KM Nanavati vs State of Maharashtra is a landmark judgement in Indian judicial history that received unprecedented coverage by the media. This case is a landmark judgement for numerous reasons. The judgement, in this case, was passed on 24th November 1961 when old criminal laws were in force in India. This case is referred to as the last case of jury trial in India though it was indeed not the last one. An important concept of ‘grave and sudden provocation’ has been discussed in the case. The judgement also highlights the pardoning powers of the governor. Many movies and books have been inspired by this landmark case. The 1973 movie Achanak, the 2016 movie Rustom with Akshay Kumar in the lead role, and the 2019 web series ‘the verdict’ are some of the movies and web series inspired by this judgement. This judgement laid emphasis on various constitutional principles which made it a famous case of that time grabbing the attention of the media and the general public.
Here, in this article, we will analyze this landmark judgement.
Facts of the Case
The petitioner, in this case, was Kevas Manekshaw Nanavati (KM Nanavati). He shifted to Bombay with his wife, Sylvia, and their children. KM Nanavati was an Indian naval officer. The Nanavati’s got to meet Prem Ahuja who was a businessman. Prem used to live with his sister in Bombay. Prem Ahuja was said to be a very charming person. When KM Nanavati was far away from home outside Bombay on official duty, his wife Sylvia started developing illicit relations with Prem Ahuja. When Nanavati returned to Bombay and tried to become affectionate towards his wife on a number of occasions, she either refused or was unresponsive to it.
One day he asked his wife, Sylvia if she had been faithful to him, she merely shook her head implying that she had not been faithful to him. Nanavati became enraged by the illicit affair of his wife, Sylva with Prem Ahuja. He went to his naval base to bring his revolver and then rushed to the office of Prem Ahuja. On not finding him at his office he went to Ahuja’s house where there was a verbal spat between the two men. Then, Nanavati fired three bullets toward Prem Ahuja and he died. In the jury trial that was conducted, the accused, KM Nanavati was declared not guilty under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code with an 8:1 jury in support of Nanavati’s acquittal. The session’s court referred the matter to the High Court of Bombay under Section 307 of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1898. The high court of Bombay reversed the jury’s decision and held the accused, KM Nanavati guilty under Section 302 of the Indian Penal code. The appeal was then referred to the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India.
The counsel appearing for the petitioner, KM Nanavati relied on the fact that this was a case of grave and sudden provocation. The contention on part of the petitioner’s counsel was that after Sylvia’s confession of extramarital affair/illicit relationship with Prem Ahuja, Nanavati wanted to kill himself. But, somehow he was stopped by his wife who managed to cool him down. Sylvia revealed her intentions to marry Prem Ahuja but did not state anything regarding her intention toward Prem Ahuja. The accused, Nanavati wanted to find out if Prem Ahuja was interested to marry his wife and take care of his children. So, he left his wife and children at the movie theatre and drove to the naval base to bring his pistol. He informed the officials that he wanted to take the revolver because he was driving alone to Ahmednagar that night. But, shooting himself was his true intention.
He put the bullets and the pistol in an envelope and drove to Prem Ahuja’s office. On not finding him there, Nanavati went to Ahuja’s house where he was present. Seeing him, Nanavati asked whether he wanted to marry his wife and take care of his children. To which, Ahuja replied in the negative and stated that he won’t marry every woman with whom he slept. This statement infuriated Nanavati and he threatened to kill Ahuja showing the loaded pistol inside the envelope to the victim, Prem Ahuja. Suddenly, the victim, Prem Ahuja caught hold of the envelope subsequent to which a scuffle broke out between them, and two bullets got mistakenly fired from the pistol killing Prem Ahuja. After the incident, Nanavati went to the police station and surrendered. This was a pure case of grave and sudden provocation and it should come under culpable homicide not amounting to murder was the contention on the side of the petitioner. It was also contended by the petitioner that there were no witnesses to the incident.
The respondent rubbished the contentions of the petitioner and had disagreements on many points of fact. The respondent brought the notice of the court to the fact that Prem Ahuja had just returned from the shower when Nanavati went to his house. The victim, Prem Ahuja was wearing a towel after the shower. If a scuffle would have broken out between the two men, then the towel should have fallen but this was not the case here. The towel was intact around the waist of the victim, Prem Ahuja. This is a very unlike event to occur if a scuffle had broken out between the two. A cool and calm-headed Nanavati dropped his wife and children at the threatre by driving and then went to his base to bring the pistol and bullets on false grounds.
