Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Nanavati KM murder conviction 1961

The Nanavati murder trial was not just one of the most sensational crime cases in India, it also triggered the end of the jury system. Sylvia is central not just to the case, but also to its hold on our imaginations. Projecting her as the innocent victim of sinister manipulations, turning the murder victim into the villain and the killer into the hero, was the only way for the defense to save her husband. Nanavati was initially declared not guilty by a jury, but the verdict was dismissed by the Bombay High Court .The High Court agreed with the prosecution's argument that the murder was premeditated and sentenced Nanavati to life imprisonment for culpable homicide amounting to murder. On Nov 24, 1961, the Supreme Court of India upheld the conviction

The executive pardon came through within just three years of his being jailed. Then, Kawas’ friends in high places helped him, a convicted murderer, get speedy emigration to Canada along with his family. The Nanavatis packed their bags, and jettisoned the baggage. Among Toronto’s welcoming Parsis, Sylvia and Kawas built a new life—not on guilt and bitterness, but on the realization of what both had meant to each other in the past, and still did. To quote one of their friends: “The Nanavatis were a happy normal family with children, grandchildren and a beautiful Irish setter.” 

Kawas died in 2003. In 2015, at 83, Sylvia moved from their long-time Burlington home to an assisted living flat, still a devoted “mum” and doting “gran”, as can be gauged from her Facebook posts and conversations with close family members.

Naval commander Kawas Nanavati and his wife, Sylvia
On the morning of 27 April 1959, the handsome, 6ft-tall naval commander Kawas Manekshaw Nanavati and his beautiful English wife, Sylvia, ran some chores together. Kawas had just returned, nine days ago, from a two-month voyage at sea. Together they took their dog to the veterinary hospital in Bombay’s Parel, bought tickets to the matinee show, and returned home to their flat in Colaba for a lunch. But all was not well. Sylvia was distant, cold and aloof. As she would tremulously tell the court later: “My husband came and touched me. I asked him not to do it as I did not like him.”

Then she was forced to make a brutal confession: She had been having an affair with their flamboyant and rich Sindhi businessman friend, Prem Ahuja. Later that afternoon, Kawas went to Ahuja’s home, armed with a revolver. He barged into Ahuja’s bedroom, and shut the door behind him. Three gunshots were heard going off inside the room. When Kawas came out, Ahuja was sprawled on the floor in a pool of blood.

Through the initial sessions court murder trial by jury, Kawas’ legion of worshippers cast him as Lord Rama enjoined by his dharma to slay Ravana, who had abducted his innocent wife. The editor of Blitz, Russy Karanjia, drew this analogy frontally. A copy of Blitz during the trial sold for ₹2 per copy, up from the normal rate of 25 paise. The defence team did it more obliquely, presenting Kawas as the ideal man: a decorated naval officer away at sea for months in the service of the country, forced to leave his wife vulnerable to the machinations of an evil man with no patriotism on his CV.

Kawas told the court—“Ahuja had an evil influence on my wife”. The defence put on full display letters written to Ahuja by his besotted lovers, and the bacchanalian trove recovered from his flat: one bottle of gin, two bottles of whisky, two bottles of rum, 11 beer bottles, a bottle of brandy, a bottle of Benedictine, and several empty bottles of alcohol, during the prohibition-era Bombay. In an essential corollary, Sylvia was portrayed as the helpless victim of playboy Prem Ahuja.

Her adultery triggered a murder case which ended the jury system in India; set off a fractious turf war between the judiciary and the executive after the Bombay governor suspended the high court’s sentence; necessitated the sitting of a full constitution bench of the Supreme Court to clarify the boundaries of the governor’s powers of pardon; and even forced prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru into that maelstrom.

Despite embarrassment and blame she was accused of being a amoral, sex-hungry foreigner jumping into an adulterous bed with no thought of her valiant husband sailing the seas in defense of the nation, and no care for the children neglected because of her uncontrolled desires. Sylvia and Kawas had by then made up; she had moved into her in-laws’ home with the children, determined to save her marriage and appear in court in Kawas’ defence. 

Not just the devoted wife, she was the perfect mother to the three children born between 1950 and 1956. During Kawas’ long months at sea, she took on all the responsibilities of PTA meetings, homework, swimming, birthday parties and weekly visits to the grandparents. The strongest endorsement of her place in the family is the unqualified support she got from her in-laws. As soon as they heard about the shooting, they despatched a close family member to the Metro cinema hall. Kawas had dropped her and the children there for the matinee of Tom’s Thumb, before going to requisition a revolver from his naval ship and then to Ahuja’s flat for that fatal showdown. She was brought to Southlands, the home of his parents, Mehra and Manekshaw. She spent most of those difficult years with them.

