Name of the case: K. M. Nanavati v State of Maharashtra
Citation: AIR 1962 SC 605
Date of Judgment: 24 November 1961
Parties Involved: K. M. Nanavati (Petitioner) AND State of Maharashtra (Respondent)
Bench: K. Subbarao, S. K. Das, Raghubar Dayal
Laws and Acts Applied in the Case: Indian Penal Code, 1860
(sections 88, 300 part I, 302), Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898, and Indian Evidence Act, 1872
The judgment in the K. M. Nanavati case was passed on 24th November 1961 but it has managed to stay fresh in the minds of people even today. The facts and circumstances of this case received unprecedented media coverage and inspired a lot of books, serials, and movies over the years[i].
The accused/appellant Nanavati was a naval officer who was put on trial under section 302 of IPC for the alleged murder of his wife’s paramour[ii]. This case is considered to be one of the important landmark judgments not just because of the popularity it gained amongst the masses but because of the important legal points, it raised such as plea of general exception, the burden of proof, grave and sudden provocation test, and power of the high court in deciding the competence of reference made by Sessions Judge.
The K. M. Nanavati case is also widely recognized as being responsible for the end of jury trials.
Let’s find out more about the gripping details of this case.
Facts of the Case[iii]
- Accused/appellant K. M. Nanavati was second in command of the Indian naval ship “Mysore”. He was married to a woman named Sylvia and had three children with her. Due to the nature of his service, Nanavati and his family had lived in many different places before shifting to Bombay. It was in Bombay that they were first introduced to the deceased Prem Ahuja through common friends.
- Nanavati had to go away from Bombay regularly as part of his service, leaving his wife and children behind. In his absence, a friendship developed between Sylvia and Ahuja which later took the form of an illicit relationship.
- When Nanavati returned from his ship after April 18, 1959, he, on multiple occasions, tried to be affectionate to his wife to which she was not being responsive. On April 27, 1959, once more his advance was met by her unresponsiveness. But this time Nanavati asked his wife if she had been faithful to him. She merely shook her head to indicate that she was not. He guessed that her paramour was Ahuja and decided to settle this matter with him.
- First, Nanavati drove his children and wife to the cinema and promised to pick them up later. He then drove to his ship from where he obtained a revolver and six rounds on a false pretext. He put these inside a brown envelope and from there drove to Ahuja’s office. On not finding him there, Nanavati drove to his flat.
- On reaching Ahuja’s flat, he confirmed his presence from a servant. After receiving the confirmation, he went to Ahuja’s bedroom while also carrying the brown envelope which had the revolver.
- Nanavati closed the bedroom door behind him and asked Ahuja about his intentions concerning his wife and children. When he didn’t receive the honourable and desired answer, he is alleged to have shot Ahuja which resulted in his death. From there Nanavati rushed to the nearest police station to confess about his crime.
- Nanavati was declared not guilty by a jury verdict of 8:1. However, the Sessions Judge disagreed with this decision of the jury and believed that no reasonable body of men could reach that verdict based on the evidence produced. The matter was referred to a Division Bench who held the accused/appellant guilty.
Hence, this appeal was made to the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India by special leave.
The learned counsel for the accused/appellant raised the following issues[iv] in this appeal:
- Under section 307 of CrPC, the High Court has no jurisdiction to go through the evidence to decide the competency of the reference made by the Sessions Judge;
- Under section 307(3) of CrPC, the High Court has no power to set aside the verdict of the jury on grounds of misdirection in charge;
- There are no misdirections in the charge;
- The verdict given by the jury was such that it could be reached by a body of reasonable men based on evidence produced before them;
- The accused/appellant had shot the deceased under grave and sudden provocation, and therefore, he did not commit murder but culpable homicide not amounting to murder.
- Scope of the High Court’s Power under section 307 of CrPC
The Hon’ble Supreme Court explained that in case the judge does not agree with the verdict of the jurors, he can under subsection (1) of section 307 of CrPC refer the case to the High Court. The two conditions necessary for the same are: (1) the judge shall disagree with the verdict of the jurors, and (2) he shall believe that the verdict of the jury was such that no reasonable men could have reached. The order of referral would be competent if and only if these two conditions are met otherwise it would be termed as incompetent and thus rejected by the High Court.
When the order of reference is found to be competent, the High Court is bound to discharge its duties as specified under subsection (3) of section 307 of CrPC. Under this subsection, the High Court shall consider the entire evidence, give due weight to the opinions of the judge as well as the jury and thereafter acquit or convict the accused. The opposite construction as argued by the learned counsel of the defendant would defeat the purpose of this section.
Reconciling Provisions of sections 307, 418, and 423 of CrPC
The Apex Court was of the view that subsection (2) of section 423 merely restates the scope of the limited jurisdiction conferred on the High Court under section 418. The powers conferred to the High Court under section 307 of CrPC are such as may be exercised by it in an appeal. The High Court cannot call in aid any of the powers other than that of an appellate court under section 423 of CrPC. This is a reasonable construction of the aforementioned sections.
It was also established that there is a difference between the two jurisdictions of the High Court, namely, the disposal of an appeal, and the case submitted by a Sessions Judge when he differs from the jury. The Hon’ble Court even went on to state that larger powers are conferred on the High Court under section 307 of CrPC than that conferred under section 418.
- Burden of Proof
In Indian law, the burden of proving the guilt of the accused lies on the prosecution. But, when an accused relies upon any exceptions as provided in the IPC or any other special exception, section 105 of the Indian Evidence Act comes into action. The Court shall presume against the accused and now the burden is thrown upon him to rebut this presumption. Until then, the Court shall disregard the existence of circumstances that bring the case within the exceptions.
