After Nanavati

The famous Nanavati case of 1959 gave birth to two myths: that it was the last jury trial in India and that it was the prurient sensationalism of the new tabloid press, Blitz in particular, that corrupted the jury system and made its abolition necessary. It was actually the refusal of the government and the legal profession to confront class and caste differences in the courtroom, and not the popular press, that led to the abolition of the Indian jury.

The release of the film Rustom in August 2016, starring Akshay Kumar, and his winning the National Film Award for Best Actor earlier this year, has led to renewed interest in the famous Nanavati case. In September 1959, Commander K M Nanavati of the Indian Navy was led into the Bombay District and Sessions Court and faced Justice R B Mehta and a jury of nine men. Nanavati was charged with the murder of his wife’s lover. The trial that followed became a media sensation thanks largely to the efforts of the Bombay tabloid, Blitz.1 Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the jury returned a verdict of innocent, which was subsequently overturned by the Bombay High Court.2 The film’s popularity testifies to the fact that the Nanavati trial still looms large in the historical memory not only of Mumbai but much of India as well. Among lawyers, judges and subsequent historians, however, the case is less well known for its lurid storyline than for the commonly held view that it was the last jury trial in India, whose perverse verdict led to the abolition of trial by jury. Yet, the history of the jury trial in India suggests that such “common knowledge” is patently false.

They Endured On

Jury trials survived well into the 1960s. As courts with original jurisdiction over criminal cases, several high courts continued to employ juries long after the Nanavati trial, as did many sessions courts. Moreover, published opinions from both the high courts and the Supreme Court reveal that those judicial bodies continued to rule on both jury trial procedures and decisions that had taken place in the high courts and sessions courts several years after Nanavati.

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