The Nanavati Case

The case of a Sindhi lover catapulted Ram Jethmalani’s name into the press. In 1959, an affair developed between Sylvia, the wife of a decorated Parsi naval officer, Commander Kawas Nanavati, and a 34-year-old Sindhi playboy, Prem Ahuja. As Ram tells the story, Prem was carrying on at the same time with two other women, an army wife and an air force wife.

Sylvia was “a fantastic beauty”, and the susceptible Prem fell for her. When Nanavati found out about the affair, he went to confront Prem at his house. Prem was clad in nothing but a towel. Whatever transpired would become a subject of cross-examination in court, but at the conclusion, Nanavati shot him.

He then went promptly to the police station to turn himself in. Ram quotes a Supreme Court justice, “Nanavati was an honest man until he met his lawyers.”

Ram did not represent either side. He had no right of audience nor did the court officially recognise his presence in the courtroom. He did have what is called a “watching brief” from Prem’s sister, Mamie Ahuja, who knew him by his reputation. Ram’s role was “to protect the interests of the deceased”, and to assist C.M. Trivedi, the public prosecutor in the trial court. Later his job was to assist Y.V. Chandrachud, the public pleader in the High Court.

Ram was seen in the courtroom, recognised, and watched closely by the press, especially Blitz, a newspaper started in 1941 by a Parsi editor, Rustom Karanjia. Not surprisingly, Blitz strongly supported the Parsi Commander Nanavati in its lurid weekly articles from December 2, 1961 to January 13, 1962.

The press was fascinated by the story of Ram the puppeteer pulling the strings. Everyone in Bombay bought Blitz, and they all read about Ram, the Sindhi lawyer behind the scenes. Ram calls this “the most important milestone of my career”.

The case started at the Greater Bombay Sessions Court. Ram prepped Trivedi carefully before the trial, but to his shock, in his opening statement Trivedi pulled back, suggested that it was not a murder but culpable homicide with sudden provocation, which had a maximum penalty of 10 years, as contrasted with premeditated murder, which is punishable by death or life imprisonment. Observers believed that bribes had exchanged hands.

Ram wanted out of the case, but a repentant Trivedi crawled back to him for help. Now Trivedi followed the line of cross-examination that Ram had prepared for him. Notably, he asked the surgeon on the stand why Prem would start the alleged fight without his glasses on and how the two protagonists could have got into such a scuffle that the gun could go off accidentally while a towel remained wrapped around Prem’s waist, undisturbed. In the newspapers, Ram was credited with developing the theatrical cross-examination.

Public sympathy, whipped up by Blitz, was on the side of Nanavati, the brave naval officer, the wronged husband, a handsome figure in court, resplendent in full uniform and decorations. Rumour had it that one female juror winked at him.

Another story was that Parsi girls wrote messages to jurors in lipstick. He was acquitted eight to one. Even the judge thought the verdict was perverse and that the jury had shown bias. The judge himself referred the case to the High Court.

Ram had crafted the arguments that enabled the judge to send the case up to the High Court. Now the High Court had to agree that the verdict was perverse, and in this case the High Court itself questioned how it could void a jury verdict.

Using Ram’s arguments, the government, represented by Y.V. Chandrachud, explained that the lower court judge had given misleading instructions to the jury and hence it was not necessary to show perversity. The argument was that a judge can defer from a jury verdict and send a case to a High Court only if a jury verdict was perverse, but the test of perversity only applies to a jury verdict if the jury was properly charged. As to the charge in this case, however, Ram identified eight instances of misdirection, and these arguments were presented very ably by Chandrachud.

The High Court held Nanavati guilty. The Supreme Court dismissed the appeal and upheld the verdict of life imprisonment. This case inspired two books and a movie. It was also fictionalised in Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie

The history of jury trials in India was quite limited at it was confined to a handful of cities in the country and that, too, in serious criminal cases only. As a result of this case, however, legislation was passed ensuring that there were no more jury trials in India.

