Sometimes, I wonder why some Indian films have such boring stories. We are a land rich in source material, especially if you were to get into the real stories this country has to offer. Yes, it’s a cliché but India is a great example of how often fact is stranger than fiction. The Indian Judicial System is a treasure trove of such stories. Here are some of the most important and influential cases in Indian history. Read on.
1. K.M. Nanavati vs State of Maharashtra (1959)
This case was the last time there was a jury trial in India. KM Nanavati, a naval officer, murdered his wife’s lover, Prem Ahuja. A jury trial was held to decide whether it was a crime of passion (carrying a ten year sentence) or pre-meditated murder (life imprisonment) to which Nanavati plead ‘not guilty’. The jury ruled in favour of him but the verdict was dismissed by the Bombay High Court and the case was retried as a bench trial.
2. State of Orissa vs Ram Bahadur Thapa (1959)
This is a bizarre one. Ram Bahadur Thapa was the servant of one J.B. Chatterjee of Chatterjee Bros. firm in Calcutta. They had come to Rasogovindpur, a village in Balasore district in Orissa to purchase aeroscrap from an abandoned aerodrome outside the village. Because it was abandoned, the locals believed it was haunted. This piqued the curiosity of Chatterjee who wanted to “see the ghosts”. At night, as they were making their way to the aerodrome they saw a flickering light within the premises which, due to the strong wind, seemed to move. They thought it was will-o’-the-wisp . Thapa jumped into action as he unleashed his khukri to attack the “ghosts”. Turns out, they were local adivasi women with a hurricane lantern who had gathered under a mohua tree to collect some flowers. Thapa’s indiscriminate hacking caused the death of one Gelhi Majhiani and injured two other women. The Sessions court judge however, acquitted Thapa declaring that his actions were the result of a stern belief in ghosts and that in the moment, Thapa believed that they were lawfully justified.
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3. Mathura Rape Case (1972)
This is one of the most important cases in the country, because the protests that followed the verdict, forced some important changes in rape laws in India. Mathura, a young tribal woman, was raped by two constables within the premises of the Desai Ganj Police Station in Chandrapur district of Maharashtra. The Sessions court judge found the accused not guilty. The reasoning behind this was (believe it or not) that Mathura was habituated to sexual intercourse. This, according to the judge, clearly implied that the sexual act in the police station was consensual. The amendments to the law that were forced by the protests got one thing right – submission does not mean consent.
4. Kesavananda Bharti vs State of Kerala
If there’s one reason India can still call itself ‘the world’s largest democracy’, it is this case. Swami Kesavananda Bharti ran a Hindu Mutt in Edneer village in Kerala but the state wanted to appropriate the land. Bharti, who was consulted by noted jurist Nanabhoy Palhkivala, filed a petition claiming that a religious institution had the right to run its business without government interference. The State invoked Article 31 which states ” no person shall be deprived of his property save by authority of law. ” A bench of 13 judges deliberated on the facts of the case and through a narrow 7-6 majority, formulated the Basic Structure Doctrine, which puts some restrictions to how much the Parliament can amend the Constitutional laws. In many ways, the judgement here is considered to be a big middle finger to the then Central government under Indira Gandhi. Soon after, the emergency followed.
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5. NALSA vs Union of India (2014)
This is the landmark decision by the Supreme Court of India which declared that Transgendered People were the ‘third gender’ and that they had equal rights as any other gender. The petitioner in this case was the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA).
6. Mohd. Ahmed Khan vs Shah Bano Begum (1985)
62-year old mother of five, Shah Bano Begum was divorced by her husband, Mohd. Ahmed Khan. She filed a criminal suit against him in the Supreme Court and claimed alimony, which was then granted to her. But then the Islamic orthodoxy protested the judgement claiming the practice of granting alimony as anti-Islamic. The Congress government, which was in power back then, succumbed to the pressure and passed the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986 which diluted the Supreme Court judgement and further denied destitute Muslim divorcees the right to alimony from their ex-husbands. This case is regularly mentioned during talks about ‘Uniform Civil Code’ in the country.
7. Lal Bihari Identity Case (1975-1994)
Lal Bihari, was born in 1955; was dead through 1975 to 1994, and since then he has been an activist. Yes, you read that right. His uncle had bribed government officials to declare him dead so as to inherit their ancenstral land, and so, as per official records, Mr Lal Bihari was registered as ‘deceased’. Once he realized what had happened, he started his struggle against the Indian bureaucracy to prove that he was alive. In the meantime, he performed his mock funeral, asked for widow’s compensation for his wife, stood in the election against Rajiv Gandhi in 1989 and even added a ‘ Mritak ‘ to his name. As of now, he heads an organization that tries to handle similar identity cases for people who have been officially declared dead but are actually still alive.
8. Bhawal Case (1921-1946)
It’s still regarded as one of India’s weirdest identity cases. It mainly revolved around a possible impostor who claimed to be the prince of Bhawal Estate, one which comprised over 2000 villages and was one of undivided Bengal’s largest zamindari estates. Ramendra, the second kumar of the Bhawal estate died in the early 20th century, but there were rumours about him not really being dead. Ten years later, in 1921, a sanyaasi who looked a lot like Ramendra was found wandering the streets of Dhaka. For some reason, the former tenants and farmers of Ramendra vouched for this man and also supported his claim to the title. Almost everyone except Ramendra’s widow, Bibhabati, believed him. There was a long legal process involving two trials where both sides attempted to prove their claims. In the meantime, the new Ramendra also moved to Calcutta and where he was welcomed in the elite circles. He used to regularly collect 1/3rd of the estate revenue, which was his share. He used that money to support his lifestyle while also paying the legal fees of the case. In the end, in 1946, the court finally ruled in his favour, but soon after that he passed away due to a stroke he had suffered a couple of days earlier.
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9. Tarakeswar Case (1874)
This case was so (for lack of a better word) ‘popular’, that authorities had to sell tickets to let people come inside the sessions court. And the story itself is nothing short of a blockbuster. Nobin Chandra slit the throat of his 16-year old wife, Elokeshi, who was apparently having an affair with the mahant of the local Tarakeswar temple. Even though Nobin Chandra handed himself over to the police and confessed his crime, the locals were mostly on his side. The police had to let him go after two years, even though he was serving a life imprisonment while the mahant was arrested and put behind bars for three years. Alternatively, there were also rumours that the mahant had raped Elokeshi on the pretext of helping her out with “fertility issues”. This case was really important for that time period because this was seen by the society as one of those moments where the British rulers meddled in the affairs of the Bengali bhadralok and a temple priest, something that was very rare back in those days.
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10. Vishakha and Others vs. State of Rajasthan (1997)
Before the Vishakha Guidelines came in, the workplace was dangerous for many women especially in case of sexual harassment. In 1992, Bhanwari Devi was gang-raped by upper caste men in her village because she tried to raise her voice against child-marriage. Due to gross negligence, the vaginal swabs collected from her body were taken 48 hours after the incident. Ideally, it should be done so within 24 hours. Shockingly, the judge presiding over her case (this was the seventh judge after six others were removed) acquitted the accused, even going so far to say, ” Since the offenders were upper-caste men and included a brahmin, the rape could not have taken place because Bhanwari was from a lower caste. ” Following the outrage over this acquittal, Vishakha and some other women’s groups filed a PIL against the State of Rajasthan and the Union of India, forcing the latter to adopt the Vishakha Guidelines which now protects working women all over the country.
These are just a few cases that we thought were important and/or influential in India’s history. There may very well be other examples and we shall always welcome our readers suggesting some of the best ones we might have missed.
Hat tip to Amartya Kanjilal for additional research.