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Shaping the Indian Legal System: The K.M. Nanavati Case

Muneera Shabbeer *

 


Abstract

The landmark Nanavati case drew a line between murder and culpable homicide not amounting to murder. While some jurists claim that it was a ‘crime of passion’, few labels it as a ‘premeditated crime’. Various case commentaries have attempted to analyse defences used in this case, but a focal point has been the defence of ‘sudden and grave provocation’, which was observed. What evolved to be a highly dramatized case, eventually acted as a contributing factor to the abolishment of the jury system. Multiple articles, research papers and journals have analysed the characteristics of the Nanavati case that have also been used in this study to process various facts and theories concerning the same. The powers and functions of the Supreme Court as well as the Executive were stressed upon in this case and the jurisdiction of the High Court as an appellate court was explored. While the jury trials had been fairly biased and misguided, the final judgement delivered by the Supreme Court upheld the principle of complete justice and consequently restored public faith in the judiciary.


Keywords

Jury Trials, Murder, Culpable Homicide, Crime of Passion, Complete Justice, Trial by Media, Sudden and Grave Provocation, Premeditated Crime, Supreme Court, Executive


Introduction

Although many cases have shaped the legal world for what it is today, it would be imperative to mention yet another case that is primarily remembered for its various cinematic contributions rather than how it has affected the legal sector. The historic case of KM Nanavati v. the State of Maharashtra baffled the nation as a whole.


This case has experienced, what one would say, a myriad of twists and turns which was eventually dictated by public opinion. At first glance, it would prove to be a simple case that would not affect the legal sector. This case tested the strength of the judiciary point media and explored the roles and boundaries of the government. It also exposed the undue influence and power exercised by the aristocratic individuals, resulting in a delay of justice. The print media attempted to unravel the hidden details that never met the public eye, however, most of them were assumptions, theories, and musings about what led to the homicide of the victim. The narratives were so baffling that it still lives on in the minds of the people as a story to be told for generations to come.


Facts of the Case

Kawas Maneckshaw Nanavati, a Naval Commander, was married to Sylvia, with who he shared three children. Because of his work, he often had to leave Mumbai (then Bombay), during which Sylvia grew close to Nanavati’s friend, Prem Ahuja. Their friendship soon developed more, which led to the start of an affair between Ahuja and Sylvia. When Nanavati returned, he found the behaviour of his wife amiss, and on probing he realised she had been having an affair while he was gone.


On 27th April 1959, a day after Sylvia confessed her infidelity to her husband, Nanavati dropped his wife and his three kids to the theatre, went to his ship and got his revolver, and set off promptly to meet Ahuja. Not finding him in his office, Nanavati drove to his apartment where he eventually confronted Ahuja and shot him thrice. What is assumed to have been a ‘tussle’ that broke out between them, is a fact that cannot be confirmed to date by anyone. When Ahuja’s maid rushed in, she found Nanavati standing over the latter’s dead body. Nanavati went and confessed his crime to the police the same day, thus leading to the start of one of the most tumultuous trials that India had ever seen.

Issues

1. Whether the accused had shot the deceased in the ‘heat of the moment or if it was a premeditated murder.

2. If the High Court had the jurisdiction to conduct trials on the basis of the reference made by the Sessions Court Judge (under Section 307 of the CrPC)

3. If the verdict reached by the jury was one that could be reached by reasonable men after careful perusal of the evidence present before them.


Proceedings and Analysis

Nanavati had been charged under Sections 302 and 304 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Section 302of the IPC deals with the punishment for those who are guilty of murder, whereas Section 304 of the IPC deals with the punishment for culpable homicide not amounting to murder and the conditions that would count for a crime to be under the aforementioned section. In order to understand the difference between the two sections, it is important to first differentiate between Section 299 and Section 300 of the IPC. Section 299 deals with Culpable Homicide, whereas Section 300 deals with Murder. For a crime to be counted as murder, the offender should have the knowledge that his action will lead to another person’s death, along with the intention to cause grave harm to another person. In cases of culpable homicide not amounting to murder, although the offender may have knowledge that they may cause harm to another, the intention to cause another’s death is missing. This difference was laid down in the case of State of A.P. v. R. Punnayya, where it was held that should a person be killed in cold blood and after careful planning, it is to be considered as ‘murder’. For crimes that are classified as murder, the punishment laid under Section 302 of the IPC follows, whereas, for all cases of culpable homicide, the punishment prescribed under Section 304 follows.


