The Case that Inspired ‘Rustom’ and Abolished India’s Jury System
<i>Rustom </i>is said to be based on the real life court case of  naval officer KM Nanavati that changed the face of Indian judicial system. (Photo: Hardeep Singh/The Quint)
Rustom is said to be based on the real life court case of naval officer KM Nanavati that changed the face of Indian judicial system. (Photo: Hardeep Singh/The Quint)

The Case that Inspired ‘Rustom’ and Abolished India’s Jury System

In 1959 an agitated and betrayed husband, Kawas Manekshaw Nanavati, a Naval Commander, killed his wife’s lover Prem Ahuja. The incident received unprecedented media coverage and inspired several books and movies. The latest of them all is the Akshay Kumar starrer, Rustom.

The case of Commander KM Nanavati vs State of Maharashtra changed the face of Indian judicial system. It was the last case to be tried under India’s jury system.

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A jury trial or trial by jury is a legal proceeding in which a group of ordinary citizens either make a decision or participate in fact-finding. Citizens then direct the actions of a judge.

The United States and a few European countries make routine use of jury trials even today. Every citizen is expected to serve jury-duty if he/she gets selected as a juror for a case. Once the summons are issued, they are asked to come to court on a particular day, at a particular time. The law states that you must participate and employers can’t prevent employees from performing jury duty. Citizens are selected on the basis of their professional, intellectual and social backgrounds.

World over, juries are seen as protectors of the accused against harsh criminal laws.

Jury trials came to India with the British. The first case decided by an English jury was in 1665, when one Mrs Ascentia Dawes was charged with the murder of her slave, an Indian girl. A jury of six Englishmen and six Portuguese, found her guilty, but she was acquitted because of the ‘meniality’ of the crime. Jury trials gradually became a biased institution, often ruling in the favour of British, ignoring extreme violence and exploitation of Indians.

Before the fateful afternoon of 27 April, 1959, when KM Nanavati armed with his service revolver, barged into the house of his wife’s lover to ask if he would marry her and take care of his children, nobody thought that this case would serve as the final nail in the coffin for the jury trials in India.

The jury-trial of the Nanavati case that inspired as many as five Bollywood films, has been lost to history but it cannot be more relevant than in the context of today’s media trials and ‘honour’ killings.

Accused under section 302, Nanavati was declared not guilty by the sessions court under a jury trial. The verdict was challenged and dismissed by the Bombay High Court and the case was re-tried as a bench trial. When the matter reached the Supreme Court, Nanavati was convicted and was given a life imprisonment on 11 December 1961.

KM Nanavati, Prem Ahuja, Russi Karanjia the editor of the Blitz and Sylivia Nanavati (From left to right clockwise. Photo: Image Altered by The Quint)
KM Nanavati, Prem Ahuja, Russi Karanjia the editor of the Blitz and Sylivia Nanavati (From left to right clockwise. Photo: Image Altered by The Quint)

The Nanavati case became India’s first media trial, and it polarised public opinion across the state. Nanavati’s trial receives massive coverage in the investigative weekly tabloid Blitz, which described it as a love triangle. The real-life story of Rustom became the story of an ‘honourable’ murderer, a navy commander, a husband betrayed by his wife. He was honour-bound to fight the ‘enemy’. He was, in other words, a ‘martyr’ to the cause of honour.

Gyan Prakash, a professor of history at Princeton and the author of Mumbai Fables, a book on the popular narratives of Mumbai, was witness to this.

It was Blitz that turned this case into a trial of patriarchy and patriotism… Blitz covered the case with extensive photographs and graphic illustrations that imprinted the case graphically in people’s minds.
Gyan Prakash in an interview

Russi Karanjia, the editor of the Blitz endorsed the cause of a fellow Parsi, igniting huge interest in the case. On every hearing date, crowds would gather at the Mumbai Sessions Court to watch the trial. Men left work and came to watch, women left their household chores, students bunked colleges.

The media frenzy, the public hysteria and cocktail gossip influenced the opinions around the case. Influenced by public support for the culprit, the jury found it hard to filter fact from fiction.

In December 1961, post Nanavati’s conviction by the Supreme Court, PR Lele, Blitz’s constitutional expert wrote an article headlined ‘The President must pardon Nanavati’:

If a member of the Fighting Forces always has to entertain the fear that some moneyed and leisured man might be consoling his wife, in his absence… People want to ask the top authorities to consider what will be the moral effect on those whom you invite to join the Defence Forces if and when they observe that those in authority take a technical view of the invasion by the wealthy of their unprotected homes.
Excerpt from the article

Nanavati spent 3 years in prison, following which the then governor of Maharashtra, Vijayalakshmi Pandit facilitated his pardon and release, in response to a mercy petition.

United States including a few other european countries make routine use of jury trials even today. (Photo: iStock)
United States including a few other european countries make routine use of jury trials even today. (Photo: iStock)

In a jury that acquitted Nanavati, there was one person that ruled that Nanavati was guilty. Not much has been written about Reginald Pierce but in a rare interview, he once revealed:

They were tremendously against me and berated me relentlessly after I had made my stand clear. If the crowds outside had known who the lone dissenter was, they would have lynched me. But I saw the evidence and it was apparent that he killed him.

The Nanavati case raised the scepticism about jury trials, a system that was already losing appeal. In the 1960s, the jury system was abolished in India.

A lot of academic studies and reports since then have attempted to reflect on the way cases should be adjudged. Rustom is the Bollywood-ised story of one of the most thrilling court cases in India. But it leaves us with the question: what kind of justice is the most suitable for a multi-religious, multi-cultural and multi-class society?

Reflecting on this question as a policy issue, economist and academician Bibek Debroy, wrote:

Since jury trials involve getting a bunch of people together for a finite time, it is inevitable that trials are continuous… It is no coincidence that there is a correlation between scrapping of jury trials and prolonging of cases. Since no one has figured out a sensible way of ensuring continuous trials, should we ask whether the 1960 decision of abolition of jury trials was a mistake?
Bibek Debroy in a piece for The Indian Express

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