Sylvia and Kawas Nanavati, shortly after they got married in 1949
Snapshot
  • Several aspects of the historic Nanavati case – the murder trial that the Indian media and public obsessed over – still remain shrouded in mystery.

In one of those delectable examples of how the laws of probability function, this assignment from the Swarajya editor brought back memories of happy childhood days this writer spent in a part of Bombay where a significant part of the Nanavati episode took place.

In the early 1950s, Nepean Sea Road was a tranquil part of the city, where boys of seven or eight were freely allowed by their parents to take their cycles all the way to Petit Hall, where the road started its climb, to the top of Malabar Hill. Just two houses away from where we lived was Setalvad Lane, a short thoroughfare that connected Nepean Sea Road to the seafront. Jeevan Jyot, the magnificent Life Insurance Corporation-owned mansion, right next to the rocks bordering the sea, had not yet come up.

Four years after we left Bombay in 1955, Jeevan Jyot was to be the scene of one of India’s most well-known crimes of passion. It was the building where Commander Kawas Nanavati shot and killed his wife’s lover, Prem Ahuja.

The Nanavati affair was even covered in the pages of the iconic New Yorker magazine, at a time and age when India featured in the United States media only as a land of cows and elephants.

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The 1950s and early-to-mid 1960s were years that showed up the country’s western metropolis in a very favourable light. Bombay was spared the post-Partition trauma that Calcutta underwent. Even the arrival of Sindhi refugees from West Pakistan was a relatively minor burden on the thriving city. The original brown sahibs (actually pale white) of the Indian subcontinent, the Parsis, were completely untouched by independence and Partition, and merrily carried on with their dhanshaks, regular obeisance to the Raj in the form of “aapro King George/Queen Elizabeth”, Saturday evenings at their clubs (often labelled “gymkhanas”) and, for the affluent, their weekly trips to Poona, Lonavala and other hillocks that passed themselves off as hill stations.

All this is important because it sets the stage for a grand socio-cultural and semi-political confrontation that took place between the Sindhis and the Parsis in the wake of the Nanavati affair. The irrepressible Rusi Karanjia of Blitz, the wily courtier of the Nehru clan, led the charge from the Parsi camp.

The Sindhis, though slightly embarrassed for having to stand up for a philanderer and a cad who stole the affections of the wife of an armed forces officer, fought back and gave the Parsis a good battle. The two other groups in Bombay, the Marathis and the Gujaratis, were neutral and watched the tamasha from the sidelines. As a desi soap opera, this was free entertainment of the highest order. The audience had only to spend four annas (later 25 paise) for their weekly copy of Rusi’s ragsheet to acquire all the gossip and canards that the Nanavati affair generated.

Before the curtain rises, the spotlight should focus briefly on author Bachi Karkaria, since she deserves it. The book is a testimony to her thorough research and her ability to spot interesting vignettes related to her main story. In the Times of India (TOI) stable, she is very much the doyenne of the secular storm-trooper brigade, and periodically inflicts on her readers excruciating prose that barely rises above the Enid Blyton and Billy Bunter level. Fortunately, in this book, she manages to discard her TOI persona and come up with commendable stuff.

Cover of Bachi Karkaria’s <i>In Hot Blood: The Nanavati Case That Shook India</i> Cover of Bachi Karkaria’s In Hot Blood: The Nanavati Case That Shook India

What are the major issues that the Nanavati case threw up, some of which still raise niggling doubts? The first set of issues is related to judicial aspects and to the working of the Indian legal system. The second set comprises questions about unanswered aspects of the incident.

On the afternoon of 27 April 1959, Commander Kawas Nanavati, one of the blue-eyed officers of the Indian Navy, the second-in-command of the ship INS Mysore, scion of an affluent Parsi family of Bombay, and destined for much higher things in life, had gone to the Jeevan Jyot apartment of a prominent Sindhi businessman Prem Ahuja and shot him dead.

Earlier that day, his English wife, Sylvia, whom he had married in 1949 when he was on an official posting in the United Kingdom, had confessed to Nanavati that she had been having an affair with Ahuja. Worse, she made no commitment about not seeing him again. The Nanavatis seemed to have had a fairy tale marriage that had everything going for it. Except for the fact that Nanavati had to spend long periods at sea in his ship and Sylvia had a lonely life in a foreign country, even though she was not short of the company of friends and in-laws.

