Authors: Avirook Sen
Tags: #Non-Fiction, #True Crime, #Essays, #India
While the press intensified, the Noida police appeared to be doing very little. The only piece of overt investigation at the time involved a 15-year-old boy. Anmol Agarwal had been vying for Aarushi’s affections and the two had exchanged several phone calls and texts in the days leading up to the murder. On the night of the murder, Anmol had tried calling Aarushi both on her mobile and on the landline, but had got no reply. He was thus the last person to try to contact Aarushi.
Anmol was picked up by the police, without the consent of his parents, on 22 May and put through a harrowing interrogation, where the police confronted him with the fact that he had exchanged 688 text messages with Aarushi and that he had tried to contact her on the fatal night. Anmol was frightened and he broke down and told the police that Aarushi had lots of boyfriends like him with whom she exchanged messages. When the police wondered if Aarushi was easy with her affections, Anmol readily agreed.
That day, the Talwars were also asked to come and identify a suspect. They followed a police vehicle in their car and were trailed all the way by a number of TV crews. Several kilometres on, they were suddenly asked to go home. They turned back and footage of this was captured. The next day, 23 May, the Noida police escorted Rajesh and Nupur Talwar to the police lines for questioning. At the police lines, Nupur and Rajesh were taken to different rooms. Rajesh was shown the footage from the previous day, which the police now claimed was proof that he was trying to flee. Shortly thereafter, under the heat and glare of the spotlights, Rajesh Talwar, dazed, dishevelled and screaming that he had been framed, was arrested for the murder of his daughter and servant.
Gurdarshan Singh, inspector general of police (IGP), Meerut range, held a triumphant press conference the same day where he claimed the case had been solved. According to him, ‘Shruti’—this is what he kept calling Aarushi, though that was not even her nickname—had found out about Rajesh’s extramarital affair with her best friend’s mother, Anita Durrani, and had decided to have an affair of her own—with the manservant Hemraj.
According to Singh’s theory, Rajesh got home after 11 that night and found Hemraj in Aarushi’s room in an ‘objectionable but not compromising’ position (Singh presumably couldn’t go further as the post-mortem and the pathology report hadn’t shown up any sign of sexual activity). The sequence of events was this: Rajesh Talwar takes Hemraj to the terrace, kills him, comes back down, has a few swigs of Ballantine’s Finest, and then kills his daughter to protect the honour of the family. And the murder weapons? A hammer and a scalpel. The non-recovery of which, according to the IGP, was a ‘big thing’.
That there had been virtually no investigation did not stop Singh. Nor did the fact that the girl he was calling ‘characterless’ would have turned fourteen the day after his press conference.
The Indian Premier League, with its mixture of glamour and games, had enthralled the country every evening in its debut season, but on 23 May more people watched Gurdarshan Singh tell his tale of murder and debauchery than Punjab playing Hyderabad. In ratings terms, this was astounding.
There was an expected—and justifiable—uproar after the press conference. The Union Women and Child Development Minister Renuka Choudhury’s charge that the police had flouted Press Council guidelines and her outrage over the slander of the dead teenager and her family forced Gurdarshan Singh to make a small change to his theory, which he otherwise stuck to. He now said that Hemraj was merely comforting a distressed Aarushi.
The press now turned wild, revelling in the story of the adulterous father and the sexually precocious daughter. The next day, the
Times of India
’s front page said: ‘Dad Killed Aarushi: Cops’. ‘Couldn’t Tolerate Her Objection to His Extramarital Affair with Fellow Dentist’. Acres of space was devoted over four pages inside. Some of the more notable headlines were: ‘Attack Showed Clinical Precision and Planning’ and ‘Dr Death and the House of Horror’.
Television completely swallowed the line that the case had been ‘cracked’. On 25 May Zee News ran a fictional reconstruction of the police version of events of the night of 15–16 May that crossed over from news to lurid entertainment without any difficulty at all. Zee wasn’t the only television channel doing this. As the journalist Vir Sanghvi observed in his widely read column ‘Counterpoint’, a television anchor actually went on air after dipping his hands in red paint.