These events show that there was a sufficient cooling period for Nanavati and had a premeditated plan for the murder of Prem Ahuja. So, it was not grave and sudden provocation which caused the killing of Prem Ahuja but a well-planned murder. Ahuja’s servant was present in the house when the incident occurred so she is a natural witness. She testified that four shots were fired in quick succession and all this happened within a span of one minute only. She also ruled out any brawl to have broken out. Nanavati had even confessed his crime to the deputy commissioner of police. Even, Nanavati had corrected his misspelled name in the police record which demonstrates that he had a clear-thinking mind.
So, according to the respondent, the case was a clear-cut case of pre-planned murder.
Bombay High Court’s Decision
Bombay high court held KM Nanavati guilty of the murder of Prem Ahuja and sentenced him to life imprisonment. The hon’ble court agreed with the arguments of the victim’s counsel and held that it was a case of premeditated murder.
Being aggrieved by this decision KM Nanavati preferred an appeal to the Hon’ble Supreme Court through a special leave petition.
- Whether it was a case of grave and sudden provocation or a pre-planned murder?
- Whether applications for a governor’s pardon and a special leave petition be moved together?
- Whether the High Court can set aside the Jury’s decision on the ground of misdirection in framing the charge under Section 307(3) Criminal Procedure Code, 1898?
- Whether there was misdirection in framing the charge on part of the jury?
- Whether the High Court had jurisdiction or not to examine under Section 307 of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1898 to examine the facts regarding the competency of the session’s judge’s referral?
Supreme Court’s Judgement
1. After scrutinizing the facts and evidence put forth, the Hon’ble Supreme Court held that it was a case of pre-meditated murder and that the defence of grave and sudden provocation could not be conceived. The Supreme Court observed that the appellant (accused), KM Nanavati had sufficient self-control over his senses when the incident occurred. After hearing about his wife’s intention to marry the victim, Nanavati was thinking about the future of his family. Nanavati had sufficient time to calm down and all the actions of Nanavati indicate that they were intentional with the motive to kill Prem Ahuja.
2. To, the issue of whether the governor’s pardoning powers and a special leave petition could be exercised together or not, the Supreme Court held that both cannot move together. If a special leave petition is filed before the Supreme Court, then the governor’s pardoning powers are terminated. The Supreme Court concluded that the governor “overreached” the powers conferred on him.
3. Supreme Court said that the high court should evaluate the evidence and give weightage to the opinions of judges and jury and then pass the judgement of acquittal or conviction after the reference has been made by the learned session’s judge under Section 307 of Criminal Procedure Code, 1898.
4. The Hon’ble Supreme Court agreed with the Bombay high court’s observations about the learned judge’s allegation of misdirection on part of the jury.
5. The Supreme Court laid down two rules to be followed to determine the competency of a sessions judge’s referral. First of all, the judge must dissent from the jury’s decision. Second, in the opinion of the learned session’s judge, the decision pronounced must be of such nature that no reasonable man could have pronounced. If these two conditions are not satisfied, then the high court has the power to reject the referral.
So, the decision of the High Court of Bombay was upheld by the Supreme Court and the appeal was liable to be dismissed. Exception 1 to Section 300 was not attracted to the present case and the accused was found to be guilty of murder under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code.
What happened after the Judgement?
KM Nanavati had ties with the Nehru-Gandhi family during his period of service. The sister of Jawaharlal Nehru, Smt. Vijaylakshmi Pandit was the governor of Maharashtra in 1964. On 8th September 1960, Nanavati was transferred from naval custody to a civilian prison. He stayed in jail for only three years. Nanavati got parole on health grounds and was moved to a bungalow at a hill resort. The Parsi community provided massive support to Nanavati through media and also held rallies in support of him. The common mass portrayed him as a sincere and honest officer who was wronged by his wife and betrayed by a friend. In the year, 1964 Nanavati was pardoned by the governor of Maharashtra, Vijaylakhmi Pandit. In 1968, Nanavati along with his family went to Canada and resided there till his death in 2003.
The Nanavati case got huge media coverage throughout the country. Starting from the jury trial where Nanavati was acquitted for being not guilty, to being held guilty by the Supreme Court and then getting released on governor’s pardon. The case will always be remembered for its dramatic chain of events. Not only did this case leave a footprint on the judiciary but also on the common people as well which can be seen from the amount of public support Nanavati got even after committing a grave offence like murder. The number of movies and web series that have been inspired by this landmark judgement over the years is a testimony to the fact that even after over six decades, this case is still remembered.
Many important concepts of the law were discussed in the judgement. Pardoning powers of the governor, the concept of culpable homicide not amounting to murder, grave and sudden provocation and culpable homicide amounting to murder under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code are some of the important concepts that have been discussed here. This landmark decision set many important precedents for the Indian courts to follow over the years. The erroneous jury decision on various points of law shed light on the faults of the jury system. This case is popularly believed to be the case which led to the abolition of the Jury system by way of the Criminal Procedure Amendment Act, 1973.