After this bombshell, Nanavati showed an ice-cold temperament, truly befitting a warrior, dropped his family at a cinema hall before going to the INS Mysore, berthed in the harbour, to collect his service revolver. Then he went on to confront his fate and Ahuja.

Nanavati surrendered to the Bombay police after meeting the Navy’s chief law enforcement officer, the provost marshal. He was produced in the magistrate’s court the next day and remanded in custody till the coroner’s enquiry on 30 May.

This is where the Navy, the Government of India and the Nanavati family’s legal clout all played their designated roles in getting Nanavati shifted to naval custody. This was almost unprecedented in Indian legal history. Based on the coroner’s decision, the magistrate then committed Nanavati to trial in the sessions court. This trial, which began on 23 September 1959, was independent India’s first legal proceeding held under the glare of the media and the public. Bombay, of course, had gone bananas and so had the rest of India that read the English press, particularly Karanjia’s rag.

The diverse ethnic mosaic of Bombay was fully represented in court during every day of the trial. The two protagonist groups were, of course, the Sindhis and the Parsis. The former group was clearly unhappy with the VIP treatment that the accused was getting, while the Parsis had mustered full force to support their warrior in distress. Apart from the who’s who of Bombay’s Parsi lawyers, there was a battalion of semi-hysterical women of all ages who gave Nanavati a feverish adulation that defied all logic and taste. This trial would make legal history in India.

After high-voltage proceedings for nearly a month, when the defence team produced a galaxy of witnesses, including the Navy chief vice admiral R D Katari (who flew in from Delhi in an Indian Air Force Canberra and then arrived in the court in a grand motorcade), the jury delivered its verdict on 21 October. The nine good and true citizens who constituted the jury, comprised five Hindus, two Parsis, one Anglo-Indian Protestant and one Goan Catholic. Within the rules that governed jury selection, this was a reasonable reflection of Bombay’s population mix.

The jury pronounced Nanavati not guilty on both charges – Section 302 (culpable homicide amounting to murder) and the lesser charge of culpable homicide not amounting to murder (under Section 304). The crowd inside broke into frenzied joy after the first verdict; the court was then cleared for the second verdict and the mob outside became delirious. The feisty judge R B Mehta rejected the jury’s decision as “perverse and not reasonable”, and declared a mistrial. He referred the matter to the Bombay High Court. Here again, Nanavati got preferential treatment. Mehta agreed to let Nanavati stay in naval custody until the High Court decided his fate.

It must be pointed out here that Nanavati was also partly responsible for the abolition of jury trials in India. The Government of India abolished the jury system in courts on 1 March 1960, just about four months after the sessions court proceedings concluded in the Nanavati case. But this was not the only landmark precedent that the Nanavati saga established.

On 10 February 1960, the case came up before a two-judge bench of the Bombay High Court. The lawyer for the state was Y V Chandrachud, while a little-known Sindhi lawyer Ram Jethmalani was appointed by Ahuja’s sister “to protect the interests of the deceased”. Both were destined for much higher things – Chandrachud was to become India’s longest-serving chief justice (1978-85), while Jethmalani would go on to become arguably the country’s most prominent criminal lawyer.

Without getting enmeshed in the tortuous legal arguments advanced by the state and Nanavati’s counsel, we should note that the presiding judge, Justice J M Shelat, started delivering his verdict on 9 March and took three days to finish his task. His brother judge, Justice V A Naik, mercifully, took only six hours. Both of them held Nanavati guilty of Ahuja’s murder. The proceedings concluded on 11 March. Shelat was particularly scathing about Sylvia, and castigated her as a “self-confessed sinner whose words did not inspire confidence”. Nanavati was sentenced to rigorous imprisonment for life.

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The drama in the Nanavati case was, however, by no means over. The distressed hero, whose image was beginning to acquire an almost Nelsonian status, had not spent even a day in police lock-up, let alone jail. He was once again saved by what seemed like divine providence. The warrant of arrest against Nanavati to take him from naval custody to jail was returned without being served, because the governor of Bombay had taken the unprecedented decision, under Article 161 of the Constitution, to suspend Nanavati’s sentence until his intended appeal in the Supreme Court was decided. Nanavati would continue to spend his days along with other sea warriors in the custody of the Navy.

