K M Nanavati case: Do untrained men deliver better justice?

Jury trials disappeared forever from the Indian legal system after the Supreme Court confirmed the sentence of life imprisonment in 1961 on Commander Kawas Maneckshaw Nanavati of the Indian Navy for killing his wife’s lover, Prem Ahuja, on April 27, 1959. His sentence was commuted to three years rigorous imprisonment by the then Governor of Maharashtra, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, who was Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s sister. Nanavati, his adulterous wife, English-born Sylvia, and his two sons and daughter later relocated to Toronto in Canada where he died in 2003 while his wife is now 85 years old.

The jury was apparently swayed by the fact that Nanavati was a commander in the Indian Navy, not a career criminal and reacted in the heat of passion when the victim, Prem Ahuja, replied : “I do not marry every woman I sleep with. Get the hell out of here,” when confronted by the irate, cuckolded husband. While lawyers now feel that the jury verdict was correct, the trial judge Ratilal Bhaichand Mehta described the acquittal as “perverse” and referred the case to the Bombay High Court which heard the case afresh and sentenced Nanavati to life imprisonment which was confirmed by the Supreme Court.

But emotions and law are not identical virtues in the cold confines of a court room which has to distinguish between murder and culpable homicide and the exceptions contained in the former. This was no easy task in 1961 when case law such as the landmark 1980 case of Bachchan Singh laid down the law for heinous murders. When actors like Salman Khan who was charged with culpable homicide in 2002 and Maria Susairaj, who was charged with destroying evidence of killing Neeraj Grover in 2008, walk into the sunset, reform of our criminal justice system is needed with a witness protection programme urgently needed.

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The First Law Commission of India (LCI) chaired by M.C. Setalvad had submitted its report to the Central Government on 26th September 1958 that jury trials had to be abolished because they drained out both time and money in the three presidency towns of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras where the oldest high courts were set up under a letters patent. When the jury delivered its verdict, no appeal against issues of fact would lie but only on issues of law.

“Some jurors canvassed to be appointed for extraneous considerations….even in civil cases, the litigants preferred a trial by the judge alone rather than by 12 persons selected by pure chance who were easily swayed by emotions due to no legal training and pre-trial publicity. Even in Calcutta, the jury trials were limited to specified criminal offences and not to every trial,” the LCI noted.

The LCI went on to explain that the over 100-year-old jury trials transplanted by the British into India were observed only in pockets of this vast country and with varying degrees of success. The jury system miserably failed in France while being successful in England. The jury system which was a part of justice delivery depended for its success or failure on the literacy levels of the people, their culture and honesty.

When our Constitution was enacted in 1950, the right to a jury trial was not made a fundamental right unlike in the U.S.A. where it is still a fundamental right although those accused in criminal trials often waive their right to a trial by jury due to long delays and the fear of the jurors being influenced by pre-trial publicity in heinous crimes.

The death blow for jury trials was delivered by Mahatma Gandhi in the same year that Sylvia was born when he wrote in Young India, and quoted by the LCI in its 14th report, “Juries find prisoners guilty without evidence and even judges’ summing up is contrary to their findings. We should not replace trained judges by untrained men brought together by chance.”

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