After serving several years in prison, Nanavati still had strong supporters, and Ram became involved again. Bhai Pratap, an old Sindhi freedom fighter from the time of Independence, now a wealthy businessman, was in prison for alleged smuggling. Thanks to his political connections and the efforts of one Sindhi leader who wanted him released, his record was re-examined.

The conclusion was that the prosecution had made a mistake, and he was innocent. The government hoped to pardon Pratap and Nanavati together, but they needed the Sindhi community to agree. It helped that Pratap also was a friend of Ram’s.

An attorney, Rajni Patel, a friend of Krishna Menon, walked into Ram’s Bombay apartment one day with the beauteous Sylvia to tell him the circumstances and to say that two Parsi secretaries  in the government wanted to pardon Nanavati.

To do so though, they needed a letter of assent from Prem’s sister, Mamie Ahuja. They asked Ram to convince her to accept the pardon. Ram went to Mamie and she agreed. After it all, Kawas Nanavati and Sylvia reconciled and moved to Canada.

The Indira Nagpal Case

The first high-profile case that Ram and Srichand (Sri) Bhagwandas did together was of another lover, a sadhu who seduced and abducted 29-year-old Indira Nagpal. Indira was the daughter-in-law of a wealthy, pious family who owned a building that housed a temple on the ground floor. A long-haired 22-year-old sadhu used to hold regular religious meetings in the temple, attracting the notice of the daughter-in-law, as well as numerous other women and even men, all of whom apparently found him fascinating.

One night the sadhu came up to Indira’s sixth-floor room and seduced her. After that, Indira disappeared, and the family reported a missing person to the Azad Police Station. Normally this would not impress the police, since Bombay has many missing persons, but fortunately, one of the family’s drivers volunteered that he had seen Indira go into a car driven by the sadhu.

The police and Sri waited all night at the sadhu’s house, and they arrested him as soon as he appeared. On first questioning, the sadhu denied any knowledge of Indira’s whereabouts. After “extreme third degree” he remembered more and he led them to her. She was staying with an elderly woman, the sadhu’s accomplice, in Ghatkopar, and she pretended to be in a trance, not even recognising her husband or father-in-law, and not aware of where she was.

On the way to the police station, Sri told her to continue her act and to tell the police that she did not know what she was doing in that house. An accomplished liar and actress, according to Sri, she recited her story perfectly.

The case went to court with the charge of abduction. Sri and Ram were appointed public prosecutors. One important witness was a newspaper editor from Pune, who testified that the sadhu had claimed to have supernatural powers — he could drive from Bombay to Pune in three minutes. Another was a man who testified that his 70-year-old mother was so taken by the sadhu that she insisted he give the sadhu Rs one lakh.

The sadhu clearly was a con man who seduced for sex or money. He now feigned a breakdown, and court had to be adjourned.

In a side conversation during the court procedures, the sadhu revealed to his lawyers that he had taken Indira to the Apollo Hotel next to the Regal Cinema many times, and she had performed a certain service on him, believing she was servicing a “Shiva lingam”.

When the police went to the hotel, the frightened staff confirmed that they had given the sadhu a room numerous times without registering it on the hotel registry. The Nagpal family drivers also confirmed they had driven Indira there and waited for her many times. The sadhu crowed that this proved it was an elopement, not an abduction.

The magistrate first agreed to let the sadhu out on Rs 20,000 bail for the rest of the trial, but when he asked him where he lived, the sadhu answered vaguely, “I live in the Himalayas.” Bail was cancelled.

The sessions court sentenced the sadhu to 18 months on top of the 18 months he had already served. An appeal to the High Court failed, as did an appeal to the Supreme Court when the husband and father-in-law threatened to commit suicide out of shame if the Supreme Court ruled it was a case of elopement.

The case went on for two years. Crowds of observers had to be turned away from the courtroom every day. People came from as far as 800 kilometres away to watch. The Press revelled in the daily details. In the end, his honour salvaged by the opinion that it was an abduction, Indira’s husband took her back.

Excerpted with permission from The Rebel: A biography of Ram Jethmalani, Susan Adelman, Penguin Books India.