K. M. Nanavati vs. State of Maharashtra

K. M. Nanavati vs. State of Maharashtra

-! bgcolor="6699FF" | Laws applied
Code of Criminal Procedure(Act, 5 of 1898), 88. 307, 410, 417, 418 (1), 423(2), 297,155 (1), 162-Indian Penal Code, 1860 (Act 45 of 1860), 88. 302, 300, Exception I-Indian Evidence Act,1872 (1 of 1872), 8. 105.

"K. M. Nanavati vs. State of Maharashtra" was a 1959 Indian court case involving Kawas Manekshaw Nanavati, who was tried for shooting dead Prem Ahuja, his wife Sylvia's paramour. The incident shocked the nation, got unprecedented media coverage and inspired several books and movies. The case was not only the last jury trial held in India, but also a direct cause for the abolition of jury trials.


Kawas Manekshaw Nanavati (1935–2003), a Parsi and a commander with the Indian Navy, had settled down in Mumbai with Sylvia (1931–), his English born wife and their two sons and a daughter.cite web | author=Sharma, Vijaya | title=Sylvia Nanavati | work=The Nanavati Case | url=http://www.hindustantimes.com/news/specials/proj_tabloid/sylviaprofile.shtml | accessdate=October 17 | accessyear=2005 ] cite web | author=Sharma, Vijaya | title=Nanavati Profile | work=The Nanavati Case | url=http://www.hindustantimes.com/news/specials/proj_tabloid/nanavatiprofile.shtml | accessdate=October 17 | accessyear=2005 ] With Nanavati frequently away on assignments for long periods of time, the lonely Sylvia fell in love with Prem Bhagwandas Ahuja, a friend of Nanavati.cite web | author=Sharma, Vijaya | title=Prem Bhagwandas Ahuja | work=The Nanavati Case | url=http://www.hindustantimes.com/news/specials/proj_tabloid/nanavati1.shtml | accessdate=October 17 | accessyear=2005 ] Prem's sister Mamie Ahuja, in her testimony in court, stated that Prem had agreed to marry Sylvia, provided she divorced her husband. But this was contradicted by the letters written by Sylvia (admitted as Sylvia's testimony), where she expressed her desire to divorce Nanavati and marry Prem, but she doubted whether Prem had the same intentions. In a letter dated May 24, 1958, she wrote "Last night when you spoke of your marrying and the various other girls you might marry, something inside me snapped and I knew I could not bear the thought of your loving someone else…".


On April 27, 1959, Nanavati returned home from one of his assignments and finding Sylvia aloof and distant, he questioned her. Sylvia, who now doubted Prem's intent to marry her, confessed about the affair to her husband. Nanavati dropped his family at the Metro Cinema, for a show he had promised to take them to, but excused himself and headed straight to confront Prem Ahuja.cite web | author=Prakash, Gyan | title=Blitz's Bombay | work=Seminar | url=http://www.india-seminar.com/2003/528/528%20gyan%20prakash.htm | accessdate=October 17 | accessyear=2005 ] cite book | author=Sethi, Aarti | year=2005 | chapter = [http://www.sarai.net/publications/readers/05-bare-acts/resolveUid/2adcb16faf8e5e8df73266ccc7cce513 The Honourable Murder: The Trial of Kawas Maneckshaw Nanavati] | editor=Narula, Monica; Sengupta, Shuddhabrata; Bagchi, Jeebesh; Lovink, Geert | title = Sarai READER 05: BARE ACTS | pages=pp. 444–453 | publisher= The Sarai Programme | id=ISBN 81-901429-5-X | url=http://www.sarai.net/publications/readers/05-bare-acts. "NB: on-line chapter is in PDF format"] When Sylvia was asked in court, why she went to the theatre, leaving her agitated husband behind, she answered, "I was upset myself and I did not think clearly then. I was not indifferent to my husband killing himself… It is difficult to explain these things to children, so I took them to the cinema."

At Ahuja's residence, Nanavati confronted him and asked him whether he intended to marry Sylvia and accept their children. After Prem replied in the negative, three shots were fired and Prem Ahuja dropped dead. Nanavati headed straight to confess to the Provost Marshal of the Western Naval Command and on his advice, turned himself in to the Deputy Commissioner of Police.

