Saturday 9 July 2011

Romeo Must Die: The Nanavati Case.

As a lot of us know, a jury let off a woman in the US, one Casey Anthony, who was charged with murdering her daughter and whom a lot of people – including media bottom-feeders – seem to have tried, convicted, and executed in absentia, and whom the acquittal sent into conniptions.

Now, this article isn’t about Ms Anthony; I don’t know or care about the case enough to make any statement about it except to say that anyone victimised by a media trial has my full and entire sympathies, whether he or she is guilty or not. This article is about juries, or, more specifically, why India abandoned juries in 1959, and why I agree wholeheartedly with that decision.

There was a man named Kawas Manekshaw Nanavati. 

In 1959 he was 34 years old, a Commander in the Indian Navy, a former military attaché to Britain, and had friends in high places, including the family of then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. He also had an English wife, one Sylvia (then 28) and two sons and a daughter with her. Sylvia and the children lived in Bombay, while Nanavati himself was usually away (he was posted on the cruiser Mysore at this time).

Being lonely as well as lovely, Sylvia fell in love with one Prem Ahuja, a businessman and old friend (they had known each other for fifteen years) of Nanavati. Sylvia seemed to have believed that Ahuja would marry her, but by April 1959 that belief was wearing thin.

On the 27th of April, Nanavati returned home from the ship in the late morning to find his wife in a sombre mood. On questioning her, she confessed her affair and said she no longer believed Ahuja would marry her. Nanavati then had lunch with her, and in a bizarre turn of events, took her and their kids to a movie theatre. Sylvia later said she was afraid her husband might kill himself but went to the movie because she didn’t want to distress the children. Even fifty years after the fact, that sounds kind of thin to me, but then there are all kinds of people.

So Nanavati dropped them there to watch the afternoon show of Tom Thumb, went back to the cruiser, checked out a revolver and six cartridges from the armoury, and drove to Ahuja’s house after finding he wasn’t at his office. Ahuja was bathing and came out of the bathroom to talk to Nanavati, wearing only a towel. Nanavati apparently asked him whether he would be willing to marry Sylvia and take care of the children if he (Nanavati) divorced her. To that, Ahuja allegedly replied “Should I marry every woman I sleep with?”

What happened after that is disputed, but at the end of it, Ahuja lay dead with three bullets in him. Nanavati, pausing only to inform the security guard at the gate of Ahuja’s apartment complex that he’d killed Ahuja for having “connections” with his wife, went and confessed to the naval Provost Marshal, and then gave himself up to the police. So far so good.

Then the complications started.

Nanavati was a Parsi (a Zoroastrian of Iranian origin; the community was at that time highly influential in Indian business, law and media, much more so than today). Ahuja, however, was a member of the Sindhi business community. Besides, Ahuja was known for his playboy lifestyle, while Nanavati was a firmly middle-class naval officer. The fact that his wife was an Englishwoman was irrelevant; the fact was that she was his wife, and anything that he did to her lover was justified in the name of middle-class honour.  Or so the Indian public, and the Parsi community, insisted.

Long before Nanavati went on trial, the whole thing had become a public circus, with vendors selling “Nanavati pistols” and “Ahuja towels” on the streets of Bombay. The Parsi-owned newspaper, Blitz, openly campaigned for Nanavati’s acquittal for his defence of “middle-class values” and “honour”. Even the Indian Navy establishment threw its support behind Nanavati, as did sundry Parsis.

The trial itself showed the polarisation of the affair along ethno-religious lines, with the prosecution being headed by a Sindhi lawyer (Ram Jethmalani, who is active to this day) while Nanavati’s defence was in the hands of a fellow Parsi. The question wasn’t whether Nanavati killed Ahuja; everyone involved took that as a fact. The question was whether he was guilty of murder or whether he was guilty of “culpable homicide not amounting to murder”. The difference lay in whether the killing was done by Nanavati in the heat of the moment, after being provoked by Ahuja, or whether he went about it in a premeditated fashion. The state chose to charge him with murder, which carries a life term or the death penalty, instead of culpable homicide, which carries a maximum sentence of ten years.

