Author: Mr Syed Aatif
Indian criminal jurisprudence has evolved over the years on the basis of various landmark judicial pronouncements. One such case that plays a big role in altering that course is the landmark judgement of K.M. Nanavati v. State of Maharashtra. This case changed the judicial perspective of holding a person guilty for the offence of murder under the Indian Penal Code and the scope of the first exception to the provision -‘grave and sudden provocation’.
This paper shall present an analysis of this landmark judgment of the apex court.
Nanavati, an Indian Naval officer, shifted to Bombay in 1959 and got acquainted with a businessman there, Prem Ahuja. While he was out for his duty, Sylvia, his wife, developed an illicit relation with Prem. He was then confronted with the confession of his wife of her illicit relation. In the heat of the moment, he went to his ship to get his revolver and drove to Prem Ahuja’s workplace. On not finding him there, he went to his residence. After an altercation, at his residence, two shots went off and hit the deceased. The case was heard by the jury who voted in favour of the accused. The case was then referred to the Bombay High Court under Section 307 of the CrPC, 1898. The Division Bench held the accused guilty under Section 302 IPC. An appeal before the Supreme Court was finally decided wherein the accused was held guilty of the offence under Section 302.
The case mainly revolved around two issues. The first involving the procedural aspect wherein the Sessions Judge referred the case to the Hon’ble Bombay High Court under Section 307 CrPC, 1898. The Sessions Judge was in disagreement with the decision of the jury that had declared Nanavati innocent despite evidence being adduced in forms of letters establishing relation between the deceased Ahuja and Sylvia.
On appeal to the High Court it was argued on behalf of the appellant that under Section 307 it was incumbent on the High Court to decide the competency of the reference by Honourable Sessions Court. It was finally held that the contentions were without substance and appeal must fail. Section 307(3) of the Code by empowering the High Court either to acquit or convict the accused after considering the entire evidence, giving due weight to the opinion of the Sessions Judge and the jury, virtually conferred the functions both of the jury and the Judge on it.
Another pertinent issue that arose in this case was of mens rea and the scope of the first exception to Section 300 IPC, grave and sudden provocation.
A criminal offence is only committed when an act, which is forbidden by law, is done voluntarily. English jurists give the name of mens rea to the volition which is the motive force behind the criminal act. If there is no mens rea, no offence is committed although the act may prove detrimental to an individual or individuals. It is only voluntary acts which amount to offences. If a person is compelled by force of circumstances to perform an act forbidden by law, he cannot be said to do it voluntarily and therefore, he will not be held liable for the consequences of that act.
Beg J., in Girja Nath v. State while explaining the juristic concept of crime, says
Mens rea is a loose term of elastic signification and covers a wide range of mental states and conditions, the existence of which would give a criminal hue to actus reus. Sometimes it is used to refer to a foresight of the consequences of the act and at other times to act per se irrespective of its consequences. In some cases it stands for a criminal intention of the deepest dye, such as is visible in a designed and premeditated murder committed with a full foresight of its fatal consequences.
In other cases, it connotes mental conditions of a weaker shade such as are indicated by words like knowledge, belief, criminal negligence or even rashness in disregard of consequences. At other times, it is used to indicate a colourless consciousness of the act itself irrespective of the consequences of the act, or, in other words, a bare capacity to know what one is doing as contrasted, for example, with a condition of insanity or intoxication in which a man is unable to know the nature of the act.
The Nanavati verdict is a bench mark in Indian criminal jurisprudence when we talk of the issue of mens rea. The prosecution in this case argued that it was a planned murder. The act of the accused going to the navy ship, procuring a gun along with six cartridges and then carrying them all in a brown envelope clearly highlighted his intention to conceal the fact that he was planning a murder.
Moreover, it was proven by the prosecution through witnesses that accused lied to the ship crew that he was going to drive to Ahmednagar and thus, carrying a pistol for his own safety. Moreover, his surrendering to the police reaffirmed the pre-meditated murder. The defence on the other hand argued that on knowing about the illicit relationship between his wife and the deceased, the accused got provoked and the murder was an act of grave and sudden provocation. Thus the accused was entitled to protection under the first exception to Section 300.
The Apex court in this matter (K M Nanavati Case) summarised the principle of “grave and sudden provocation” as:
- The test of “grave and sudden” provocation is whether a reasonable man, belonging to the same class of society as that of the accused, placed in the same situation would be provoked so as to lose his self-control.
- In India, words and gestures may also, under particular circumstances, cause grave and sudden provocation to an accused so as to bring his act within the first exception to Section 300.
- The mental status created by the previous act of the victim may be taken into consideration while deciding the guilt of the accused.
- The fatal blow should be clearly traced to the influence of passion arising from that provocation and not after the passion has cooled down by lapse of time, or otherwise giving scope for premeditation and calculation.
The court held that to invoke the protection under the exception of ‘grave and sudden’ provocation, the act of murder must be directly related to that ‘sudden’ provocation and not once the mind has cooled down. Thus, this case re-established the principle of mens rea in punishing a person for an offence under the IPC.
The Nanavati judgement is a benchmark in Indian criminal jurisprudence. It answered some very peculiar questions that revolve around crime and guilty mind. The case established the fact that to hold a person guilty for the offence of murder the only fact necessary to establish is mens rea and the absence of the same will protect the accused from the punishment under Section 302.
About the Author: Mr Aatif is a practicing Advocate in the Supreme Court. He can be reached at s.aatif23[at]rediffmail.com
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