The Court further stated that this presumption and shift in the burden of proof does not free the prosecution from its burden of proving the ingredients of the offence with which the accused is charged. This burden never shifts. There is no conflict between the general burden of the prosecution and the special burden of the accused. The failure on the part of the accused to rebut the presumption against him would not absolve the prosecution from proving the ingredients of the offence.
- Misdirections Of Charge
The Court agreed with the findings of the High Court on misdirections of a charge made by the Judge. It stated that the question of whether a misdirection vitiated the verdict of the jury has to be seen from the standpoint of the possible effect that the said misdirection had on the jury who are laymen. The Apex Court further stated that the object of charge to the jury by the Judge is to explain and place before them the facts and circumstances of the case. It is the duty of the Judge to clearly explain the
points of law, their implications and put forth all the evidence before the jury so as to enable them in arriving at the right decision.
- Considering Evidence of The Case
The evidence was divided into three parts by the Apex Court, namely, (1) evidence relating to the conduct of the accused before the shooting, (2) evidence relating to the conduct of the accused after the shooting, and (3) evidence relating to the actual shooting in the bedroom of Ahuja.
After the perusal of all the evidence, the Hon’ble Court was of the view that the conduct of the accused/appellant was inconsistent with his defence that the deceased was shot by accident. In fact, he exhibited the attitude of a person who wrecked vengeance on the lover of his wife in a planned and calculated manner. He secured the revolver on a false pretext and marched into Ahuja’s bedroom with a loaded weapon. He did not tell anybody that he shot the deceased by accident until his trial even though he had many
opportunities to do the same. The injuries found on the body of the deceased were consistent with the intentional shooting.
The Court, therefore, came to the conclusion that on the basis of the evidence, no reasonable body of men could have arrived at the decision that the jury had reached. Thus, the verdict of the jury could not stand.
- Grave and Sudden Provocation Test
Under exception 1 to section 300 of IPC, culpable homicide does not amount to murder if the following conditions are fulfilled:
- Deceased must give provocation to accused;
- Provocation must be grave and sudden;
- Provocation must have deprived the accused of his power of self-control;
- He must have killed the deceased during the continuance of such deprivation;
- Provocation must result in either the death of the person who gave the provocation or of any other person by mistake/accident
The Apex Court stated that it is not possible to lay down a standard test with precision. Whether the provocation was grave and sudden has to be decided by the Court in each case based on the respective facts and circumstances. The Court further stated that the test of “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. The fatal blow must be traced to the influence of passion and the loss of self-control. It must not be after the accused has had time to cool down or otherwise it gives room for premeditation and calculation.
After looking at the facts of the case, the Court arrived at the decision that not only had the accused/appellant gained self-control but he was also thinking about the future of his family. He had sufficient time to cool down after his wife confessed her infidelity to him. His conduct was clearly deliberate and calculated. The Court thus held that the facts of this case did not attract the provisions of exception 1 to section 300 of IPC.
The Hon’ble Supreme Court agreed with the decision of conviction of the accused/appellant under section 302 of IPC given by the High Court and dismissed the appeal.
It was the unprecedented media coverage that made Nanavati a household name. He was lauded as a hero, an honourable man who loved his wife and fought for her honour whereas Ahuja became the villain, a womanizer who deserved what he got. He had the support of the people which is why when the Jury found him to be non-guilty by a verdict of 8:1 it sent a wave of happiness amongst his supporters[vi].
The Parsi Community held rallies in support of Nanavati. Blitz editorials too played a major role and came out as an active partner of the defence [vii]. However, on the other
hand, there were many newspapers that reported the blatant disregard of justice in favour of a man with influential connections[viii].
After the Hon’ble Supreme Court’s verdict, Nanavati appealed for a pardon which he was eventually granted due to the following factors[ix]: (1) Nanavati was a naval officer and not a hardened criminal, (2) He knew the Nehru-Gandhi family and Vijaylakshmi Pandit was the Governor of Maharashtra, (3) By the time his pardon came through, he had already served 3 years in jail, (4) The sister of the deceased had also dropped her objection to the pardon.
The Impact On Jury Trials
The Nanavati case is often cited as the one leading to the end of Jury trials. In truth, it was not the last case to be tried by a jury but merely a famous one[x]. The fate of jury trials was hanging in balance even before Nanavati came into the picture.
After independence, the abolition of jury trials was being actively discussed. A decade later, many states including Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Madras moved to do away with the system. In November 1958, before the Nanavati trial, even the Law Commission had termed jury trials as a failure and had recommended its abolition[xi].
The 1969 Report of the Law Commission observed that the juries were being used only in a few cases and then called for its complete removal. It was finally in 1974 when the entire Code of Criminal Procedure underwent a change that the jury trial was done away with.
This is a landmark judgment that becomes even more relevant in the present times where media trials have become a common practice. This judgment goes on to show that the law of the land is always going to be above popular public opinion and influential connections. It is the duty and responsibility of the Courts to uphold the principles of the rule of law and natural justice. The Supreme Court has thus once again shown that no one is above the law.
[i] What Is K M Nanavati Case, Business Standard,
(India)[iii] Ibid. [iv] Ibid. [v] Ibid. [vi] Shalini Saksena, The Nanavati Syndrome, The Pioneer (14 August 2016), https://www.dailypioneer.com/2016/sunday-edition/the-nanavati-syndrome.html [vii] The Case that never died, The Hindu (05 May 2017), https://www.thehindu.com/books/the-case-that-never-died/article18390070.ece [viii] Bachi Karkaria, A crime of passion that India never forgot, BBC News (15 May 2017), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-39790535 [ix] Supra note vi [x] Mahima A. Jain, Judged By 12, The Hindu (20 August 2016), https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/Judged-by-twelve/article14581947.ece [xi] Ibid.
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