The scenes that unfolded on TV channel after TV channel the day the Allahabad high court acquitted Nupur and Rajesh Talwar of the murder of their daughter Aarushi and servant Hemraj, were nothing short of scandalous.
I don’t mean the lurid hash-tagged headlines out of pulp fiction like No One Killed Aarushi and Aarushi Wants Justice, or the stampede to secure quotes from the Talwars’ family, because these rites of TRP worship are now so standard that they don’t provoke more than mild disgust. What was scandalous was the sight of former CBI officials, other policeman and, worst of all, some of the country’s leading lawyers, none of whom had read the judgment (it was released the following day) peddling innuendo, partisan arguments and plain lies to suggest the Talwars were still guilty even if it couldn’t be proved.
Sample this from criminal lawyer Satish Maneshinde: “One thing I am certain is that the parents were the only ones in the house when the murder took place, apart from Hemraj. There is no evidence left in the entire scene of crime to accuse someone else.” And the poor man began to reiterate the prosecution’s case, all the discredited claims about washed bloodstains and tell-tale golf clubs.
Retired police officer Maxwell Pereira said: “I do believe that there is no other suspect,” but mused that it might have been a case of manslaughter rather than murder. The lawyer K.T.S. Tulsi also suggested the case could be repackaged as something other than murder, while still managing to character-assassinate a dead girl. “Let us assume,” he said, “that some parent finds their daughter in a compromising position and they swing a danda… which hits the back of the head, it won’t be murder.” It would have been funny if it wasn’t proof of the prejudice the Talwars face, even after their acquittal.
More surreal was the number of apologists for the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), led by its ex-director A.P. Singh, on a day it lost a big case. The CBI had apparently done a “professional job”, but was hamstrung by a botched investigation by the UP police who lost physical evidence. The apologists strained to imply that the Allahabad high court had given the Talwars the “benefit of doubt” only because of “gaps” in the evidence, and to suggest parity between this judgment and a murky closure report, full of suggestions about the guilt of the Talwars, filed by the CBI in 2010. (It was not accepted in court, and the case was sent to trial.) Lawyer Aryama Sundaram declared: “What the high court has found is exactly what the CBI said in its closure report, that the evidence is not sufficient to convict.”
The only proper answer to all this is: read the judgment. No one reading it will think it half-hearted or believe that the CBI ran a professional investigation. Instead you might be left wondering if there is a case for suing the CBI. The judgment does not just pick at “gaps” in the prosecution’s case – it rips it apart, piece by piece, in a painstaking pedantic way, disbelieving the motive, disputing the reconstruction of the crime, discounting the testimony of key prosecution witnesses and tossing out the murder weapon – yes, the infamous golf club no. 5.
Far from regarding the Talwars as the only suspects, as the CBI did in its closure report, this judgment asserts that “there was clinching evidence on record that pointed at the presence of outsiders in the flat of Talwars in the intervening night of May 15/16 2008”.
The Talwars once told me, in an interview in Dasna Jail, that they couldn’t bring themselves to read the judgement of the trial court judge, Shyam Lal, who sentenced them to life imprisonment in 2013. If they did so, they would just burst out crying. What haunted them most was the character assassination of their 13-year-old daughter through the trial. As Nupur put it, “What has been projected onto her is unbelievable, they have judged her, her young life, the world at large has judged her and decided things about her.”
There is much to comfort them in this judgment, which discredits the story spun by the CBI and lapped up by an avid media, that Aarushi was killed by her parents because they caught her having sex with the family’s middle-aged manservant. The infamous post-mortem reports, embellished over the years to bolster the claim that Hemraj and Aarushi had engaged in sexual activity, “do not inspire confidence and no credibility can be attached to the same”, the court says. As for the trial judge, Lal, who swallowed this salacious story and all else the prosecution had to offer, Judge A.K. Mishra’s colourful take-down of his incompetence and bias will be remembered for a long while.
In examining the case against the Talwars, the judgment also unmasks a sordid story of “tutored” and “planted” prosecution witnesses (using these very words), manipulated and dramatically altered testimonies, evidence-tampering and “deliberately” (yes, this word too) suppressed and falsified evidence – drawing attention time and again to the role of A.G.L. Kaul, the lead investigator in the case. Much of what is revealed will be familiar to anyone who has read journalist Avirook Sen’s path-breaking book on the Aarushi case. But it is one thing to read about investigators’ misdeeds in a book, quite different to encounter them in a judgement and to wonder: is it now “official” that the CBI framed the Talwars?
At the end of the 37 pages devoted to the shameful saga of the purple pillow cover (in Sen’s book, a metaphor for everything rotten about the case), you may well conclude the answer is yes. The judgement documents the lengths Kaul went to, to suppress a crucial forensic report by the Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics (CDFD) on a pillow cover with Hemraj’s blood on it, found in the room of Rajesh compounder Krishna – a report, it points out, that is “a piece of clinching evidence on record indicating that Krishna was present in the appellant’s flat when Hemraj was murdered.”
