The trial of Kawas Manekshaw Nanawati for the murder of Prem Ahuja was one of the most popular court cases of 20th century receiving unprecedented media coverage and became an inspiration for numerous novels, books, movies and articles (Like the one you are reading now). What is worth remembering is that, during those days India too followed Jury trials like in the west and this case proved to be the death of that culture.
We have put forth the reasons as to what made this court trial so gripping and hyped:
1. The Plot – Betrayed by beloved wife and a Trusted friend
Mr. Nanawati was a Naval commander and a decorated officer who frequently went on long assignments away from his wife and children. Sylvia, the English born wife of Nanawati, felt forsaken and found solace in Prem Ahuja, a friend of Nanawati. They were very much in love till Sylvia started doubting Prem’s intent on their marriage. Sylvia later confessed to her husband regarding her secret love affair.
A Bollywood movie, “Achanak” was written and directed by Gulzar which was inspired by this plot. The film was a box office hit of 70s.
2. The Revenge – Took the matter in his own hands
The confession shocked Nanawati and he was deeply hurt by his friend’s betrayal. He made his mind to confront him. The officer dropped his family to a movie theater and went to his Naval base to get his gun under false pretenses. Finding Prem in his flat, Nanawati shot him three times and later turned himself to Deputy Commissioner of Police.
3. Court Case – The infamous K. M. Nanawati v. State of Maharashtra
Following his surrender to the police, a case was filed in Bombay sessions court which later became the talk of every household in the country. Just like other criminal trials in those days, a 9 member jury was selected for the hearing.
4. Media Trials – Exclusive stories about the Wronged husband
Mr. Nanawati was glorified by the media and the murder was termed a “Crime of Passion”. His portrayal as wronged husband and a upright, patriot Naval officer earned him the sympathy of the masses. The weekly tabloid Blitz played a pivotal role in this coverage and ran exclusive stories regarding the trial. Copies of Blitz started selling at Rs.2 a copy than the earlier rate of 25 paise per copy.
5. Alleged bias of Jury
The jury had to decide whether the crime was premeditated or was an act of provocation. The crime as an act of provocation could have Nanawati sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment while a premeditated crime would have him imprisoned for life. Despite prosecution’s version being supported by witnesses and backed by evidence, the jury gave its verdict in favor of the defendant.
Bombay High court dismissed the verdict and the case went for a retrial in the upper court. The government took this opportunity as an excuse to abolish Jury trials once and for all.
6. Hearing in High Court – Retrial and Life imprisonment
The case was crystal clear and thus when it went for retrial in High court, public emotions didn’t help Nanawati to escape conviction. Defendant’s case was weak and without any solid evidence while prosecution had witnesses deposing before the court. In the end, Nanawati was sentenced to life imprisonment on the charges of culpable homicide amounting to murder.
7. State Pardon
The Indian public held rallies against the High court’s judgment and felt that it was too harsh. The Blitz continued its crusade to bring public behind Mr. Nanawati and demanded for State pardon. After three years of conviction, Mamie Ahuja (Prem Ahuja’s sister) was persuaded to forgive Mr. Nanawati and give her assent for the grant of State pardon.
And do you know who was the lawyer representing the prosecution? It was our very own Mr. Ram Jethmalani, a Sindhi, who rose in stature and gained national fame through this case.
Mr. Nanawati and his family left the country to settle in Canada after the incident and the couple was together till Mr. Nanawati died in 2003.