Jury trial

The crux of the case was whether the gun went off accidentally or whether it was a premeditated murder. In the former scenario, Nanavati would be charged under the Indian penal code, for culpable homicide, with a maximum punishment of 10 years and in the latter, he would be charged with murder, with the sentence being death or life imprisonment. Nanavati pleaded not guilty and his defence team argued it as case of culpable homicide not amounting to murder,Under section 304 of the Indian penal code, "Culpable Homicide not amounting to murder" can be pleaded, if the homicide is not premeditated and occurs, due to a grave or sudden provocation, or in a sudden confrontation, without taking any undue advantage or acting in a cruel or unusual manner, irrespective of who provoked first. inote|Defence vs. Prosecution|3 inote|Sethi, Aarti|7] while the prosecution argued it was premeditated murder.cite web | author=Sharma, Vijaya | title=Defence Vs Prosecution (pg.1) | work=The Nanavati Case | url=http://www.hindustantimes.com/news/specials/proj_tabloid/defence.shtml | accessdate=October 17 | accessyear=2005 ]

The jury in the Greater Bombay sessions court pronounced Nanavati as not guilty, with an 8–1 verdict. The sessions judge considered the acquittal as perverse and referred the case to the high court. The prosecution argued that the jury had been misled by the presiding judge on four crucial points. One, the onus of proving that it was an accident and not premeditated murder was on Nanavati. Two, was Sylvia's confession the grave provocation for Nanavati, or any specific incident in Ahuja's bedroom or both. Three, the judge wrongly told the jury that the provocation can also come from a third person. And four, the jury was not instructed that Nanavati's defence had to be proved, to the extent that there "is no reasonable doubt" in the mind of a reasonable person. The court accepted the arguments, dismissed the jury's verdict and the case was freshly heard in the high court. Since the jury had also been influenced by media and public support for Nanavati and was also open to being misled, the Indian government abolished jury trials after this case.


Defence version

In the Bombay High Court, the defence put forth their version of the incident, for which there were no witnesses other than the two men, and no evidence. Hearing Sylvia's confession, an enraged Nanavati wanted to shoot himself, but was calmed down by Sylvia, who told him that he is not to be blamed for this and there was no reason that he should shoot himself. Since Sylvia did not tell him whether Prem intended to marry her, Nanavati sought to find it out for himself. When Nanavati met Prem at the latter's bedroom, Prem had just come out of the bath dressed only in a towel; an angry Nanavati swore at Prem and proceeded to ask him if he intends to marry Sylvia and look after his children. Prem replied, "Will I marry every woman I sleep with?", which further enraged Nanavati. Seeing Prem go for the gun, enclosed in a brown packet, Nanavati too went for it and in the ensuing scuffle, Prem's hand caused the gun to go off and instantly kill him.

Prosecution version

On the other hand the prosecution's version of the story and their counter-points against the defence's version, was based on replies by witnesses and backed by evidence. The towel that Ahuja was wearing was intact on his body and had neither loosened nor fallen off. In the case of a scuffle, it is highly improbable that the towel would have stayed intact. After Sylvia's confession, a calm and collected Nanavati dropped his family to the theatre, drove to his naval base and according to the Navy log, had acquired a gun and rounds, under a false pretext. This indicated that the provocation was neither grave nor sudden and that Nanavati had the murder planned. Ahuja's servant Anjani testified that three shots were fired in quick succession and the entire incident took under a minute to occur, thus ruling out a scuffle. Nanavati walked out of Ahuja's residence, without explaining to his sister Mamie that it was an accident. He then unloaded the gun, went to the Provost Marshall and again went to the police to confess his crime, thus ruling out that he was dazed. The deputy commissioner of police testified that Nanavati confessed that he had shot dead Ahuja and even corrected the misspelling of his name in the police record.

The high court agreed with the prosecution's argument that the murder was premeditated and sentenced Nanavati to life imprisonment for culpable homicide amounting to murder. On November 24, 1961, the Supreme Court of India upheld the conviction.

Public support

The incident both shocked and riveted the entire country. Such a "crime of passion", as it was termed, was unusual, especially in the upper echelons of the society and that too by a highly decorated officer. People also found the unfolding relationships intriguing. For instance, Nanavati had known Ahuja for nearly 15 years and Sylvia stood by her husband after Ahuja's murder.

The weekly tabloid Blitz, run by R. K. Karanjia, a Parsi himself, publicised the story, ran exclusive cover stories and openly supported Nanavati, portraying him as a wronged husband and upright officer, betrayed by a close friend. Blitz painted Nanavati's image, as that of a man representing the ideal middle class values as against Ahuja's playboy image, that symbolised the corruption and sleaze of the bourgeois. A copy of Blitz during the trial sold for Rs.2/- per copy, up from the normal rate of 25 Paise or 0.25 rupee.cite web | author=Sharma, Vijaya | title=Heady days of the trial | work=The Nanavati Case | url=http://www.hindustantimes.com/news/specials/proj_tabloid/trial.shtml | accessdate=October 17 | accessyear=2005 ] Peddlers on the street sold "Ahuja Towels" and toy "Nanavati Revolvers."

