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.
The Parsi Matrimonial and Disputes Act, enacted in 1936, remained in force, giving Parsi juries the authority to grant divorces to estranged Parsi couples, although judges still decided on matters such as alimony and the custody of children. Where either party in a marriage is non-Parsi, cases are directed to the family courts that have power over all other communities. There are only a handful of Parsi marital courts left, in places such as Mumbai and Surat where the shrinking community still has sizeable populations. In Mumbai, in recent times the court has been convened twice or thrice a year, when sufficient cases pile up. The session I attended, though, was already the third this year, and a fourth was due in a few months to minimise the backlog.
Omkar Khandekar is a freelance journalist and a writer. He has worked for two Mumbai-based newspapers and has been published in two short story anthologies.