Applying this statute to the case facts, the actus reus (action, or the crime) was when Nanavati shot Ahuja with the gun. If we consider the men's rea (intention of the alleged offender) of this case, the accused not only had the motive to commit the crime but also had the intention to cause death. Nanavati’s motive to kill Ahuja would be that he was having an affair with the former’s wife. The intention to murder was clear since he shot not one, but three bullets, along with the knowledge that it would cause Ahuja’s death. Considering the fact that he had the knowledge as well as the intention to cause death, his crime was to be counted as ‘murder’. So, a judgment being passed in his favor was a blatant breach of justice that would be impossible to ignore. The Sessions Court judge found the jury’s judgment to be perverse and therefore recommended the case to Bombay High Court, who agreed with the judge’s view, and held Nanavati guilty of murder. However, issues arose when the Governor of Bombay suspended the sentence within four hours of the decision.


The main issue here was to settle the clash between the judiciary and the executive because of the debate in place between Article 161 of the Constitution and Article 142 of the Indian Constitution. Article 142 of the Constitution gives the Supreme Court the power to pass an order that is necessary to acquire ‘complete justice’ in any matter that is pending in the court. Article 161 of the Constitution awards pardoning powers to the Governor. It was laid down in Union Carbide Corpn. v. Union of India that prohibitions or limitations or provisions contained in ordinary laws cannot act as prohibitions or limitations on the constitutional powers under Article 142. This was followed by the fact that the court shall not overlook or negate statutory provisions, but simply take note and exercise its power accordingly. Furthermore, in Supreme Court Bar Assn. v. Union of India, it was further reiterated that this Article was not formed with the intent to override statutory provisions, but simply to work alongside them in their own respective spheres. Article 161, as also explained in Kuljeet Singh v. Lt. Governor, allowed pardoning powers to be vested with the executive, so as to reduce or pardon a sentence against an offender. But this is only to be done in appropriate cases. In Satpal v. State of Haryana, the Supreme Court quashed the Governor’s pardon of a person convicted of murder on the basis of the fact that the Governor was not aware of all facts of the case. This meant that the pardoning power could only be exercised such that it does not tamper with the court’s ability to deliver justice. Therefore, the Apex Court after considering both provisions and the intent, held that the Governor’s pardon was to be revoked since he could not grant a pardon while the matter was sub judice before the court.


Furthermore, the question regarding High Court’s jurisdiction in the matter was of prime importance as well. Under Section 307 (1) of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), if the judge does not agree with the verdict of the jurors, he can prescribe the matter to the High Court. However, such an appeal will only be accepted if the judge disagrees with the decision of the jurors, as well as when he believes that the verdict passed by the jury is one that cannot be reached by reasonable men. This was upheld in Ramanugrah Singh vs The King-Emperor, where the words ‘ends of justice’ were emphasised upon while considering the Sessions Judge’s reference as well as the High Court’s acceptance/ dismissal of the same. Meanwhile, Section 418 of CrPC defines the limited jurisdiction possessed by the High Court, whereas Section 423 states that the High Court cannot exercise powers larger than that of an appellate court. However, it was held that the jurisdiction of the High Court is different when an appeal is dismissed as to a case where the Sessions Judge has disagreed with the verdict. The Supreme Court proceeded to state that larger powers are conferred on the High Court under section 307 of CrPC than that conferred under section 418. This meant that the High Court had acted within its jurisdiction.


