Mumbai: It was the infamous Nanavati case which catapulted into legal orbit a young and seemingly innocuous criminal lawyer named Ram Jethmalani.
He was then an upcoming lawyer – not the maverick he is known to be today – when he was asked to assist in an advisory capacity the public prosecutor in the infamous Nanavati case – the first ‘honour killing’ of its kind among the well-heeled gentry of Mumbai, and also probably the country’s first media trial in which a partisan jury gave a resounding 8-1 verdict in the murderer’s favour. (Immediately afterwards, the jury system was scrapped in India).
For stragglers, the Nanavati case was all about a Navy commander and his lovely wife Sylvia’s secret romance with a city playboy named Prem Ahuja.
The much decorated officer, driven by rage and heartache, barged into the Nepean Sea bedroom of the philanderer, asked him to marry his wife and then, disgusted at the reply — ‘I do not marry every woman I sleep with’ — pumped three bullets into him. Later, driven by a compelling sense of justice, the officer surrendered.
Jethmalani never nursed any doubts about the true intent of the ‘honourable’ Nanavati, the blue-eyed boy of the ruling dispensation. He debunks the outlandish suggestion that the Navy commander pumped bullets into his wife’s paramour – a flamboyant philanderer – by accident in a scuffle.
‘‘You shoot an unarmed and defenceless man who has stepped out of his bathroom with a revolver — this is nothing short of murder. It was a case without any defence.
The evidence is that right after the shooting he boasted to the first man he met, ‘I have killed that bastard. He deserved it.’ That man was Lobo, the Deputy Commissioner of Police who was his friend.
Obviously, he had gone prepared and thought that a member of the Armed Forces should be seen to have acted bravely and that he had no motivation, in the first instance, to save himself from the consequences of the murder. I will give him the credit that he must have been prepared to take the consequences.”
The ‘runaway’ jury was later overruled by the Sessions judge who Jethmalani says was very clear in his mind that it was a case of murder.
“The man had specially gone to the naval mess and got a revolver on the plea that he wanted to shoot birds! It was a false excuse, which shows his determination to kill.
This was not a case of grave and sudden provocation…He had made preparations for it. The judge disagreed with the jury but he, under the law, was not allowed to acquit; he had to refer the matter to the High Court which he did.”
An open and shut premeditated murder by all stretches of imagination, the case became a watershed moment in Indian legal history leading to the scrapping of the archaic jury system.
Ironically, the Nanaavati case is remembered for all the wrong reasons: how the jury was swayed by public opinion and acquitted Nanavati; how the city’s Sindhi and Parsi communities were virtually at each other’s throat — the main protagonist Nanavati being a Parsi and the playboy Ahuja a Sindhi; how a tabloid Blitz, run incidentally by a Parsi named R K Karanjia, became a household name with its graphic account of Ahuja stepping out in a bathrobe at his residence, only to be confronted by a livid Nanavati.