderstood to be the last jury trial case is India and also the case which supposedly brought an end to jury system in India but it was only one of the reasons why it was abolished in India. The strongest anti-jury arguments came from people who practiced law themselves. And it was largely based on the idea that the multicultural, ethnic, religious backgrounds of people and low levels of literacy in India were the dominant reasons why it could not work out here. The Parsi community in India still hold jury trial in matrimonial matters according to their personal laws as India does not yet have a uniform civil code.  Recently, the jury system has been challenged in the case of Naomi Sam Irani v. Union of India[8]. The petitioner challenged the continuance of the jury system under Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act as cause unnecessary delays and also violative of her fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution. This however, still awaits final adjudication.


[1] 1962 AIR 605

[2] Jana Kalyan Das, ‘Life and Time of Jury System in India- A Legal Analysis’ (LiveLaw, 11 July 2017) https://www.livelaw.in/life-times-jury-system-india-legal-analysis/

[3] Archisha Chowdhury, ‘Tracing the history of Jury Trials in India’ (Jurisdictio Omnis, 31 July 2021)

[4] ‘Judged by Twelve’ (The Hindu, 20 August 2016) https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/Judged-by-twelve/article14581947.ece

[5] See note 2

[6] James Jaffe, ‘Not the Right People: Why Jury Trials were Abolished in India’ (Sociolegalreview.com, 1 October 2020) https://www.sociolegalreview.com/post/not-the-right-people-why-jury-trials-were-abolished-in-india

[7] James Jaffe, ‘Calcutta and the ‘Real’ Last Jury in India’ (National Law School of India Review, 19 April 2021) https://nlsir.com/calcutta-and-the-real-last-jury-trial-in-india/

[8]  Naomi Sam Irani v Union of India [2017] SC

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