K. M. Nanavati vs State Of Maharashtra on 24 November, 1961

Estimated Reading Time: 12 minutes

1962 AIR  605   1962 SCR  Supl. (1) 567

Introduction

One of the most eagerly- anticipated film Rustom starring Akshay Kumar was dropped in the year 2016 and we got a perception of a case that stormed and shook the entire country 60 years ago which was none other than K M Nanavati v State of Maharashtra. The trial of India’s first upper-class “crime of passion” – a gripping tale of love and honor – had enough twists and turns, leading to an unpredicted pardon for the naval officer. This case also emerged out to be India’s last trial by jury. The case was so explosive and sensational that it is embarked as a historic milestone of the Indian Judiciary. The case was associated with numerous dramatis personae. The esteemed Yashwanth Chandrachud, who later went on to become the Hon’ble Chief Justice of India, was there amongst the prosecutors.  The defense included Karl Khandalavala, who later on became the defense counsel for Indira Gandhi during the Shah Commission and none other the highly regarded Mr. Ram Jethmalani, to represent the family of the deceased Prem Ahuja.

The constant attention of visual media was absent during those days and heavy reliance on newspapers was apparent. This case captured the imagination of the reading public and especially those interested in law for dual reasons, one being the people involved in the case and the other being the gravity of the crime committed.  Blitz, the popularly read tabloid in Bombay was greatly responsible for the way the case of Nanavati was perceived in the press. The variation in the verdict of “not guilty” held by the jury to being “held guilty” for murder by the Supreme Court, the case gained unprecedented media coverage, probably having a great influence on the verdict of the jury.

Background

Facts of the case and Modus Operandi of Murder

Kawas Maneshkar Nanavati, a Parsi, was a commando at the Indian Navy who had settled down with his wife Sylvia in Bombay. The accused by reason of his work, was frequently away for a long period of time on assignments. On April 27 1959, he was having lunch with his wife, Syliva, at their home in Mumbai, when Syliva admitted to him that while he was away at sea, she fell in love with Prem Ahuja, a rich Sindhi businessman, who was the friend of the Nanavati’s and soon it culminated into an illicit affair. The accused wasn’t enraged and rather asked her regarding Ahuja’s intention to get married to her. After having lunch, Nanavati dropped his wife and children at the Metro Cinema to watch a film and then proceeded to his ship,INS Mysore, which was docked in the Bombay Harbour. He signed out a semi-automatic revolver and six rounds of ammunition from the ship’s Armory and drove to Prem Ahuja’s home. He confronted Ahuja about his intentions to get married to  Sylvia and take care of the three children, to which Ahuja flippantly replied that he did not marry every woman he slept with. After the confrontation, Nanavati fired 3 shots into Ahuja who died instantly. He then left and surrendered himself to the Deputy Commissioner of Police.

Proceedings of the Session Court

The case was tried in the sessions court of greater Bombay under the provisions of section 302 and 304 of the Indian Penal Code. It was tried in front of a nine members special jury which by the ratio of 8:1, decided that the accused, K M Nanavati is not guilty under the aforementioned sections. However, the presiding Judge of the sessions court Justice R B Mehta seemed to not be in accord with the jury and disagreed to the verdict since he felt that the jury was very emotional and completely ignored the facts and evidences which explicitly expressed the contrary. The Sessions Judge declared the verdict ‘perverse’ and referred it to the High Court of Bombay.

Application of great and sudden provocation – yes or no?

The question ultimately turned to the presence of grave and sudden provocation. What was claimed on Nanavati’s part was the he was so enraged by Ahuja’s comments that he under ‘great and sudden provocation’ shot him thrice. The judge while going through the evidence said that, Nanavati went back home, dropped off his wife and children and went to the dock, then picked up his revolver and then went and shot. Hence, it could not be held as spur of the moment and consequently, “Great and Sudden Provocation” is inapplicable to the case in hand.

Proceedings at the Bombay High Court

The case was referred to the Bombay High Court under section 307 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, stating the grounds for the referral. The division bench led by Justice Shelat and Justice Naik, unanimously held the accused guilty of murder and sentenced him to  rigorous imprisonment for life. The division bench of justices with their conflicting judgments rejected the verdict of the jury and convicted the accused under section 302 and 304 of IPC. The division bench agreed that the offence committed cannot reduce from murder to culpable homicide not amounting to murder.

Justice Shelat, J held that the jury was misdirected, unconfused he looked into the entire set of evidence and arrived at the solution that the accused was clearly guilty of the offense of murder. He also viewed his expressions that the decision of the jury was unreasonable is rational and, regardless, in opposition to the weightage of proof. 