The Supreme Court, thereafter, passed the verdict against the accused, KM Nanavati, and held him guilty under Section 302 of the IPC, awarding a sentence of life imprisonment. The defence of ‘culpable homicide not amounting to murder was dismissed since one of the major criteria for the aforesaid defence was ‘grave and sudden provocation. The test for ‘grave and sudden provocation’ is whether a reasonable man, belonging to the same class of society as the accused, placed in the same situation as the accused, would be so provoked so as to lose his self-control. Additionally, the action should not take place after a considerable amount of time has lapsed or it shall leave scope for planning and calculation. In the present case, Nanavati had not only carried out the murder in a calculated manner but also had enough of a buffer period between the time his wife confessed to him and the time the murder took place. The biggest evidence against him would be that he gained the gun on a false pretext where his claim for requiring the gun did not align with his intentions or the actual use of the weapon. In Holmes v Director of Public Prosecutions, the accused failed the test of reasonability, where he murdered his wife on claims that she had been unfaithful to him. The court held that no reasonable man would have acted to such a degree of violence based on such claims. The same followed with the Nanavati case, where the degree of violence used was unreasonable.


The Supreme Court, while commenting on the jury’s verdict held that they had been fairly misled during the proceedings. In Indian criminal cases, the burden of proof lies on the prosecution. However, if the case is considered under a special exception, Section 105 of the Indian Evidence Act is used. This meant that the defendant would have to prove his innocence as well. Nanavati had to prove that the incident was an accident and not a premeditated action, which he failed to do eventually. Furthermore, the prosecution was also to prove the case beyond all reasonable doubt since they still share the burden of proof. Finally, it was also held that the Judge was to impart instructions clearly since any mistake on his part would lead to a mistake on the jury’s part.


Nanavati spent three years in prison, after which he was pardoned by the, (then) Governor of Maharashtra, Vijaylakshmi Pandit, and was released owing to health issues. He immigrated to Canada with his family after this and settled there, retaining a heroic public image and thereby gaining success in his work, until he eventually passed away in 2003.


Impact on the Legal Sector

1) Major Blow to Jury Trials:

There were a few oddities that were observed when the trials against the accused, KM Nanavati, began. Although it did not lead to the end of jury trials immediately, it reduced the effectiveness of jury trials in India, which eventually led to the jury being disbanded in 1974 after much discussion and deliberation. The jury passed a verdict that was met with extreme public backlash and criticisms from those practising in the legal field itself. This is similar to The People of the State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson (O.J. Simpson case). Simpson, who was accused of murdering his wife and her friend, was declared not guilty. Though major facts were against Simpson, he was still left to roam free. The defence heavily depended on the claim that evidence had been mishandled and that Simpson was being framed. It is still a widely held belief that the jury’s decision had been incorrect.


Nanavati’s case revealed a new side to jury trials which disillusioned the public and the lawyers and the judges. The decision passed by the jury had been extremely biased. No reasonable man could have dismissed the case in favor of Nanavati, yet the jury did so with a staggering majority. All the evidence as well as the facts presented in court was against him. Although he turned himself in, he, later on, claimed during the trials that it had not been his intention to shoot the victim. Yet, why was it that he carried a weapon that was sure to cause him bodily harm that would be tough to recover from, and in the worst-case scenario, could have also led to death? Why were three bullets shot? If it was not his intention to kill the victim, then would he not have stopped after the first bullet that he ‘accidentally’ shot? Yet the jury overlooked these grave facts and passed in favor of the guilty. An after-effect to be observed is that India is now one of the few countries that do not have jury trials.


2) The Rise in the popularity of Media Trials

The Nanavati case gained major media attention and had the public hooked onto all the developments that were taking place in the case. This was observed in the O.J. Simpson trial as well. We consider Media to be one of the four pillars of democracy. This is because they cover the minute-by-minute developments of a case and disseminate the same. They also create a subtle judgment of their own which leads the public to develop similar ideas about what the media attempts to portray. The judiciary received constant backlash due to the extreme media coverage. The editor of BLITZ, Russy Karanjia, published several articles defending Nanavati and applauding his ‘heroic action’ and acted as a major stimulant for the public to sympathise with Nanavati. However, there was still a divide among the media channels in the initial stages, where some lauded him as a sort of ‘hero’ for ‘saving the dignity of his wife’ and some branding him as an ‘outrageous murderer’ for robbing someone of his life, the final impression was not in favor of Nanavati. The Sushant Singh Case also majorly underwent a Trial by Media.


