Case of Commander Nanavati that inspired Akshay Kumar’s ‘Rustom’

The upcoming and much awaited Akshay Kumar starrer movie ‘Rustom’ is to release August 12 and the trailer is making rounds already. The movie is inspired from the famous 1959 case of KM Nanavati v/s State of Maharashtra that brought a big change in the Indian judicial system. K. M. Nanavati vs. State of Maharashtra case was the last to be heard as a jury trial in India, as the government abolished jury trials.
Commander K. M. Nanavati vs. State of Maharashtra was a 1959 court case where commander Kawas Manekshaw Nanavati, a Naval Commander, was tried for the murder of Prem Ahuja, his wife’s lover. The incident received unprecedented media coverage and inspired several books and movies. Commander Nanavati, accused under section 302, was initially declared not guilty by a jury under section 302 but the verdict was dismissed by the Bombay High Court and the case was retried as a bench trial.
Nanavati was a Parsi and a commander with the Indian Navy. He had settled down in Mumbai with his English-born wife, Sylvia and their three children. Nanavati used to stay away on assignments for long periods and this led to Sylvia’s affair with Prem Ahuja, a friend of Nanavati’s.
Prem Ahuja’s sister in her testimony in court, stated that Prem had agreed to marry Sylvia, provided she divorced her husband which was later contradicted by letters written by Sylvia.
After Nanavati returned home from one of his assignments, he found Sylvia being distant and questioned her about her behavior. Sylvia, who now doubted Prem’s intent to marry her, confessed about the affair to her husband. On the fateful night, Nanavati dropped his family at a cinema hall and excused himself and headed straight to confront Prem Ahuja.
Nanavati went to the Naval base, collected his pistol on a false pretext from the stores and later proceeded to Prem Ahuja’s office and then to his flat. Nanavati confronted Ahuja and asked him whether he intended to marry Sylvia and accept their children. After Prem replied in the negative, three shots were fired and Prem Ahuja dropped dead.
Nanavati though didn’t run away from the crime and headed straight to confess to the Provost Marshal of the Western Naval Command and on his advice, turned himself into the Deputy Commissioner of Police.
The Trial:
Nanavati had already confessed his crime, but the case was about whether Nanavati shot Ahuja in the ‘heat of the moment’ or whether it was a pre-planned murder. In the former scenario, Nanavati would be charged under the Indian penal code for culpable homicide, with a maximum punishment of 10 years but in the latter scenario, Nanavati would be charged with murder, with the sentence being death or life imprisonment. Nanavati pleaded not guilty and his defence team argued it as case of culpable homicide not amounting to murder.
Backgrounder being that the accused, K.M.Nanavati, was an upright, moral and patriotic person serving the Indian nation. There were all the evidences that he had committed murder after being provoked and had no economic benefits in it nor was he a career criminal. And he had willingly surrendered himself afterwards to the police. Keeping all this in mind the jury in the Greater Bombay Sessions Court had only job and power to pronounce a person as `Guilty` or `Not Guilty` under the charges.
In the retrial of the court, the high court agreed with the prosecution’s argument that the murder was premeditated and sentenced Nanavati to life imprisonment for culpable homicide amounting to murder and later the Supreme Court of India upheld the conviction.
Early Release
The case got an extensive media coverage. Public opinion in India was decidedly in favour of Nanavati, seen as an upright naval officer with middle class values and a strong sense of honour. Nanavati spent 3 years in prison. Finally, since Nanavati had spent over three years in prison and given the circumstances of the case, Prem’s sister Mamie Ahuja was persuaded to forgive Nanavati. She gave her assent for his pardon in writing.