Editor's note: At lunchtime on 27 April 1959, naval commander Kawas Nanavati was told by his English wife Sylvia that she was having an affair with their flamboyant businessman-playboy friend, Prem Ahuja. Later that evening, armed with a revolver, Nanavati stormed Ahuja’s bedroom and shut the door behind him. Three gunshots were heard going off inside. Ahuja was dead.
Ahuja’s murder set in motion an extraordinary public frenzy – thousands descended on the streets of (then) Bombay chanting in favour of the hero Nanavati, and the jury, swept off their feet by the dazzling naval officer in the dock, returned a ‘Not Guilty’ verdict. This trial was the death knell of the jury system in India.
In a new book Bachi Karkaria gives a comprehensive account of the Nanavati case and the Constitutional crisis to which it gave birth. The following is an excerpt from the book, republished with permission from Juggernaut Books.
Nanavati heads towards the naval dockyard where the Mysore looms at. Sailors snap to attention and salute the much-admired officer. He requisitions a revolver from the ship’s gunnery on the plea that he’s going on a private road journey which might entail some personal danger. He leaves the Mysore carrying a .38 Smith and Wesson, with six rounds of ammunition, all placed in a thick, plain brown envelope with his name written neatly on it.
But he doesn’t drive to a lonely spot and blow his brains out. We see his car, with the number plate BMU 3240, speed down Marine Drive. He goes past the Babulnath temple and Hughes Road, makes a brief halt, swings past the Parsi Tower of Silence, turns left on to Nepean Sea Road, then third right into Setalvad Lane. He drives to its end, parks his car, under Jeevan Jyot’s distinctive palms, takes the brown envelope out of the glove compartment, bounds up the two flights to the Ahujas’ flat and presses hard on the doorbell.
It is answered by a servant, who says, yes, the master is home and dressing to go back to the office. Nanavati authoritatively marches into Ahuja’s bedroom, and bangs the door shut behind him.
The next bang is not that of a shutting door. Three shots ring out in the space of minutes. Mamie Ahuja, roused from her nap, comes rushing out to find Nanavati leaving her brother’s bedroom and pointing a gun at her petrified servant. Through the open door she sees her brother slumped on the floor, bleeding. She cries in something of an under-reaction, ‘What is this?’ Commander Nanavati wordlessly walks out of the flat. The building watchman tries to stop this man holding a gun. He too is waved aside with a dismissive ‘Don’t bother. I’m going myself to the police station.’
Nanavati comes out of Setalvad Lane, but doesn’t know the location of the nearest police station. He’s always been a Colaba man on the southernmost flank of South Bombay. Instead of turning left to go the way he came, he turns right, and goes up Malabar Hill. Near the rather obviously named ‘Teen Batti’ traffic signal he sees the ornate gates of Raj Bhavan, the Governor’s mansion. He asks the sentry, and is told about Gamdevi Police Station. Deciding not to go round in circles trying to find it, he heads for familiar territory: the home of the navy’s ‘head cop’, the Provost Marshal.
Commander Michael Benjamin Samuel, like the socialites of Setalvad Lane, has just stirred out of his afternoon siesta, but he’s shaken wide awake by what he hears from one of the navy’s highest-rated officers: ‘I think I have shot a man.’
‘Because he seduced my wife.’
Commander Samuel picks up the receiver of his phone, and says sombrely into it, ‘John? This is Provo Samuel. I’m sending Commander Nanavati to you. He has had a quarrel with a person, and he has shot at him.’
At Crime Branch, the Central Investigative Department’s two-storey building in the compound of the Bombay Police Commissionerate at Crawford Market, another phone on Deputy Commissioner John Lobo’s desk jangles. ‘Sir, this is DI Gautam from Gamdevi PS. There has been a shooting in our jurisdiction. A Mr P. Ahuja has been fatally injured. We are proceeding to the spot and will revert.’
The deputy inspector has followed procedure in such serious cases, alerting both the deputy commissioner of the division and the deputy commissioner, Crime Branch, CID. This ensures a pooling of resources to nab the culprit ASAP.
But the ‘culprit’ has already presented himself.
A strong voice outside demands, ‘Lobo sah’b ka kamra kahaan hai?’ (Where is Lobo sahib’s room?)
The orderly checks with the boss, and ushers in the impressive naval officer dressed in slacks and a shirt.
‘I am Commander Nanavati,’ he says in the same authoritative tone. He appears to be impatient to get a weight off his chest.
‘Yes,’ replies the deputy commissioner. ‘Your Provost Marshal called. What is the problem?’
‘I have shot a man.’
Published Date: May 04, 2017 14:04 PM | Updated Date: May 04, 2017 14:04 PM