Until 16 May 2008, Noida was most notorious for being the site of the Nithari serial killings. But that morning, a crime would be committed that would remain a media craze for a decade and counting; the media would play detective, witness, judge and jury. It went on through the investigation, as various suspects were found – three members of the help from the neighbourhood; the victim’s parents – and persisted through the trial of her parents, their conviction, acquittal and release. And this will continue until the killer is found, if ever.
The Aarushi murder case was a botched investigation – evidence was contaminated and lost; conclusions were reached with no proof; it was conducted practically live on television, with scant regard for the case being sub judice; and it was botched by the police, the Central Bureau of Investigation, as well as by the media. All three substituted the presumption of innocence for the presumption of guilt, and celebrated when the justice system agreed. Four years after the Talwars were convicted and sentenced to life, the Allahabad High Court reversed the conviction and acquitted them.
This has become the final phase thus far in the media’s bursts of breathless interest in the case, which has spiked at distinct junctures: the time of the murder, when suspicion fell on Rajesh Talwar, when they were convicted, when Avirook Sen’s book Aarushi renewed the debate, and now.
In 2008, I was working in television in Delhi. I remember the excitement of rookie journalists who were covering their first murder, of veteran journalists who were thrilled at a press-loving police investigating team – so press-loving that they called the media within an hour of their arrival on the scene, before Aarushi’s body was taken for post-mortem.
As the media conducted walkthroughs of the house, and took photographs so that their channels and newspapers and websites could generate 3D models of the home, complete with gory sketches of a girl lying in her own blood, the crime scene was naturally contaminated.
The prime suspect at the time, the Talwars’ live-in help Hemraj, was found dead and decomposing on the terrace two days later – not by the official investigators but by a neighbour, retired DSP K K Gautam. No one has offered an explanation for why a neighbour was allowed to indulge in disaster tourism.
Either because of the contamination of the scene or their own incompetence, the doctors who conducted the post-mortems on the two victims gave bizarre testimonies. Dr. Sunil Dohre’s post-mortem report on Aarushi was changed several times during the investigation and trial. Dr. Naresh Raj, who conducted the post-mortem on Hemraj, concluded during the trial that the latter’s engorged penis was proof of pre-mortem sexual activity, citing the “experience of [his own] marriage” as evidence.
The police held press conferences every day, brandishing clues and conclusions in a poor imitation of detective serials – “The throat was cut with surgical precision, so the murderer must have medical training”; “The murder weapon was a golf club, so the murderer must play golf”.
Gurdarshan Singh, the IGP in charge of the police investigation, termed the murder an “honour killing” on the morning of May 23, 2008, announcing that the father and daughter were “of poor character”. And there began the character analyses and assassinations – the ubiquitous “sources who wished to remain anonymous” suggested the Talwar home was a palace of sin, insinuating extramarital affairs and sexual abuse. For the record, the police investigators also thought the “sleepover” Aarushi had planned for May 19 was some sort of orgy. Also for the record, a 13-year-old cannot have a “love affair” which ends in an “honour killing”, because a child cannot consent, as her educated parents would know.
Rajesh Talwar was arrested, and the media began his trial even as he was being produced before a judge.
“Did you kill Aarushi? Did you kill your daughter? Why did you kill Aarushi?” they screamed at the bereaved father.
The reasoning of the police and the media was the same: Who but the Talwars could have done it? They were home, so they must be guilty.
Arun Kumar, the CBI Joint Director who took over the investigation in May 31, 2008, had a theory – Hemraj’s friend Krishna Thadaraj, an employee at the Talwars’ dental clinic and their prime suspect after Hemraj’s body was discovered, had a grudge because Rajesh Talwar had threatened to fire him; Kumar also brought in Krishna’s friends Rajkumar and Vijay Mandal, who worked in the houses of other neighbours.
The media was having none of it, particularly after Rajesh Talwar was released from jail on July 11, 2008, after having spent weeks without bail.
It was too easy, they said. The Talwars had resorted to that crime fiction cliché, “The butler did it”, and paid everyone off to agree, because they were “influential”.
And there began a debate on class. The rich people could get away with murder because they could throw money and power around.
But the class debate was not about money alone. It was about the English-speaking elite versus the Hindi speakers. Hindi-speaking elite from the law enforcement would appear on primetime news shows, discussing the vaginal swabs of a murdered child. They would posit the theory that these “rich people” who had allegedly imported the corrupt Western concept of the open marriage were also capable of that traditional South Asian brand of vigilantism, the “honour killing”. Truth did not matter. TRPs did.
