Analyzing the “last” jury trial in India?
“ If the crowds outside had known who the lone dissenter was, they would have lynched me. But I saw the evidence and it was apparent that he killed him.” -Reginald Pierce, Juror, Nanavati Trial
A jury refers to a “a group of people who have been chosen to listen to the facts of a trial in a law court and to decide whether a person is guilty or not guilty, or whether a claim has been proved:” In India, the first case decided by a jury was in 1665 in the present state of Madras. The jury was an English jury.
In a criminal trial ,the main function of the jurors who make up the jury is to determine if a person is guilty or not. The presiding judge will often explain to them the facts of the case as well as appropriate laws so they can make a decision.
In India, juries were an important part of trials till around the 1970s. The case of K.M Nanavati v. The State of Maharashtra (1961) is believed to be the nail in the coffin with regards to the end of juries in India.
The Facts of the Case
- Kawas Manekshaw Nanavati, also known as K.M Nanavati was the second in command of INS “Mysore”.
- His wife Sylvia (whom he married in 1949) and his three children shifted to Bombay after some time of moving all over the country.
- In the year 1956, their friend the ‘Agniks’ introduced the Nanavatis to Prem Ahuja and his sister. Mr Prem Ahuja had an automobile business.
- Nanavati would often have to go out of town due to his work and his wife would be in Bombay.
- As such an illicit affair developed between Prem Ahuja and Sylvia.
- From April 6, 1959 to April 18 1959, Nanavati was away on his ship and later returned to Bombay.
- On April 27 1959, either Sylvia confessed to the affair with Prem Ahuja (as per the prosecution) or Sylvia simply shook her head when asked by Nanavati if she was faithful to him and he guessed that her affair was with Mr Ahuja (as per the defense). Either way, on the 27th of April, Nanavati realized that his wife was having an affair with Prem Ahuja.
- Nanavati then drove his wife and two of their children to a movie theater for a show on ‘Tom Thumb’. He told them that he would later pick them up at 6pm when the movie ended.
- Meanwhile, while his family was at the theater, Nanavati drove back to his ship, which was docked at the Bombay Harbor and asked for a revolver and 6 rounds from the ship’s stores.
- He put that in an envelope and drove first- to Prem’s office, not finding him there, to his house.
- At Prem’s house, later Nanavati entered his bedroom.
- Prem had just finished taking a bath when Nanavati entered his bedroom.
- Later Prem was shot dead.
- Nanavati drove his car to the police station and surrendered himself.
- Nanavati was 37 years old and Prem was 34 years old when this incident occurred
Contentions of the Accused
The issue raised here related to a simple fact, if Nanavati had committed a murder.
- His Counsel argued that the murder was not pre planned, but was a result of a “grave and sudden provocation” of Nanavati by the deceased Prem Ahuja.
- His counsel further elaborated that Nanavati had taken the gun from his ship as he wanted to shoot himself.
- However, he went to Prem Ahuja’s house to ask him if he would marry Sylvia and take care of his kids.
To this, Prem Ahuja replied “Am I supposed to marry every woman I sleep with?” There was then an ensuing scuffle and two shots were fired by mistake
Contentions of the Prosecution
- The Prosecution believed that the murder was not a result of “provocation” but of a cool mind. Nanavati had a minimum of two hours after he came to know about the affair to cool down.
- The Prosecution believed that the gun was taken on false pretext. Nanavati had said that he needed the gun as he was going to Ahmednagar on his own.
- The Prosecution believed that there was no scuffle. Mr Prem Ahuja had just taken a bath and had a towel wrapped around him. The towel was still in place when he was dead. This is not something that would not have happened had there been a scuffle.
The case was initially tried before the Greater Bombay Sessions Court where Nanavati was charged under Section 302 (murder) . A jury of 9 members was to decide his guilt. The jury acquitted him with a single dissenter, whose quote starts the article- Mr Reginald Pierce. However, the Sessions Judge referred the case to the High Court as per Section 307 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.
Section 307 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1893, in operation at that time, allowed a Judge of the Sessions Court to submit a case before the High Court in case he/she was dissatisfied with the verdict of the jurors.
