|Shray Prem vs. State of Maharashtra|
Supreme Court of India
|Decided November 11, 1961|
|Appellant Nanavati, a Naval Officer, was put up on trial under sec. 302 and 304 Part I of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) for alleged murder of his wife's paramour. The High Court dismissed the earlier acquittal by a Jury Trial and convicted the accused to life imprisonment under Sec. 302 of IPC.|
|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 where Kawas Manekshaw Nanavati, a Naval Commander, was tried for the murder of Prem Ahuja, his wife's lover. The incident received unprecedented media coverage and inspired several books and movies. Nanavati was initially declared not guilty by a jury, but the verdict was dismissed by the Bombay High Court and the case was retried as a bench trial. The case was the last to be heard as a jury trial in India, as the government abolished jury trials as a result of the case.
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. 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. 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." Nanavati went to the Naval base collected his pistol on a false pretext from the stores along with six cartridges, completed his official duties and proceeded to Prem Ahuja's office. On not finding him there went straight to his flat. 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.
The crux of the case was whether Nanavati shot Ahuja in the "heat of the moment" 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. This is because he could have invoked exceptions 1 and 4 of section 300 of IPC (which defines murder). Exception 1 states:
"Culpable homicide is not murder if the offender, whilst deprived of the power of self-control by grave and sudden provocation, causes the death of the person who gave the provocation or causes the death of any other person by mistake or accident."
Exception 4 states:
"Culpable homicide is not murder if it is committed without premeditation in a sudden fight in the heat of passion upon a sudden quarrel and without the offender having taken undue advantage or acted in a cruel or unusual manner.
Explanation -- It is immaterial in such cases which party offers the provocation or commits the first assault."
In the latter scenario (i.e. premeditated murder), Nanavati 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, while the prosecution argued it was premeditated murder.
The jury in the Greater Bombay sessions court pronounced Nanavati as not guilty, with an 8–1 verdict. Hon'ble Mr. Justice Ratilal Bhaichand Mehta (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.
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.
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.
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. 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, conducted the prosecution, while Karl Khandavala, a Parsi, represented Nanavati.
Nanavati had moved in the same circles as the Nehru-Gandhi family for many years. He had previously worked as Defence Attaché to V. K. Krishna Menon, while the latter was high commissioner to the United Kingdom, and had grown close to the Nehrus during that time. During the time of his trial and sentencing, Jawaharlal Nehru was Prime Minister of India and his sister, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, was governor of Maharashtra state.
All of these advantages may in other circumstances have availed Nanavati nothing, for a pardon might have been seen by the press and public at other times as a blatant misuse of power to help a crony of an influential political family. However, public opinion was decidedly in favour of Nanavati, seen an upright naval officer with middle class values and a strong sense of honour. While Public opinion thought the sentence was too harsh and supported a proposal, mooted by the Blitz, to grant a pardon to the cuckolded naval officer. The Blitz magazine played a significant part in raising public opinion in favour of Nanavati and keeping the issue alive for over three years until the pardon was granted.
Nanavati spent 3 years in prison; it was feared that a pardon for him could elicit an angry reaction from the Sindhi community to which the Ahuja family belonged. At around this time, the government received an application for pardon from Bhai Pratap, a Sindhi trader who had been a participant in the Indian independence movement, and had been convicted for misusing an import license. Given his freedom fighter background, and the relative smallness of his offence, the government was inclined to pardon Bhai Pratap. Finally, since Nanavati had spent over three years in prison and given the circumstances of the case, Prem's sister Mamie Ahuja was persuaded to forgive Nanavati. She gave her assent for his pardon in writing. Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, then governor of Maharashtra, pardoned Bhai Pratap and Nanavati on the same day.
Yeh Raaste Hain Pyar Ke, a 1963 suspense thriller, directed by R.K. Nayyar with Sunil Dutt, Leela Naidu, and Rehman, was the first Bollywood film which seemed to exploit the case, but flopped at the box office. The film began with a disclaimer that all people and incidents were fictitious, and altered the case's outcome. Leela Naidu's 2010 book with Jerry Pinto indicates that the movie screenplay was written before the Nanavati case. It was a coincidence of the real-life case events with a similar movie storyline that led to similarities while the movie was made.
Achanak, a 1973 crime drama, written and directed by Gulzar, starring Vinod Khanna, Lily Chakravarty, and Om Shivpuri, was inspired by 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.
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.
A fictionalized account of the case also appears in Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, where the case of Commander Sabarmati (in the chapter titled "Commander Sabarmati's Baton") is a fictionalized account of the Nanavati case.
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