On 24 November 1961, the verdict in the K. M. Nanavati case was handed down but it’s still able to remain in people’s minds today. The details and circumstances of this case gained unprecedented public attention and have sparked dozens of novels, serials, and films. The accused, Nanavati, was a naval officer put on trial for the alleged murder of his wife’s lover according to Section 302 of the IPC. It was not popular only because of its success with the masses but also because of the significant legal points that it posed such as the 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, which made it a landmark case. The K. M. Nanavati case is also widely recognized as being responsible for the conclusion of jury proceedings.
Kevas Manekshaw Nanavati, an Indian Naval Officer shifted to Bombay in March 1959 with his family and got to meet Prem Bhagwandas Ahuja, a businessman in Bombay. While he was out of Bombay for his duty, Sylvia, his wife, developed an illicit relationship with Prem Ahuja. He was then confronted with the confession of his wife when she opened up about her relationship with Ahuja. Further, in the heat of his agony, he went to his ship to procure a loaded revolver and drove himself to Prem Ahuja’s office. On not finding him at his workplace, he then drove to his residence. After an altercation, at his residence, two shots went off accidentally and hit Ahuja. The jury voted in favour of the accused. The case was referred to Hon’ble High Court under Section 307 of The Code of Criminal Procedure. The Division Bench of the High Court went on to declare the accused guilty under Section 302 of IPC. An appeal was finally decided by the Supreme Court. The appellate court held that there were misdirections in the sessions court.
The judgment was based principally on two issues. Firstly, the Session Court referred the case to the High Court owing to the disagreement amongst the judges. Evidence has also been taken into account by letters written to Ahuja by Slyvia and by extra-judicial confessions. The relationship between the two was established. The jury, however, decided that he was by a vote of 8:1 not guilty. This is the reason why, under Section 307 of the Code of Procedure, 1893, the Judge referred this case to the Hon’ble High Court of Bombay, which was as follows: ‘Section 307: “Section 307: (1) If in any case, the Judge disagrees with any or any of the charges against which any of the accused have had been brought and is of the view that it is essential for justice to refer the case before the Court with regards to that accused person, he shall refer the case following the above, and he shall record the reasons of his opinion, and If the decision is of an acquittal, the crime he considers to have committed, except in such cases, when the accused, as if such a verdict is a conviction, is further punished under the provisions, such charge. (3) In dealing with the case as referred the High Court shall, upon taking into account all the evidence and giving due weight to the opinions of the judge and the jury of the Sessions, acquit and convict the accused of any offence of which the jury may have convicted him for having framed and brought the charge, and, if it convicts him, may pass such sentence as might have been passed by the Court of Session.”
On appeal to the High Court, it was contended on behalf of the appellant that under Section 307 of the Code of Criminal Procedure it was incumbent on the High Court to decide the competency of the reference on a perusal of the order of reference by Hon’ble Sessions Court. The fact that it had no jurisdiction to go into the evidence for the purpose that Hon’ble High Court was not empowered by Section 307(3) of the Code to set aside the verdict of the jury on the ground that the jury was erroneous and that the verdict was perverse. It was finally held that the contentions were without substance and the appeal must fail. Judged by its historical background and properly construed, Section 307 of the Code of Criminal Procedure was meant to confer wider powers of interference on the High Court than Section 569 in an appeal to safeguard against an erroneous verdict of the jury. This special jurisdiction conferred on the High Court by the Code is essentially different from its appellate jurisdiction under other provisions of the code. The words “for the ends of justice” in section 307 indicate that the Judge disagreeing with the verdict must think that the verdict was one which no reasonable body of men could reach on the evidence, coupled with the words ‘clearly of the opinion’ gave the Judge a wide and comprehensive discretion to suit different situations. Therefore, the Judge disagreed with the verdict and recorded the grounds of his opinion, the reference was competent, irrespective of the question of whether the Judge was right in differing from the jury or forming such an opinion as to the verdict. There is nothing in Section 307(1) of the Code that lends support to the contention that though the Judge had complied with the necessary conditions, the High Court should reject the reference without going into the evidence if the reasons given in the order of reference did not sustain the view expressed by the Judge. Section 307(3) of the Code by empowering the High Court either to acquit or convict the accused after considering the entire evidence, giving due weight to the opinion of the Sessions Judge and the jury, virtually conferred the functions both of the jury and the Judge on it.
Another issue before the appellate court was that of mens rea involved. Where the prosecution said that it was a planned murder, the defence went to contend that it was in the heat of the moment and that two shots went to hit the deceased while both the parties entered into a grave brawl. While the former was contending that the accused should be punished under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code, the latter based its arguments on the exception of a grave and sudden provocation as provided in section 300 of the Indian Penal Code. The prosecution established men’s rea by proving that the act of going to the Navy ship, procuring a gun and six cartridges, and carrying them all in a brown envelope indicate his intention to conceal the fact that he was going to murder someone. In addition to this, the prosecution established via witnesses that the accused lied to his ship crew that he was going to drive to Ahmednagar and hence, carrying a pistol for his safety. Also, the accused surrendering himself to the police indicates that he had planned to kill the deceased. On the other hand, the defence has put forth its contention saying that on getting to know the relationship between his wife and Ahuja, the accused went to give him a proposal of marrying his wife to which he got an answer “Do I have to marry every woman that I sleep with” This reply of his, according to defence heated up an argument between two and subsequently, the accused shot him in the grave and sudden provocation in the heat of the moment. Relying on the principle of the presumption that the accused is innocent until proven guilty, the higher judiciary went through a thorough examination of the witnesses as per the provisions of the Evidence Act and Code of Criminal Procedure. Both the parties were given equal and sufficient chances with the Burden of Proof primarily being on the prosecution. In the light of contentions raised, arguments advanced and evidence adduced, the Supreme Court upheld the punishment granted by the High Court of Bombay and convicted him under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code.
The favourable verdict was able to draw the nation’s attention since the crime of adultery had given rise to a murder crime not amounting to culpable homicide. The accused was also a decorated officer of the Indian Navy and such a crime committed by him got applauded by the society owing to the pitiful journalism towards him. The burden of proof was released by establishing the facts as clearly as possible which is an integral part of the adjudication process. In addition, it was wrong to refer the case to the higher judiciary and the jury being erroneous in matters of law highlighted the amount of corruption in the judiciary that led to the abolition of the jury system in succeeding Criminal procedure. This is a landmark judgment that is 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.
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