Soon, news channels pressured Nupur Talwar into a television appearance, and her stoicism became evidence of her complicity in her daughter’s murder. Socialite and tabloid specialist Shobha De wrote an asinine article, terming the Talwars “monster parents”. Psychiatrists were interviewed on news channels, to decide on the acceptable quantum of grief a bereaved parent must show.
In September 2009, A G L Kaul took over the investigation, and seems to have worked backwards from the personal conviction that the Talwars were guilty, building a case that would be tailored towards the end he envisioned. He was happy for the media to be involved, and took his cues from the media too – the mother who had not shown enough grief, Nupur Talwar, became an accused in the murder. As Avirook Sen’s 2015 book details, Kaul took to playing mind games with the Talwars, creating the baffling email ID “firstname.lastname@example.org” for official communication with them.
The media simultaneously conducted its own trial. They pored over timelines, detailing when the internet was switched on, debating why Aarushi’s room was locked at night, and refusing to believe Nupur Talwar when she said she may have left the key in the door that particular night.
At this time, arguably the only non-judgemental account of the events of the night and after appeared in Patrick French’s book India: A Portrait.
The trial of the Talwars in a CBI special court took bizarre turns, with a police photographer turning witness for the prosecution. The gleeful hypotheses that rang out on television prime time culminated in their conviction and sentencing on November 25-26, 2013. Lawyers ran out with victory signs to inform the media that the Talwars had been convicted. India Today in its report at the time called the murder “the most controversial and captivating” of our times – the phrase betraying the voyeurism of the press coverage. The CBI special court judge Shyam Lal has been quoted as saying: “Parents are the best protectors of their own children. That is the order of the human nature, but there have been freaks in the history of mankind where the father and the mother became the killer of their own progeny.”
Bisecting the conviction and the acquittal was a book on the case which has been called “definitive” and thoroughly researched by those who believed the Talwars were innocent; it has been called “prejudiced” at best, and “paid journalism” at worst by those who believed they were guilty. Those who were aware that a reporter’s job is to report and not build a case were baffled by the story of the investigation as recounted in Avirook Sen’s Aarushi.
The book reopened the debate. People read it in line with their beliefs. Why had Sen not spoken to the families of the domestic help, some asked. Some took issue with Sen’s account of the judge’s grammatical-and-semantic-error-rich bombast.
I had known Sen was writing the book for a while. This calls for a necessary full disclosure: Avirook Sen hired me for a news channel in 2007, but his stint with the channel ended before I had the chance to really work with him. However, I do know how much importance he places on research. In reading Aarushi, which was otherwise so complete, I did wish he had interviewed Hemraj’s family and those of the three other suspects – Krishna, Rajkumar, and Vijay – but I do believe that they were not willing to speak to him. The families were quite keen to speak to journalists who were convinced the Talwars were guilty. Not so much those who were convinced of the opposite – or like Manu Joseph, convinced that nobody knew, except the murderer(s) themselves.
In his column, written shortly after Sen’s book was released, Manu Joseph calls the police and CBI’s work a “criminal investigation that was a game between sad, mysterious, cruel, psychotic and spineless people”, one that would have been rejected as journalistic investigation by “say the New York Times citing lack of substance”, but was enough to convict two people in Indian courts. He went on to say “the State and the society have given an unspoken approval to the police to make up for its investigative incompetence by suspending human rights and liberty, and break laws to achieve what it cannot through, ‘industry, impartiality, integrity,’ which is rumoured to be its motto.”
The book speaks in detail of Rajesh Talwar’s trauma in jail, his horror at the bathrooms, his being conned by a fixer, his being handcuffed to the man he believed killed his daughter – Krishna. This was enough for the naysayers to call the book elitist. The addition of Rajesh Talwar’s diary entries to the book convinced them it was prejudiced.
On NDTV’s “The Big Fight” of September 19, 2015, Avirook Sen appeared along with Aarushi’s aunt Vandana Talwar, former DG of police Vikram Singh, columnist Rajyasree Sen, and journalists Nalini Singh and Rana Ayyub. It turns into a shouting match, as prime time shows are designed to, but those who are convinced there was a miscarriage of justice are far more coherent and come across as more informed than the others, who spout generalisations and quote proverbs in response to the show host’s questions.
