Peer Review

India’s last jury trials

01 September 2015
Under the Parsi Matrimonial and Disputes Act, juries elected by the community can grant divorces to estranged Parsi couples.
Shikhant Sablania for the caravan
Under the Parsi Matrimonial and Disputes Act, juries elected by the community can grant divorces to estranged Parsi couples.
Shikhant Sablania for the caravan

On the morning of 3 July, in courtroom 46 of the Bombay High Court, all eyes were on a female Parsi plaintiff in her early forties, seated in the witness box. The defendant, her Parsi husband, contesting a petition for divorce, was slumped on the back benches. “Would you be willing to go back to the marriage?” the defendant’s lawyer asked the aggrieved wife. “You have a choice of saying yes, no, or that you can’t answer at the moment. No reasons need to be given for this,” the judge instructed her. She leaned into a microphone: “No.”

Directly across from the witness, an all-Parsi jury of two men and three women looked on from behind two tables serving as a temporary jury box. The forewoman smiled, and shared her thoughts with her colleagues through a relay of whispers. Soon after, the defence lawyer delivered concluding remarks, with an allegation: the plaintiff’s testimony was false, and the divorce application a calculated means to secure alimony.

For the first ten days of July, this jury was a prominent and unusual fixture in the wood-panelled courtroom. Its five members heard 26 cases, all matrimonial disputes from within the Parsi community. Jury trials were common at criminal trials in sessions courts across the country, until the 1959 case of KM Nanavati vs State of Maharashtra. Nanavati, a naval officer, shot and killed his wife’s lover. Amid unprecedented media attention, a jury ruled that Nanavati was guilty of culpable homicide rather than the more grevious charge of premeditated murder. That decision was overturned by the Bombay High Court, and juries were abolished—with one exception.

Omkar Khandekar is a journalist from Mumbai, and an alumnus of Cardiff University. His reporting from India, the Maldives and the United Kingdom has appeared in numerous publications, including The CaravanOpen and Scroll.

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