This is a story involving an extra-marital affair that resulted in a murder. The trial of the murderer generated unprecedented media coverage and the circumstances in which the murder took place resulted in huge public sympathy for him. This is also one of the first cases through which the maverick lawyer, Mr. Ram Jethmalani, came into the limelight for the first time.
Article by Maninder Dabas | Times of India
Kawas Maneckshaw Nanavati was an Indian Naval Officer who had settled in Mumbai with his English wife, Sylvia, and their two children. As his work required him to be away from his family for long periods of time, his wife began an affair with his friend Prem Ahuja. Sylvia wanted to divorce Nanavati and marry Ahuja, but he refused. Distraught by the refusal, she spilled the beans about the affair to Nanavati when he returned to his family.
Nanavati was enraged, but he did not show it. He dropped Sylvia and their two children to a nearby cinema hall, proceeded to the Naval Docks from where he withdrew his pistol and six cartridges on an excuse, finished his shift and went to Ahuja’s office. He did not find him there. He proceeded to Ahuja’s flat and confronted him there asking whether he would marry Sylvia and take in his children.
Nanavati shot him dead.
After committing the murder, he proceeded to the Provost Marshal of the Western Naval Command, where he confessed to his crime. The Provost Marshal asked him to surrender before the Deputy Commissioner of Police, which he did. Nanavati was an upright, moral and patriotic officer who did not have any prior history of criminal activity. The jury that heard his trial was sympathetic to his suffering and declared him to ‘not guilty’ by a majority of 8-1.
Ram Jethmalani, a young lawyer at the time, was assisting the prosecution on the request of Ahuja’s sister Mamie Ahuja. The trial court judge found this verdict to be perverse and referred the matter to the High Court.
Throughout the trial, the Bombay Daily Blitz, which folded shop in the 90s, championed the cause of Nanavati. One copy of the magazine, which was usually priced at 25 paisa, was selling at 2 rupees per issue at the height of the trial. The coverage of the trial pitted the Parsi and Sindhi communities in the city against each other. When the matter reached the High Court, a sentence of life imprisonment was read out, upon which Nanavati preferred an appeal to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court confirmed the verdict of the High Court in November 1961. Blitz now went into an overdrive. It published a mercy petition in its pages, forcefully conveying the sentiments of the Parsi community which was wholly in favor of pardoning him. The rule of law and the demands of the society had clashed with each other. It was obvious that one had to bend in favor of the other.
Around the same time, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, newly appointed Governor of Bombay and sister of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, received a mercy petition from Bhai Pratap, a prominent Sindhi leader, in March 1962. Bhai Pratap had a business of import-export of sport goods and bureaucrats around her agreed that he could be pardoned. Pandit pounced on the chance. Bhai Pratap could be pardoned, she reasoned, after Nanavati had been pardoned. This way, both the Parsi and the Sindhi communities would get what they want. The proposal was conveyed to Jethmalani, who was asked to convince Mamie Ahuja for the same. She acceded to the government’s request.
Soon after being pardoned by the government, Nanavati left for Canada along with his wife and two children and was never heard of again. He died in 2003. Sylvia is still alive.
The case has inspired several Bollywood movies, plays and books including R K Nayar’s Ye Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke (1963) starring Sunil Dutt and Leela Naidu, Gulzar’s Achanak (1973) starring Vinod Khanna and Lily Chakraborty and Indra Sinha’s book The Death of Mr Love (2002). It is also rumored that Akshay Kumar and Neeraj Pandey’s latest offing Rustom, is based on the case.
Even after 50 years, the Nanavati case continues to have a tremendous recall value among a public infamous for its short memory. The question that animated discussions in countless chai shops of Bombay at the time of the trial remains relevant till today – “What would you have done if you were in his shoes?”