Naik, J., liked to put together his decision with respect to the elective ground, in particular, that no sensible group of people might have reached the resolution shown up at by the jury. Both the learned Judges concurred that no case had been made out to lessen the offense from man slaughtering than culpable homicide not amounting to murder.

However, the judgement was challenged by the accused and he appealed to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the Governor of Bombay granted him a reprieve (temporary pardon) to enable him to approach the Supreme Court. The Apex Court stated the inability of governor to use his pardon powers while the matter was still sub judice and held out on Nanavati’s surrendering before hearing the appeal.

Issue

The judgment of the court was based on two issues

  • Whether Prem Ahuja’s murder was a result of sudden and great provocation or whether it was a premeditated murder by Nanavati?
  • Whether a Special Leave Petition can be granted without abiding and fulfilling the order under section 142?

Argument of the Petitioner

The arguments put forward by Nanavati’s cousel was that after learning from Sylvia about her illicit affair, Nanavati wished to commit suicide. However, Sylivia was able to manage the situation and calm him down. Since Sylvia didn’t disclose about Ahuja’s intention to marry her, Nanavati planned to discover it out himself. After the confession, he took his car and dropped his wife and children at the film hall. Sooner the accused headed towards the ship dock to fetch some medicine for his sick dog. He addressed to the authorities in the ship that he needed to draw the revolver along with six rounds of ammunition from the ship armory as he planned to drive alone to Ahmednagar around evening time, however the genuine reason was to shoot himself. He put the revolver and the six cartridges inside a brown colored envelope and carried it with him. At that point he drove his vehicle to Ahuja’s office, and not discovering him there, he headed to Ahuja’s flat which was opened by a domestic worker, strolled to Ahuja’s bed-room, went into the bed-room and shut the entryway behind him. He likewise conveyed him about the envelope containing the pistol. Nanavati saw Ahuja inside the bed-room, considered him a dirty pig and asked if he would marry Sylvia and take care of the children. Ahuja countered, “Am I to marry each lady I sleep with?” The accused became incensed, put the envelope containing the pistol on a cupboard close by, and took steps to whip the deceased. Ahuja took an abrupt action to get a handle on at the envelope, when Nanavati whipped out his pistol and advised him to get back. A battle followed between the two and during that battle two shots went off inadvertently and hit Ahuja bringing about his demise. After the shooting Nanavati returned to his car and drove it to the police headquarters where he surrendered himself. Hence, it was a scene of grave and sudden provocation which made the accused shot the deceased. Even if there is any crime which has been committed here, the offense would be not murder but culpable homicide not amounting to murder. Here the petitioner basically argued on taking the defense of great and sudden provocation which resulted in his client to shoot the victim.

 Argument of the Respondent

The main dispute that was raised was that Ahuja had quite recently come out from the shower wearing a towel. At the point when his corpse was found, his towel was flawlessly intact on his body. It was very unlikely for the towel to not tumble and to loosen up if there was a tussle between both the parties at all. Moreover, after Sylvia’s admission and calming him down, and then Nanavati taking them for a film in his car and 

Later heading towards the ship Armory to procure his gun, that too under the pretext of false appearance was highly suspicious. This proves that he had sufficient time to cool down his anger and the provocation under which he murdered Ahuja was not an outcome of grave and sudden incidents. Therefore, it was a premeditated murder rather than calling this crime as a culpable homicide not amounting to murder. 

“It was premeditated murder. Nanavati knew that Sylvia was having an affair with Ahuja, a ‘ladies’ man’. Talk then was that Ahuja was a philanderer who was into numerous relationships, some being allegedly with wives of highest ranked Army and Air Force officers. Nanavati, who had known of the affair of his wife, had also consulted a lawyer and wanted to know what he could do about it. It wasn’t as if he got to know of the affair there and then and was provoked into killing Ahuja in a crime of passion,” – Ram Jethmalani, who was hired by Ahuja’s sister Mamie as a ‘watching brief’.

Also, as per the testimony given by Ahuja’s domestic help, who happened to be present at the home when the entire incident occurred was the only natural witness, testified that there were four shots consecutively one after the other. As per as the testimony of the domestic help, the incident took place so fast and the shots were subsequently fired that the petitioner’s contention of a tassel between the accused and the deceased can be ruled out. The counsel for the respondent therefore argued that the entire event occurred in less than a minute therefore ruling out scuffle. Nanavati left Ahuja’s home, without disclosing about the accident to his sister Mamie, who was present in different room of the residence. The Deputy Commissioner of police affirmed that Nanavati admitted that he had shot dead Ahuja and even rectified the incorrect spelling of his name in the police record, thereby showing Nanavati was not bewildered.