Understandably, there was a furore. The Bombay legal fraternity, almost unanimously, protested vociferously against what was perceived as a subversion of the rule of law. The matter, inevitably, reached Parliament and embroiled Jawaharlal Nehru and his Sancho Panza, Krishna Menon, whose grandstanding on the issue was both ludicrous and legally untenable. The glee of the Parsis was almost obscene, with the reptilian Karanjia harrumphing away in full glory in public appearances.

The ship of law continued to sail majestically. Nanavati’s team sought leave to appeal to the Supreme Court against his life sentence. Simultaneously, a full bench of the High Court, presided over by chief justice H K Chainani, deliberated on the governor’s decision under Article 161. The bench held that the governor’s order under Article 161 was not unconstitutional or contrary to law. However, it made stringent comments on the morality and ethics of the decision.

The matter now reached the domed premises of the Supreme Court. The apex court dealt with Nanavati’s appeal in a two-stage process. The first was whether Nanavati’s special leave petition could be heard without his surrendering to the trial court. This was dismissed on 5 September. Nanavati surrendered to the Bombay police three days later and was whisked away to the notorious Arthur Road Jail. No more dazzling white uniform and sword for him. He had to make do with an ordinary suit and tie.

Nanavati’s main appeal against his life sentence did not come up for hearing till late October 1961, when a three-member bench took up the matter. Complex legal arguments were once more trotted out and the bench finally delivered its unanimous verdict on 24 November. It upheld Nanavati’s conviction under Section 302 and maintained that “there are absolutely no grounds for interference” against his sentence of life imprisonment.

The denouement in the case took place in three stages. In October 1963, just two years after he entered the Arthur Road prison, Nanavati was released on parole to serve out his sentence in the balmy ambience of a large bungalow in Lonavala, subjected only to a monthly review. The penultimate stage was when he was pardoned by the Maharashtra governor Vijay Lakshmi Pandit (Nehru’s sister) in March 1964 in a Machiavellian move that involved the simultaneous release of a prominent Sindhi businessman (and a former freedom fighter) Bhai Pratap. One can well imagine the backroom negotiations that resulted in the dual pardon. From all available information, Pratap had a much better case for a state pardon than Nanavati, since he had been framed by a crooked witness during his sessions court trial.

The Sindhis and the Parsis had to join hands to produce the twin rabbits out of the hat. Jethmalani has recounted to the author in detail how Sylvia and Nanavati’s counsel approached him to get Ahuja’s family on board in the pardon process.

The Nanavati saga ended with another extraordinary development. He and his family were granted immigration to Canada, despite his criminal record, a decision that required intervention at the highest levels in Ottawa. With his application and approval fast-tracked, the family moved to Canada a few months after his pardon.

There are a number of additional chapters in Karkaria’s tome that are more in the nature of addendums, not really necessary but useful for completing the full canvas. They do not take away from her commendable research into the main events and specifically the legal developments. She displays talents that are manifestly absent in her periodic outbursts of “secularist” nonsense in the media.

Her book poses serious issues that remain unanswered. Karkaria repeatedly hints at powerful forces that helped Nanavati at every stage, but she refuses to go further. She tantalises the readers but never lifts the curtain. Did the Nehru-Menon duo bail out Nanavati for reasons that had nothing to do with altruism but everything to do with affairs of the state? What was the role of Lord Mountbatten, who pops up sinisterly at various junctures? Was Pax Britannica working behind the scenes?

One thing is certain. The Nanavati affair was a precursor to the disgraceful and shabby state of affairs that has since become a norm in India. I refer, of course, to the rich and the powerful buying their way out of the law’s clutches. The currency involved need not always be money, but also social class and privilege, as in the Nanavati case.

Kawas Nanavati, who passed away quietly in Canada in 2003, could not possibly have realised what a shabby legacy he had left behind in his motherland for succeeding generations. Or, was he fully au fait with how and why the forces behind the scene worked assiduously to bail him out at every twist and turn of his saga?

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