Review: Bachi Karkaria Unveils the Nanavati Case Backroom Drama 

‘In Hot Blood: The Nanavati Case That Shook India’ gives a peek into the power politics that shaped the lawsuit.

6 min read
Review: Bachi Karkaria Unveils the Nanavati Case Backroom Drama 

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“Hindsight comes unshaded by rose-coloured glasses… Distance lends detachment, allowing us to add tones to an earlier black and white,” points out Bachi Karkaria in her book, In Hot Blood: The Nanavati Case That Shook India.

Kawas, Sylvia and their daughter Tannaz (c. 1955). (Photo courtesy: Juggernaut)

The distance is all of half a century and more as she re-tells the story of Commander Kawas Nanavati who shot dead his English wife Sylvia’s paramour with three swift bullets from a .38 Smith and Wesson revolver, requisitioned from his ship’s gunnery, on the sunny, humid day of April 27, 1959. And the tone Karkaria adds to the story is grey, digging up facts hitherto not conspicuous in the public domain.

The cover of In Hot Blood: The Nanavati Case That Shook India. (Photo courtesy: Juggernaut)

The Nanavati trial, that took place for five dramatic years, moving from a jury system in the Sessions Court to the High Court and then Supreme Court, had an entire nation in thrall, with the vox populi worshipping him as a noble hero, egged on by the sensational tabloid Blitz, edited by a fellow Parsi, RK Karanjia. Karanjia went to great lengths to paint the dead lover, Prem Ahuja, a prosperous, Sindhi car dealer, as a villain who lured unsuspecting women into his bedroom. He and the team of defence lawyers projected the murder as one done during the course of a scuffle, in the heat of the moment, under grave provocation.

Coverage of the Nanavati case in the tabloid Blitz. (Photo courtesy: Juggernaut)
And perhaps, their line of defence may have worked in letting the handsome naval officer off the hook with a mild ‘token’ sentence. Had it not been for a canny Sindhi lawyer, a young Ram Jethmalani whom Mamie Ahuja, the sister of the dead Prem Ahuja, asked to be merely present in the High Court when the prosecution argued against the Session Court jury’s ‘Not Guilty’ verdict. Karkaria writes, “When Mamie called him, at thirty-six, he (Jethmalani) was a legal non-entity. Their common Sindhi ethnicity swung it for him.”
Coverage of the Nanavati case in the tabloid Blitz. (Photo courtesy: Juggernaut)

Jethmalani, now 90-plus, seasoned lawyer of cases fair and foul, tells Karkaria, “The burden of proving that the jury’s verdict was perverse was troubling (public pleader YV) Chandrachud. So I pointed out to him that the test of perversity does not apply if the judge has committed errors of law in his summing up to the jury. I drew up those six-seven errors.” After that the case was conducted with aplomb, and followed with bated breath by Nanavati’s increasing legion of supporters. Finally, the High Court judgement pronounced Nanavati guilty and sentenced him to rigorous imprisonment for life.

(From left to right) Sylvia Nanavati, Lt Commander John Pereira, Lt Commander Kawas Nanavati and Joyce Pereira at the Pigalle Club inPiccadilly in London (1952). (Photo courtesy: Juggernaut)

But clearly Nanavati’s supporters were not just the hysterical crowds that thronged the courts. A bright, promising officer of the Indian Navy, he had the full backing of his superiors as well as those in the corridors of power. The Governor of Bombay, preoccupied though he was with the imminent formation of Maharashtra and Gujarat, used his powers to suspend the sentence of the High Court till the appeal intended to be filed by Nanavati in the Supreme Court was disposed of!

Then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon were both believed to have played a big role in shaping the Nanavati case. (Photo courtesy: Facebook/ ajayanvs)
The effect of the murder case in Bombay was felt all the way in Parliament in Delhi, with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru having to explain the governor’s order. His explanation to a badgering media was that it was Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Katari, who had approached him after the sentencing. Karkaria reveals that apart from the naval chief, Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon, too, had put his weight behind Nanavati so that ‘the stain of turpitude should not destroy the career of a promising young officer’.

Was it just that or was there more to it? Karkaria hints at larger issues. Nanavati was Menon’s defence attaché in the early 1950s at the Indian High Commission in London, and was one of his blue-eyed boys.

“Did this, at least partly, explain his being made No. 2 of the newly commissioned INS Mysore when he was just thirty-five?” asks Karkaria and then proceeds to list some of Menon’s controversial deals. “In 1948, while he was High Commissioner in London (1947-52), he had by-passed protocol to sign an eight-million-rupee deal with a firm for 200 jeeps for the Indian army, but only 155 arrived. Not only did Prime Minister Nehru force the government to accept the short-changed shipment… Two years later, he made the tainted Menon the country’s defence minister.” So did Nanavati know too much about Menon? And did Menon pull rank to save his blue-eyed boy because of this?

But the judiciary remained unmoved by all this clout, with the Supreme Court ruling that the order of the governor could operate only till the matter became sub judice in the Supreme Court. And so, despite his political patronage, Nanavati was escorted out of naval custody to the (in)famous Arthur Road jail where he was to bide time till his appeal was heard in the highest court of the land. The appeal was heard and dismissed. Did the promising officer of the Indian Navy, thereafter, spend a lifetime behind bars?

Amazingly no! His high-powered battery of lawyers applied for parole, on health grounds, and he was shifted to a bungalow in the restorative hill station of Lonavala, where he had visitors like Nani Palkhivala and even Hollywood star Vivien Leigh. So did he then spend the rest of his life in the salubrious climes of a hill station, stripped of his uniform but still highly regarded?

Ram Jethmalani (Reuters)
Again, amazingly no! Even more amazingly, it was the canny Sindhi lawyer, Ram Jethmalani, instrumental in nailing him, who arranged for his pardon and Nanavati was freed of his rigorous lifetime sentence. Karkaria reveals the behind-the-scenes manipulations. One fine day, Jethmalani had two interesting visitors — Sylvia and Rajni Patel who were part of Nanavati’s legal team. Fifty-two years after the event, the seasoned lawyer narrates to Karkaria what happened. “They had come to ask me to ‘manage’ Mamie. (That) I should make her agree to saying that she had ‘no objection to Nanavati being pardoned’.”

The shrewd legal brain did so, on the condition that an elderly Sindhi gentleman, languishing in jail, on a false case of cheating, also be granted pardon by the Maharashtra Governor, Vijay Lakshmi Pandit. Thus, the Sindhi community was placated while the Parsis were euphoric.

“In this way,” points out Karkaria, “a life sentence is lifted in under three years…”

But this was not the end of this incredible tale. Despite being convicted of murder, Nanavati managed to migrate to Canada within a very short time after his release. How? “So, for one last time, Nanavati pulled in the Friends in High Places,” says Karkaria and goes on to suggest that he got his papers in exchange for silence on any explosive secrets.

The Parsi community, too, rallied round him with industrialist JRD Tata giving him a job in the new country.

Author Bachi Karkaria (Photo courtesy: Juggernaut)

As the Nanavatis melted into a faraway country, the high-octane courtroom drama came to an end here. But, periodically, it is brought alive through films made on the subject and occasional books. What Karkaria has attempted, in her version, is deconstruct the story, rid it of its clichés of unalloyed hero, unmitigated villain and unwitting victim, and, most important, reveal the backroom drama in which the most powerful political figures, naval top-brass and the brightest legal brains were involved.

(In Hot Blood: The Nanavati Case That Shook India by Bachi Karkaria is available in bookstores and on Juggernaut.)

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