K.M. Nanavati v. State of Maharashtra, is a landmark decision by the Supreme Court that shaped Indian Criminal Law. Though possessing facts similar to any other murder trial, this case stole the spotlight due to the questions about Constitutional Law and the interpretation of the provisions by the Hon’ble Supreme Court. It is a decision that abolished jury trials and put a stop to unprecedented media attention in criminal trials.
K.M Nanavati was an Indian Naval Officer who was deployed in Bombay in the year 1959. He was a Commander of the Indian Naval Ship “Mysore”. In the year 1949, he got married to one Ms. Sylvia, a woman hailing from England. He and his family, consisting of two children aged ½ and 5 years, resided in Bombay. Mr. Prem Bhagwandas Ahuja, an unmarried automobile businessman in Bombay, was a friend of Mrs. Sylvia.
One day, while Mr. K.M Nanavati was out on duty, Mrs. Sylvia developed an illicit relationship with Mr. Prem Bhagwandas Ahuja.
On the 27th of April 1959, Mrs. Sylvia, confessed of her illicit relationship to her husband. K.M. Nanavati on getting to know about the illicit relationship was enraged and in the heat of his agony, drove to his ship and procured his revolver on a false pretext and loaded the same post which he drove to Mr. Prem’s place of business to confront him of the same. Failing to find Mr. Prem at the office, he drove to his residence.
A fight broke out between the two and Mr. K.M. Nanavati shot at Mr. Prem Bhagwandas Ahuja, leading to his death.
The jury decided in favour of the accused, Mr. K.M. Nanavati. The same was appealed before the High Court of Bombay and the decision of the jury was overturned. A further appeal was made to the Supreme Court and the analysis of the same has been provided below.
This nation-wide famous case was first presented in front of the Sessions Judge of Greater Bombay. The case was tried with the aid of a special jury who declared the appellant “not guilty”. However, the Session judge was not satisfied with the decision and hence, the case was forwarded to the High Court of Bombay. Two main reasons why it became important for this case to be scrutinized properly were; firstly, the charges were registered u/s 302, “Punishment for murder.—Whoever commits murder shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.” And u/s 304, “Punishment for culpable homicide not amounting to murder.—Whoever commits culpable homicide not amounting to murder shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine, if the act by which the death is caused is done to cause death, or of causing such bodily injury as is likely to cause death, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, or with fine, or with both, if the act is done with the knowledge that it is likely to cause death, but without any intention to cause death, or to cause such bodily injury as is likely to cause death”  of IPC which are related to murder and secondly, the entire nation was watching this case because of which it gained enough publicity. U/s 307 of CrPC, “Power to direct tender of pardon. At any time after the commitment of a case but before judgment is passed, the Court to which the commitment is made may, with a view”  the Sessions Judge transferred the case to the superior court that was the High Court of Bombay.
The appealed case was then presented in front of a two-Judges Bench of the High Court. Both the judges collectively held the accused guilty under both the sections. They called the decision of the jury “perverse”, “unreasonable” and “contrary to the weight of evidence”. Both the judges said that in no way can the pieces of evidence be neglected and that there was no rational reasoning for not holding the accused guilty of the murder of Prem Ahuja. The court also denied that it will reduce the severity of crime from murder to culpable homicide. Hence, they held him ”guilty”. They referred to the case of Ramanugrah Singh v. The King-Emperor , where it was said, “…the High Court considers that upon the evidence no reasonable body of men could have concluded arrived at by the jury, then the reference was justified and the ends of justice require that the verdict be disregarded.” The judicial committee in the Ramanugrah case stated, “In general, if the evidence is such that it can properly support a verdict either of guilty or not guilty, according to the view taken of it by the trial court, and if the jury takes one view of the evidence and the judge thinks that they should have taken the other, the view of the jury. must prevail, since they are the judges of fact. In such a case a reference is not justified, and it is only by accepting their view that the High Court can give due weight to the opinion of the jury. If, however, the High Court considers that on the evidence no reasonable body of men could have concluded arrived at by the jury, then the reference was justified and the ends of justice require that the verdict be disregarded.”
Rattan Rai v. State of Bihar  was another case which said that the High Court has the power to interfere if the decision of the jury is misleading.
Another important issue, in this case, was the establishment of men’s rea. Prosecution, on one hand, called the entire incident planned whereas the defence denied it. The prosecution relied on the fact that the appellant had enough time to think about the consequences of his actions while he was on his way to collect guns and cartridges from the ship hence, there was no sudden provocation. Shelat J. stated on the matter of sudden provocation, “Thus the question whether a confession of adultery by the wife of accused to him amounts to the grave and sudden provocation or not was a question of law. In my view, the learned Sessions Judge was in error in telling the jury that the entire question was one of fact for them to decide. It was for the learned Judge to decide as a question of law whether the sudden confession by the wife of the accused amounted to the grave and sudden provocation as against the deceased Ahuja which on the authorities referred to hereinabove it was not. He was therefore in error in placing this alternative case to the jury for their determination instead of deciding it himself.” 