Influential Parsis held regular rallies in Mumbai, with the largest being an event held at Cowasji Jehangir Hall, to support the Governor's decree that suspended Nanavati's life sentence and put him under naval custody, until his appeal was heard by the Supreme Court. At that rally, 3,500 people filled the hall and around 5000 stood outside. Nanavati also received backing from the Indian Navy and the Parsi Panchayat, while the Sindhi community backed Mamie Ahuja. Even among the jurists, Ram Jethmalani, a Sindhi, consulted the prosecution, while Karl Khandavala, a Parsi, represented Nanavati.


While Nanavati spent 3 years in prison, public opinion thought the sentence was too harsh and the Blitz magazine kept the issue alive and pressured the government to pardon Nanavati. Nanavati, by virtue of working as a Defence Attaché to V. K. Krishna Menon, while he was a high commissioner to the United Kingdom, was also close to the Nehru-Gandhi family. But a public pardon could have got an angry reaction from the Sindhi community.

At the same time, the government received an application for pardon from Bhai Pratap, a Sindhi trader and a participant in the Indian independence movement, who was convicted for misusing an import license, but exonerated by a government inquiry. The prosecution working with Ram Jethmalani, the Defence's counsel, got Prem's sister Mamie Ahuja to forgive Nanavati and give her assent for his pardon, in writing. Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, then governor of Maharashtra, pardoned Bhai Pratap and Nanavati on the same day.

After his release, Nanavati, his wife Sylvia and their 3 children emigrated to Toronto, Canada. Nanavati died in 2003.cite web | title=Honor Killing: No 'crime of passion' | url=http://www.thesouthasian.org/archives/000178.html| accessdate=October 17 | accessyear=2005 ]

In popular culture

Yeh Raaste hain Pyar ke, a 1963 suspense thriller, directed by "R.K. Nayyar" depicting Sunil Dutt as Nanavati, Leela Naidu as Sylvia and Rehman as Prem was the first Bollywood film to exploit the case, but flopped at the box office. The film closely followed the actual case, with even the cast being chosen for their close resemblance to their real-life counterparts. But in the end, Sunil Dutt (Nanavati) shoots both his wife and her paramour.cite web | title=Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke (1963) | url=http://imdb.com/title/tt0057699/ | accessdate=October 17 | accessyear=2005 ]

Achanak, a 1973 crime drama, written and directed by Gulzar, depicting Vinod Khanna as Nanavati, Lily Chakravarty as Sylvia and Om Shivpuri as Prem, echoed the case and was a box-office hit. In the film, Vinod Khanna, who plays an upright army officer, receives a death sentence but its execution remains inconclusive.cite web | title=Achanak (1973) | url=http://imdb.com/title/tt0215466/ | accessdate=October 17 | accessyear=2005 ]

Besides a Hindi book titled "Nanavati ka Mukadama" (Nanavati's trial), Anglo-Indian novelist Indra Sinha's "The Death of Mr Love" is a fictional account based on the murder. The book, spanning four decades between the 1950s to 1990s, tells the story of Mrs.S, the second woman besides Sylvia, with whom Prem had a physical relationship. In the title, "Love" is the literal translation of "Prem", Ahuja's first name. [cite web | title=The Death of Mr Love | url=http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/01/03/1041196779725.html | accessdate=October 17 | accessyear=2005 ]

Salman Rushdie's novel Midnight's Children, which features many major political events in India in the 60s and 70s has a scene in which a naval officer discovers his wife has been having an affair, confronts her lover, who is an old friend of his, and shoots him.

Notes and references

External links

* [http://judis.nic.in/supremecourt/qrydisp.asp?tfnm=4062 Text of the judgement]
* [http://www.hindustantimes.com/news/specials/proj_tabloid/tabloidhome1912.shtml The Nanavati Case] — Articles about the case from the Hindustan Times tabloid.
*cite web | author=Sharma, Vijaya | title=Nanavati released!| work=The Nanavati Case | url=http://www.hindustantimes.com/news/specials/proj_tabloid/revealed.shtml | accessdate=October 17 | accessyear=2005

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