3) Excessive use of ‘Crime of Passion’ as a defence

Extreme emotional stimulation and an immediate and grave provocation rather than a premeditated crime cause a crime of passion. This was not true in Nanavati’s case. As explained before, it was a well-planned and carefully calculated move by Nanavati. He acquired the weapon on a false pretext and then dropped his wife and children at the theatre. He then headed over to meet the late Prem Ahuja, which proved that he had deliberated over his next move before he went forward with his actions. In Holmes v Director of Public Prosecution, lawyers attempted to use this defence to justify the murder of the offender’s wife. It was negated by the court since it was found to be unreasonable and therefore inapplicable. Therefore, although this defence added a unique twist to the Nanavati case, it caused more harm than good for the future of the Indian legal system as it only opened more doors for criminals to be protected and for justice to be taken for granted.

Conclusion

The K.M. Nanavati case was full of hurdles that confused all those who were invested in it. This case left its mark as multiple movies (most popularly: Rustom) and literary pieces, but the excessive dramatisation acted as a distraction from the legal foundations of the same.


While the jury trials, in my opinion, had been fairly biased, I agree with the judgement of the Supreme Court. I have reason to believe that besides being misled during proceedings (as stated earlier on), there was imminent bias present among the jury. Nanavati was a Naval Officer, which was a position of respect and honour. As per his work records, he had always been a ‘noble’ and ‘honourable’ man and never had any records of any misconduct. The jury, possibly considering his background, could have assumed that Nanavati is a man of good character and therefore could not be capable of criminal intent. Additionally, due to the media hype, there is a high possibility that the jury may have felt pressure to pass a verdict in favour of the accused. This is very similar to the Simpson case where the facts had been against the accused, yet he was acquitted in the case. The Simpson case received excessive media attention as well and was believed to be majorly divided along racial lines. There is again a possibility that the verdict was an attempt on the part of the judiciary to be in consonance with public opinion. Meanwhile, in the Nanavati case, it was clear it had been a premeditated crime since the beginning of the proceedings, since sufficient time lapse before he confronted the victim. He had acquired the weapon on a false pretext, and his choice of weapon was one that was highly likely to cause death. He had the knowledge that should he shoot the victim, he may cause his death. Yet he shot three bullets which shows that he had the intention to cause Ahuja’s death. This immediately shifts his action to murder. The jury trial’s verdict was one that could not have been reached by a reasonable man since considering all these facts, it was evident that Nanavati is guilty of murder. This brought in the High Court’s power under Section 307 of the CrPC, which overturned the jury’s verdict and rightly charged Nanavati with punishment under Section 302 of the IPC.


Nanavati’s action was not reasonable, and it was clear that he was absolutely in a healthy state of mind when the event had occurred. Considering the Court of Criminal Appeal in Rex v. Lesbini, that losing one’s temper and acting irrationally, where no other reasonable man would act in the same manner, is not a defence. Therefore, his use of violence was extreme and unjustified. The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the High Court’s verdict, therefore, was justified since all evidence showed that Nanavati was guilty of murder and not culpable homicide not amounting to murder. Additionally, the power of the Supreme Court was highlighted, as per Article 142 of the Constitution, which reiterated the importance of complete justice, thereby upholding public faith in the judiciary.


By the end of the day, the details of this case can never truly be known, as what exists are just versions of the story being told from different points of view. But it still lives on, as a memory of a story that spun out of control and eventually led to a wildfire.



 

[*] Muneera Shabbeer is a first-year undergraduate student from Jindal Global Law School, Sonepat. For any discussion related to the article, she can be contacted via mail: muneerashabbeer@gmail.com.

Preferred Citation – Muneera Shabbeer, “Shaping the Indian Legal System: The K.M. Nanavati Case", Syin & Sern Law Review, Published on 8th May 2021.

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