The Talwars continued to be vilified, even as they lived a quiet life in Dasna Jail, keeping sane by establishing a dental practice to treat their fellow inmates, police personnel and their relatives for free.
From November 26, 2013, to October 16, 2017, the Talwars would remain in jail – except for a three-week reprieve granted to Nupur Talwar to arrange for medical help for her ailing mother, after a six-week battle with the courts in late 2016.
On October 12, 2017, the Allahabad High Court delivered its verdict on the Talwars’ appeal against their conviction.
In the judgement, Justice A. K. Mishra not only dismissed the salacious theories in the post-mortem report, but also said the statements of key prosecution witnesses such as Bharti Mandal were “full of contradictions, embellishments and material improvements which are result of tutoring” and the witness Sanjay Chauhan was “planted”. The judgement concludes that evidence – such as photographs of Hemraj’s body on the terrace and of the two pillow covers from Aarushi’s and Krishna’s rooms, as well as the results of a sound simulation test – were “deliberately” concealed. Justice Mishra, who had some scathing comments for the CBI, also likened special court judge Shyam Lal to “a film director trying to thrust coherence into scattered facts”.
So great is the ineptitude of the CBI that the Talwars would be in jail for four days following the acquittal, because of a “delay” in the paperwork – a copy of the verdict – reaching the jail.
When two innocents, who happen to be the victim’s parents, are lodged in jail for four years, one would expect at least embarrassment, if not guilt, from those responsible for putting them there.
However, the CBI has suggested after the verdict that the guilty – as its officers believe the Talwars are – had “got away scot-free”, and shifted the blame for the reversal of the conviction on the UP police, for not looking after the evidence.
While some columnists began the self-flagellation ritual, most news channels obstinately refused to respect the acquittal, flashing such slugs as “No One Killed Aarushi”. Talking heads including prime time poster boy K T S Tulsi theorised that a “favourable verdict” could have been wrung had the CBI filed charges of manslaughter rather than murder.
The media, in keeping with the gruesomeness of its coverage, even asked the Talwars’ lawyer Rebecca Mammen John whether she felt empathy for them because her mother had been murdered. Would she hug them when they left jail, they asked.
Shohini Ghosh, a professor at Jamila Millia Islamia, had referred to the investigating agencies and mainstream media as “peculiar bedfellows”. It appears low IQ is contagious.
Through the weekend, various “sources” told the media the Talwars would reach home by noon. As news crews waited impatiently outside Dasna Jail, the order was delivered only at 4:30 pm on October 16. Formalities including the filing of their security bonds followed, and it was nearly 6:00 pm when they finally walked out of jail.
Cameramen swarmed around them, to capture the all important image of their leaving. Over the last nine years, there have been several images of the couple sitting inside cars, broken, the reflections of wild-eyed cameramen capturing the latter’s expressions in all their voyeuristic glory.
This time, they paused for the shutterbugs, so that they would not be assaulted yet again.
But the photography session did not end there. The story would not be complete without an image of the Talwars reaching home. Only, the media could not be sure to which home they were headed. Naturally, reporters would be stationed everywhere – the Noida flat where Aarushi was murdered, the Delhi home into which the Talwars had moved during their trial, the homes of relatives and friends.
It was past 8:00 pm when the Talwars completed the 40-odd kilometre journey from the jail to the home of Nupur’s parents. PTI’s report, picked up by most news outlets, observed, “Nupur Talwar breaks down as she enters Noida home after release.”
In all likelihood, they woke up to news crews hoping for another press conference, after Rajesh’s brother Dinesh had obliged them the previous evening. Their plans for a pilgrimage are already front page headlines.
They will never be the sad-faced couple who look vaguely familiar as they try to piece their lives back together. They will never just be bereaved parents. They will never be anonymous. Will they be able to leave the spectre of the media trial behind them? Is our media capable of refraining from hounding them on the anniversaries of the murder, the conviction, the acquittal, for specials like “Aarushi: 10 years later” and “Aarushi: 20 years later”? Can they restart a dental practice with the confidence that a brick will not be thrown through their windows, that one of their “patients” will not be carrying a knife?
In Shakespeare’s King Lear, Edgar says: “Oh, gods! Who can ever say, ‘This is as bad as it can get’? I’m worse off now than ever before. And worse I may be yet. The worst is not so long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’”
You’d think waking up one morning in your daughter’s birthday week to find her dead is the worst.