It makes no secret of why it thinks this was done, voicing its “very strong suspicion that the entire… exercise was undertaken by the investigating officer in connivance with the CDFD Hyderabad to remove from the record any evidence that was in consonance with the innocence of the victims”. Kaul, now dead, comes across as a sinister, almost sadistic character in Sen’s book. One small but chilling example of his methods was that he actually created an email account with the dead Hemraj’s name in it to officially communicate with the Talwars, sending them summons and queries.
Those who think the court has little sympathy for the Talwars and has let them off “on technicalities” should consider how it has dealt with the imputations about their conduct, which we have heard for years since they found their way onto TV screens and into newspaper columns thanks to leaks from the investigators. It treats as “patently absurd and improbable” the charge that they hid the body of Hemraj on the terrace from the police, and says the evidence offered to show that Rajesh was reluctant to recognise the body of Hemraj “neither inspires confidence nor… is trustworthy”. It observes that the prosecution “has miserably failed” to prove the Talwars destroyed material evidence, and declares it as “absolutely false” that Rajesh misled the police by filing a false FIR.
Those who condemned the Talwars because they did not cry on TV should take note of what the court says: “Different people react differently in a given situation.” Someone should print that on a t-shirt and give it to columnist Shobhaa De, who called the Talwars “monster parents” for not exhibiting their grief to her satisfaction.
There is nothing in this judgment on the role of the media. But it perhaps deserves a separate judgement – as copious, as detailed, recording the diverse ways in which journalists prosecuted their own trial of the Talwars, packaging lies and half-truths fed to them by the investigative agencies, to feed the appetite they had created for negative stories about the couple.
As Shohini Ghosh, a professor at Jamia Millia Islamia, who has followed for several years the media reporting on the case, noted in a recent article, Mistrial by Media, “In show after show and article after article, the Talwars were demonised as decadent, immoral, unfeeling, unrepentant, scheming, corrupt and resourceful.” In an earlier, lengthy report she named some of the leading media organisations that helped create this narrative, among them Zee News, the Hindustan Times, and the Times of India.
Will a public deeply polarised by the case for the last nine years introspect too, or will the trial by media, and social media, continue? The Talwars, who experienced all the vagaries of a post-truth world long before the term came into vogue, have faced not just good old-fashioned bigotry but also, it must be said, left-liberal sanctimony and “whataboutery”. If some have regarded them as monsters of exceptional depravity – “freaks of nature”, as Lal put it so charmingly before packing them off to Dasna Jail – others have seen them as “PLUs” somehow unworthy of concern because they are middle class. The left-liberal critics have treated the case as a zero-sum game in which defending the innocence of the Talwars was tantamount to rejecting the claims of their former servants – or in fact anybody poorer than the Talwars. One tweet after the acquittal said, “Sorry this is not exactly a verdict one should rejoice. If Hemraj was alive, would have loved to see the benefit of doubt for him.”
The one constant in this case of so many twists and turns has been the Talwars’ dignity and restraint in the face of what they have been through, from losing a child to a violent crime, to having their lives turned upside down by a Kafkaesque criminal investigation and a campaign of vilification and slander, followed by wrongful conviction and imprisonment. As the old clips shown back to back after their acquittal make clear, they did not in their conduct or demeanour ever sink to the level of the pulp drama of which they were forcibly made the stars.
In the gritty confines of Dasna Jail, they came across as people trying with almost superhuman effort to be normal, to bring order and meaning to their terrifyingly contingent lives, to deal with their bereavement and their harsh living conditions by focusing on their work as dentists.
“If anyone had told me, when we first came here, that we would be here for 19 months, I would not have believed I could survive so long,” Rajesh said, when we met in 2015. “The only way you can leave this place is through the judiciary, and in the meantime you serve.” Making it sound like he was on an outstation assignment, he added, “I started working within two weeks of getting here.” Rajesh treated dental patients in jail.
Nupur had less work because there were fewer women patients. “Keeping your sanity is an everyday struggle,” she said. “The biggest problem is, how do you spend your time?”
At times, the Talwars seemed impossibly strong, talking about the respect they got because of their work, and “because everyone knows we have truth on our side”. At other times, they seemed painfully fragile. Visitors were their lifeline, they said. “When you are in a place like this,” Rajesh said, “there is a strong feeling the outside world has forgotten you.”
“We tried to do everything the right way, but everything is going the wrong way, why?” said Rajesh, after a pause. “I try to understand this, but it is very difficult to rationalise.” I could find no way to respond when they said that the smallest things brought Aarushi to mind: a prisoner’s child playing on a swing, an inmate talking proudly about his son’s marks.
As raw as this sounds, the enormity of it never hit me while I was with them, because of the civil, even-toned manner in which they speak, but I felt drained as I travelled back from Dasna, past the fields and jagged low-rise skyline of Ghaziabad, then the grey factories and gated communities of the NCR, into Delhi. It is a 45-km journey that the Talwars made on October 12, hopefully to a less-judged life.
Anjali Puri is a senior journalist.