In the case of House of Lords in Holmes v. Director of Public Prosecution , it was said, “If there is no sufficient material, even on a view of the evidence most favourable to the accused, for a jury (which means a reasonable jury) to form the view that a reasonable person so provoked could be driven, through the transport of passion and loss of self-control, to the degree and method and continuance of violence which produces the death it is the duty of the judge as a matter of law to direct the jury that the evidence does not support a verdict of manslaughter. If, on the other hand, the case is one in which the viewer might fairly be taken (a) that a reasonable person, in consequence of the provocation received, might be so rendered subject to passion or loss of control as to be led to use the violence with fatal results, and (b) that the accused was acting under the stress of such provocation, then it is for the jury to determine whether on its view of the facts manslaughter or murder is the appropriate verdict.”
The higher judiciary after listening to the entire matter, examined various shreds of evidence and witnesses. They also pointed out the mistakes committed by the Sessions Judge while handling the case. Both parties were given an equal chance to present their respective cases. The court also relied upon the scope of the doctrine of provocation explained by Viscount Simon in the case of Mancini v. Director of Public Prosecutions  as, “It is not all provocation that will reduce the crime of murder to manslaughter. Provocation, to have that result, must be such as temporarily deprives the person provoked of the power of self-control as the result of which he commits the unlawful act which causes death. The test to be applied is that of the effect of the provocation on a reasonable man, as was laid down by the Court of Criminal Appeal in Rex v. Lesbini so that an unusually excitable or pugnacious individual is not entitled to rely on provocation which would not have led an ordinary person to act as he did. In applying the text, it is of particular importance to-
(a) consider whether a sufficient interval has elapsed since the provocation to allow a reasonable man time to cool, and
(b) to take into account the instrument with which the homicide was effected, for to retort, in the heat of passion induced by provocation, by a simple blow, is a very different thing from making use of a deadly instrument like a concealed dagger. In short, the mode of resentment must bear a reasonable relationship to the provocation if the offence is to be reduced to manslaughter.”
Nonetheless, the court also mentioned that this distinction was made in English law and will not be acceptable in the Indian scenario. While explaining this they observed, “It is an indisputable fact, that gross insults by word or gesture have a great tendency to move many persons to violent passion as dangerous or painful bodily injuries; nor does it appear to us that passion excited by insult is entitled to less indulgence than passion excited by pain. On the contrary, the circumstance that a man resents an insult more than a wound is anything but proof that he is a man of a peculiarly bad heart.”
The court even elaborated on how can obscene language cause sudden provocation because in defence the reasoning used by the defendant for proving that the murder happened in the heat of the moment was that the defendant went to the deceased house with the proposal for his wife’s marriage with him to which the deceased replied, “Do I have to marry every woman that I sleep with?” This aggravated him and he shot the deceased.
In my personal opinion, the decision in the case of K.M. Nanavati v. State of Maharashtra, puts forward the right analysis of the facts and a judgment to justify the same. Though the jury ruled in favour of the accused in the earlier decision by 8 -1 (in favour of the accused) the same was due to the manipulation or misinterpretation of the facts and law that were presented to the jury. The three crucial points on which the jury was misled were- 1) that the onus of proving that it incident of shooting was an accident and not willful murder was on Mr. Nanavati, 2) presenting the jury with a false interpretation of the law, i.e. by stating that the provocation can come by a third party, and 3) the jury wasn’t made aware of the most crucial principle that in a criminal case, the prosecution must prove the case beyond all reasonable doubt. Another aspect dealt with in the judgment was the misuse of the media to tarnish the image of the accused. Mr. R.K Karanjia, an owner of the weekly tabloid Blitz, used the platform to openly put forth false allegations against Mr. Nanavati. The aforementioned also caused a gross miscarriage of justice as the media was alleged to have influenced the jury in its decision. Soon after the K.M. Nanavati, most jury trials were abolished.
Another aspect dealt with in the case was the relevance of the time gap between events. The mere fact that there elapsed a good amount of time since Mr. K. M Nanavati first gaining knowledge of his wife’s illicit relationship, and the time of shooting at the victim, showed that there existed sufficient time for the accused to regain control and not act on sudden provocation.
 The Indian Penal Code, 1860 (Act 45 of 1860), s.302.
 The Indian Penal Code, 1860 (Act 45 of 1860), s.304.
 The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, s. 307.
 (1946) 48 BOMLR 768.
 AIR 1957 SC 373.
 1962 AIR 605.
 31 Crim. App. R 123 (1946).
  AC 1.
  3 KB 1116.
BY DEVANSHI POKHRIYAL | SYMBIOSIS LAW SCHOOL, HYDERABAD