Judgement

  • Judgment for issue no. 1

The court Relied on the case of Rex v Lesbini and examined the theory of great and sudden provocation laying down the important ingredients:

  1. There should be a close proximity between the provocation and commission of the offense. It must be in a spur of moment and there should be no sufficient time gap.
  2. The mode of resentment should bear a reasonable relationship with the provocation.

After examining the facts of the case in details, the learned judges pointed out that there were a lot of lacunas in the submission made by the accused, thus, rejecting the argument of the accused. The Court held that the accused cannot take the defense of exception 1 of Section 300 of the Indian Penal Code and held this crime to be a premeditated murder instead of a ‘culpable homicide not amounting to murder’.

  • Judgment for issue no. 2

The Supreme Court dismissed the Special leave petitions. The judge held that the appellant’s SLP cannot be listed for hearing unless Nanavati surrender himself following the conditions of Article 142 of the Indian constitution. The Court also held that the pardon granted by the governor cannot be operated along with the petition filed by the Appellant and one of them will have to be taken away. The court additionally stated the inability of the Governor to use his powers to grant a pardon unless the case is heard and the appellant has surrendered before the hearing. Finally, it was held that the Apex court may not entertain SLP if the order of the lower court not followed under Article 142.

  • The order

The bench thus passed an order upholding the merits of the case and convicted the accused under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code and sentenced him to undergo rigorous imprisonment for life. Alongside, the appeal filed by the accused was dismissed by the Supreme Court.

Analysis

This case is considered monumental owing to its vivid explanation regarding the ingredients of “great and sudden provocation” and its constituents. In the present case, “great and sudden provocation” was evidently missing on account of the difference of three hours between the provocation and the commission of the crime. The case further highlighted pointers on evaluation of circumstantial evidences. Additionally, the present case lays down the laws pertaining to surrender before the appeal is heard in the Supreme Court. This case is so historic that it was the last jury trial in India and as commented by Ram Jethmalani, this case put an end to The Art of Cross Examination 

Evidence in form of written letters by Ahuja were adduced by Slyvia and Extra Judicial Confessions were taken into consideration, which established the undeniable relationship between the two. The jury howsoever, reached to the verdict of him being proven not guilty by majority of 8:1. This became the ground for the Sessions Judge for referring the case to the Hon’ble High Court of Bombay under Section 307 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1893, which is quoted as follows: 

“Section 307: (1) If in any such case the Judge disagrees with the verdict of the jurors, or of a majority of jurors, on all or any of the charges on which any accused person had been tried, and is clearly of opinion that it is necessary for the ends of justice to submit the case in respect of such accused person to the High Court, he shall submit the case accordingly, recording the grounds of his opinion, and, when the verdict is one of acquittal, stating the offence which he considers to have been committed, and in such case, if the accused is further charged under the provisions such charge as if such verdict had been one of conviction…. 

(3) In dealing with the case so submitted the High Court may exercise any of the powers which it may exercise on an appeal, and subject thereto it shall, after considering the entire evidence and after giving due weight to the opinions of the Sessions Judge and the jury, acquit or convict such accused of any offence of which the jury could have convicted him upon the charge framed and placed before it; and, if it convicts him, may pass such sentence as might have been passed by the Court of Session.”

The words “for the ends of justice” in section 307 connote that the Judge opposing the verdict must be of the perspective that the verdict was one which no reasonable body of men could reach on the evidence, coupled with the term ‘clearly of the opinion’ gave the Judge a wide and comprehensive discretion to suit varying situations. Hence, the Judge dissented with the verdict and recorded the grounds of his opinion, the reference was competent, irrespective of the question whether the Judge was right in differing or forming such an opinion from the verdict of jury. Nothing contained in Section 307(1) of the Code lends support to the contention that though the Judge had complied with the requisite conditions, the High Court should reject the reference without delving into the evidence, if the grounds provided in the order of reference did not sustain the view expressed by the Judge.

Conclusion

The aforementioned judgment was victorious in grabbing the attention of the nation owing to the fact that the crime of adultery occasioned to the crime of murder not amounting to culpable homicide. Moreover, the accused was a decorated officer of Indian Navy and such crime committed by him was welcomed by the society owing to the piteous journalism towards him. The burden of proof lying upon the prosecution, was released by establishing the facts to unparallel clarity, which is indeed indispensable to the procedure of adjudication. Also, referring the case to higher judiciary and jury being erroneous on point of law was something that pointed out extent of corruption in judiciary consequence of which was the abolition of the jury system in succeeding Criminal procedure.

References

[1] https://www.academia.edu/27933023/K_M_Nanavati_Case

[2] https://lawlex.org/lex-bulletin/case-summmary-k-m-nnavati-vs-state-of-maharashtra/18888

[3] https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1596139/

[4] Case-Analysis-K.M-Nanavati-v.-State-of-Maharashtra-By-Tanya-Tikiya.pdf

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