Trial By Jury In The Subcontinent

Trial By Jury In The Subcontinent

As a lawyer who is primarily involved in litigation, jury trials have always fascinated me. After seeing countless episodes of Harvey Specter in Suits influencing the jury to give a guilty or not guilty verdict as per his desire, I wonder why we don’t have jury trials in the subcontinent. After doing some research, I found out that when the English rulers introduced their laws in the subcontinent they also brought trial by jury into most parts of India. The said jury system had mixed reactions – critics were of the view that the general population of India was not fit to serve on a jury.

However, the case which led to the end of jury trials in India is one worthy of many episodes of Suits or even a blockbuster Bollywood film. My wishes did come true when I saw a 2016 Bollywood film Rustom which was based entirely on the case titled K.M. Nanavati versus State of Maharashtra. This case played a pivotal role in ending jury trials in India. The people were not seen as fit to decide the fate of their peers. It was decided that our cases would be best served if tried by a jury of one – the presiding judge. Before going on to the facts of the Nanavati case, it is important to remember that a jury, normally comprising of 12 people, only has to give a guilty or not guilty verdict and cannot dilate upon the quantum of punishment.

In 1959 K. M. Nanavati was a decorated officer and Commander in the Indian Navy. He was married to an English woman, Sylvia. While he was away on important naval assignments, his wife fell in love with his close friend Prem Ahuja. One fine morning of November 1959, Nanavati came home a week before his scheduled arrival date and found out about the affair through numerous love letters written between Ahuja and Sylvia. Thereafter, Nanavati dropped Sylvia to a cinema, went to the naval base, collected his pistol and went to Ahuja’s office. When he did not find Ahuja in the office, he went to his residence. The facts of the case, as officially reported, stated that Nanavati confronted Ahuja while he was wearing a towel and coming out of the bathroom. At that moment Nanavati asked him to marry Sylvia. Ahuja’s response was, “Will I marry every woman I sleep with?” following which, Nanavati shot Ahuja three times.

The defense’s version of the case put forth by Nanavati was that he never wanted to kill Ahuja and he only killed him in the heat of the moment and in self-defence. The defense also stated that both men got into a scuffle after which Nanavati shot him to save his life.

The prosecution’s version was that if there was a scuffle, why didn’t the towel drop or even loosen, because as a matter of fact the towel was intact on the Ahuja’s dead body. There was also no explanation of the three shots in self-defence. Finally the prosecution tried to bring home the point that it was a premeditated murder.

The crux of the case was whether Commander Nanavati shot Ahuja in the ‘heat of the moment’ or whether it was a ‘premeditated murder’. In the former scenario, Nanavati would be charged under the Indian Penal Code (which is almost the same as the Pakistan Penal Code) for culpable homicide, with a maximum punishment of 10 years. In the latter scenario he could be found guilty under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code which could entail a death penalty or life imprisonment.

It is pertinent to mention here that the incident shocked and riveted the entire country. The weekly tabloids at the time ran exclusive cover stories of the Nanavati case, portraying him as a wronged husband and upright officer who was betrayed by a close friend and unfaithful wife. At that time Nanavati had massive public sympathy as a person representing middle-class values versus Ahuja’s playboy image that symbolised the corruption and sleaze of the upper-class.

Although there was overwhelming evidence to indicate that Ahuja’s murder by Nanavati was premeditated, the jury, engulfed with the emotional state of affairs and public pressure, returned a ‘not guilty’ verdict. The High Court of Bombay and then the Supreme Court of India declared the ‘not guilty’ verdict as perverse, declared the murder to be premeditated and sentenced Nanavati to life imprisonment.

Now the relevant question is whether it was wise to abolish a system in the subcontinent which was recognized as far back as the Magna Carta in 1215 and which was widely accepted as a proper discourse of justice especially on the criminal side in the West – a more recent example of this involved a famous trial by jury a few years back when the jury in Southwark Crown Court in London rightly declared Pakistani cricketers Salman Butt and Muhammad Asif guilty of spot-fixing.

However, I personally feel that the abolition of trial by jury at least in the subcontinent was the correct decision. The jury system was specifically designed to suit the needs of the West. In a society like ours it is extremely difficult for the poor to get justice given the way things are. On top of that, having to sway 12 random members of the jury in favor of the litigants would be a cumbersome task in itself. However despite my pessimism for the jury system in Pakistan, I would have loved to enact an episode of Suits or Boston Legal before the Lahore Sessions Court.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of or any other organization with which he might be associated.

Haris Azmat

Author: Haris Azmat

The write is an Advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and Partner at Kilam Law. He tweets @harisazmat1 and can be reached at [email protected]