A friend who stood by her through the worst said, “There was nothing flirty or flamboyant about her.” An advertising veteran and thespian guffawed away the Blitz suggestion that she could have been the innocent victim of sinister potions who described Ahuja as a “nice person”, “attractive” to women for his looks and charm. If Sylvia was a victim of anything, it was of neglect, a danger more commonplace but no less insidious. But Sylvia suffered from loneliness even when Kawas was by her side. Ahuja was the harbour master of this game. He was good-looking, he was dapper, and he was richer by far. He drove a convertible and smoked expensive cigars. It was easy to succumb to his charm. Many women had, hopelessly, as the besotted letters produced in court proved.

Sylvia's life as a navy wife was sequestered. Though she was only 28, already a mother of three, she was not wise to the ways of bachelor dandies.

Nanavati received support from influential Parsis and the Parsi Panchayatand and also backing from the Indian Navy, while the Sindhi community backed Mamie Ahuja, sister of the victim. Among the jurists, Ram Jethmalani led the prosecution, while Karl Khandalavala represented Nanavati.

Public opinion was decidedly in favour of Nanavati, seen as an upright naval officer with middle class values and a strong sense of honour. Public opinion held the sentence of life in prison was too harsh and supported a proposal, mooted by the Blitz, to grant a pardon to the cuckolded naval officer. The Blitz magazine played a significant part in raising public opinion in favour of Nanavati and keeping the issue alive for over three years until the pardon was granted. Nanavati had previously worked with V. K. Krishna Menon and had grown close to the Nehrus during that time. During the time of Nanavati's trial and sentencing, Nehru was Prime Minister of India and his sister, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, was governor of Maharashtra.  Nanavati spent three years in prison; it was feared that a pardon for him could elicit an angry reaction from the Sindhi community to which the Ahuja family belonged. At around this time, the government received an application for pardon from Bhai Pratap, a Sindhi trader who had been a participant in the Indian independence movement, and had been convicted for misusing an import licence. Given his freedom fighter background, and the relative smallness of his offence, the government was inclined to pardon Bhai Pratap. Finally, an application seeking pardon for Nanavati was obtained from Mamie Ahuja, sister of the deceased. She gave her assent for his pardon in writing. Vijayalakshmi Pandit, then governor of Maharashtra, pardoned Bhai Pratap and Nanavati on the same day.

The story has become plot for several hindi movies - Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke (1963), Achanak (1973) and Rustom (2016).

Everybody deserves a second chance, but not everyone is strong enough to seize it.

  1. Young lawyer Ram Jethmalani, who shot into fame with this case, had the distinction of assisting prosecution for conviction of Nanavati and at the end had to persuade victim's sister Mamie Ahuja to sign petition for pardon of Nanavati, to facilitate pardon of his another Sindhi convicted client Bhai Pratap for a small offense of import license misuse. Therefore, Nanavati's pardon was a deal only.
  2. The Blitz championed the cause of Nanavati. The tabloid priced at 25 paisa, was selling at 2 rupees per issue at the height of the trial. The question put to public was that 'what would have you done if you were in his shoes'. This is a classic case of public opinion mobilization by a tabloid Blitz with its relentless campaign projecting murderer as innocent and victim as villain, and at the end it prevailed.
  3. But for Nanavati's close contact with Nehru & Krishna Menon etc, his pardon petition would have been simply dismissed. Connection with 'high places' really work.
  4. While Parsis, Navy, Media & Public backed culprit Nanavati, Sindhis were polarised for victim Ahuja. The rule of law and the demands of the society clashed with each other. At the end 'rule of the law' was undermined, unacceptable non sense in a democracy.
  5. During trial period, Nanavati managed to remain in comfort and easy access of the Navy's detention quarters for a year and five months despite being unqualified for civil crime. The warrant of arrest to put Nanavati in jail for life couldn't be served on him because the state's Governor had issued an unprecedented order staying the sentence 'till the appeal is disposed of'. Upon Nanavati's appeal turned down by SC, he finally had  to go to Bombay's Arthur Road Jail. 
  6. Upon uproar in parliament, a constitution bench of the Supreme Court, presided over by the Chief Justice of India, had to sit to interpret the relevant articles of  the constitution delineating the powers granted to the governor  vis-a-vis those assigned to the judiciary. 
  7. The case has become plot for 3 hindi movies so far.

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