The Judgment of the High Court
The High Court agreed that there had been misdirection on part of the Sessions Judge which influenced the decision of the jury. The court examined the evidence again including Sylvia and Prem’s letters to determine the nature of their relationship.
The High Court convicted Nanavati under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code. The Judges agreed that the decision of the jury was wrong.
- The decision of the High Court was appealed by Nanavati’s counsel in the Supreme Court.
The Judgment of the Supreme Court
The Supreme Court too upheld the conviction of the High Court. Nanavati was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
However, he was pardoned after 3 years and spent the rest of his life in Canada with his wife and his children.
Analysis of the Case
There were several interesting aspects of this case.
. Justice Shelat of the High Court believed that there was misdirection of the jury by the Sessions Judge whereas Justice Naik focused on the decision of the jury , which he believed was not reasonable. Nanavati’s counsel on the other hand had argued that there was no misdirection at all and the judge was fair.
Was there misdirection of the jury by the Judge or was the jury an independent body of people who made their own decision? It is not always necessary that a wrong decision of the jury would be influenced by a misdirection of the judge. The decision of the jury may be influenced by a variety of other factors too or, it may not be influenced by any factor at all.
The idea of “grave and sudden provocation” is also something to ponder about. The Prosecution had argued that Nanavati had time to cool down before he confronted Prem Ahuja, but he could have been suddenly and gravely provoked by the latter’s sudden remarks claiming he “did not marry every woman he slept with”.
Whatever transpired in Nanavati’s mind that night, the case did become media fodder for days to come. The popularity of the case was to such an extent that it is incorrectly cited as the last case of jury trial in India. The last case by a jury took place in West Bengal. It was the trial of Prabhakr and Rabindranath for the murder of Deepak Sarkar.
The Nanavati case, to some, highlighted the drawbacks of having a jury in a trial.
The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1974 did not mention trial by juries and soon juries became an element of bygone days in India.
Though we no longer have juries in India, I believe that juries add a more humane element to a trial, especially a criminal trial. Perhaps in this case, the jurors may have been influenced by the misdirection of the Judge, or perhaps even the media attention, however, there are many instances of when they have added a layman’s humanistic perspective to a particular trial.
Nonetheless, the case mentioned above is a very interesting one as it raises several questions in one’s mind- the question of primacy of equity or equality; the question of what can influence minds of people in deciding what is just or not and even the technical question of what constitutes as grave and sudden provocation and what does provocation entail?
Besides other things, this case reiterated the responsibility of the Supreme Court as the ultimate interpreter of the Constitution of India and the ultimate guardian of the rights of Indian people.
- Murali K Menon, Love/ Death and Scandal in Bombay, Men’s World, https://www.mansworldindia.com/entertainment/cinema/love-death-and-scandal-in-bombay-nanavati-case-inspired-film-rustom-the-real-story/
- Cambridge dictionary.https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/jury
- Jean Louis Halperin, Lay Justice in India, Wayback Machine. https://web.archive.org/web/20140503122852/http://www.droit.ens.fr/IMG/pdf/Lay_Justice_in_India_1.pdf
- Law Teacher, The Jury System. https://www.lawteacher.net/free-law-essays/criminal-law/the-jury-system.php
- Indian Kanoon. https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1596139/
- The Honorable Murder by Aarti Seth. http://archive.sarai.net/files/original/d50d1f5e2a0a59a67e9c8787901c66f8.pdf
- Latest Laws.com . https://www.latestlaws.com/articles/supreme-court-case-analysis-k-m-nanavati-v-state-of-maharashtra-by-tanya-tikiya
- Socio Legal Review: Not the Right people; Why Jury trials were abolished in India.
- Ipleaders: The Jury System in India and its decline. https://blog.ipleaders.in/the-jury-system-in-india-and-its-decline/#:~:text=A%20trial%20by%20jury%20was,the%20Calcutta%20High%20Court%20Sessions.
- Ipleaders: KM Nanavati v. the State of Maharashtra: case analysis
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