The Parsi community went ballistic, holding meetings and marches demanding the lesser charge be brought, and upholding the naval officer as a defender of family values. The Sindhi community rallied behind Ahuja’s sister Mamie, and demanded that Nanavati pay the full penalty for his crime. The media (then radio and newspapers) were full of the case, and it was in these circumstances that the trial began before a nine-man jury. The prosecution charged Nanavati with murder, ignoring the lesser charge.

Nanavati’s defence was that he was innocent; Ahuja had gone for the gun and in the tussle he’d been shot accidentally. The forensic evidence (including the fact that Ahuja’s towel was still round his waist, undisturbed, despite the “tussle”) and witness statements scuppered that line of argument. But Ahuja was the “wife-stealing playboy”, and Nanavati was the heroic defender of family values and a naval officer to boot.

The verdict came in: by eight jury votes to one, Nanavati was acquitted of murder.

The judge, to his credit, refused to accept the verdict, called it “perverse”, and referred the case to the High Court, where Nanavati was retried before a judicial bench (more than one judge) whose members convicted him of murder and sentenced him to life imprisonment. He appealed to the Supreme Court, which confirmed his conviction and sentence, though due to political and social pressure, he was pardoned and released after only three years. Sylvie, who had stood by him all this time, emigrated with him and his children to Canada (I assume Canadian emigration laws at the time were lax enough to allow murderers in). That’s the story of Nanavati. [I'll just mention one more thing about him: Salman Rushdie mentioned the case in a highly fictionalised form in Midnight's Children as "Commander Sabarmati's Baton".]

But that was India’s last jury trial. Juries were abolished after that, for fairly obvious reasons when one thinks of the hurdles of juries in a country like India, which is more a collection of nationalities instead of a nation.

If one were to put together a jury today, in this country, for instance, let’s see what one would have to do:

In our hypothetical case, let’s say a Hindu of a low caste is accused of murdering a Muslim.

First, the jury would have to be balanced religiously, because Muslim jury members might be prejudiced against him, and Hindus for him.

Then, caste considerations are important, because high-caste jury members would likely be prejudiced against a low-caste defendant.

Then, of course, the media circus (if the victim and/or the accused were socially prominent) would be intense, and let me assure you no jury in the country could be adequately insulated from the media by sequestration, let alone from political pressure or bribery.

And, of course, since none of the jury members knows anything of law, and since nobody will know what they’re talking about in the jury room, the proceedings in the court would be a farce.

This is why I’m glad this country has abandoned juries.

The legal system is bad enough already without that on top of everything else. 

Further Reading:


  1. Now, if we could only somehow guarantee that JUDGES would never be prejudiced and/or corruptible, we'd have a perfect system!

  2. The American system allows the defendant to choose if they want to be tried by a jury or just a judge. Prejudice is possible in either case, of course, but a good lawyer will know which way is most beneficial to his client. In the case of a lot of negative publicity, a court (judge only) trial might be the best.

    Also, we may have more extensive voir dire procedures: the method by which the jurors are chosen. I know almost nothing of the Indian system, or what it was before juries were abandoned.

  3. I always wondered why jury trials are not held in India. But now I know. Nice post.

  4. Interesting story.

    Casey Anthony kept me from knowing you for some time. I had posted on Multiply that she had been acquitted, posted for friends only, but in one of those glitches that beset M in its waning days, the notification went out to everyone. Your response came immediately and forcefully, as stated in the second paragraph of this work. So I made a mistake and decided you were too scary for me to get to know. Pity.

  5. So he got his friend to kill his PROPERTY because she dared to stray and then he got off for it. How nice.

  6. Nevermind, I misunderstood. So he killed his PROPERTY's lover for having relations with her?
    Sounds like we are talking about someone going to prison about Killing someone for screwing their cow.
    Oh wait, that's how women are seen there.

    1. That's why women have been the heads of state in that country while you are still in the dark ages where women still trying to crawl to the top the ladder.


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