Meanwhile, the Noida police leaked almost all of Aarushi’s personal communications, her text messages to friends, her social media pages, and an email to her father which they felt was particularly incriminating. In it, Aarushi had apologized to her dad for something he didn’t approve of. It wasn’t clear what she was apologizing for, but it was evident from the ‘LOLZ’ (laughing out loud) at the end of the mail that it couldn’t have been something earth-shattering. But the police built a story of loose moral behaviour around it, which fit in with Gurdarshan Singh’s assessment that she was ‘characterless’. It also buttressed the theory that her relations with her father were strained. Why send an email if you live under the same roof? One commentator pointed out that when Gandhi was about Aarushi’s age, he too had written a letter to his father. A far more explicit one, in which he had admitted to stealing money, smoking and eating meat.
The news television coverage had inspired India’s undisputed queen of the ‘family drama’, Ekta Kapoor, to base an episode of her hit serial
Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki
on the murders. Star Plus lapped up the idea. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) objected, and asked the Union minister for information and broadcasting, Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi, to step in. Dasmunsi spoke to channel officials personally, extracting an assurance that the episode would not be aired.
reported that his ministry had already issued notices to some television channels over their coverage of the double murders, and Dasmunsi told students at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Delhi: ‘Unhealthy competition among media companies is threatening all journalistic norms and values.’
The police had advised the Talwars not to speak to the media, but Nupur Talwar went ahead and on 25 May gave an interview to the English news channel NDTV. The television interview was meant to counter Gurdarshan Singh and his narrative of the Talwars’ deviance. The decision to do the interview was preceded by conflicting advice from friends, well-wishers and lawyers. So far, there had been no mention of Nupur Talwar’s involvement in the crime, just the odd question about what she might have been doing while her daughter was being slaughtered. It was Rajesh who was arrested. But the circumstances of the crime—parents in the room adjoining the scene of their daughter’s murder—cast her as a defendant.
She put herself on the stand, so to speak, before the largest jury imaginable. A jury she couldn’t see, but one that could watch her as closely as it wished. What she said would be important, of course, but how she behaved—her conduct—that is what would settle matters.
Just as Gurdarshan Singh’s press conference provided the first chapter of the prosecution’s narrative, over the years to follow, Nupur Talwar’s interview, intended to compete with that narrative, ended up complementing it.
Nupur Talwar’s face showed many of the signs of stress that one would expect from the sleepless nights that had followed her daughter’s murder and her husband’s arrest. There were moments when she looked close to breaking down, but she did not, could not—or would not—cry.
The effect this had on the audience can still be seen in the comments sections of any story related to the murders. The overwhelming sentiment is that Nupur Talwar was cold, emotionless, a fake.
From the investigations through the trial, Nupur Talwar’s ‘coldness’ was probably the one factor that weighed down the Talwars’ case the most. The second unspoken factor that played consistently against the Talwars was their ‘poshness’, especially Nupur’s. The Talwars may have lived in a middle-class environment, but it was easy for those who met her or saw her on television to place her a few notches higher.
Not every viewer was anti-Talwar. The case polarized—and continues to—people. Aarushi’s classmates held a march protesting her character assassination. A host of prominent people also voiced their outrage. The NCPCR issued a notice to the UP police asking it to explain the basis of the allegations against the child victim. It seemed to me the case was taking a political turn.
Uttar Pradesh was ruled at the time by the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), and Chief Minister Mayawati’s relations with the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) at the Centre were strained. Law and order is a state subject. Mayawati, to whom the Noida police was ultimately answerable, objected strongly to the notice from a central body. ‘More heinous crimes are being committed in Congress-ruled states’, the
quoted her as saying. She was tentative about the investigation, however, saying it wouldn’t be ‘dignified’ to reveal some of the ‘grave’ facts that her force had unearthed.
Mayawati floated the idea of transferring the case to the CBI. A branch of the CBI investigates ‘special crimes’, and the state government can initiate the process by sending a request to the department of personnel and training (under the Prime Minister’s Office, PMO) at the Centre. Mayawati said she had made several requests in the recent past that had been turned down. In this case, the Union home minister (who technically does not oversee the CBI) weighed in to say there was no need for a CBI investigation.
Perhaps it was about exacting a price from the fiery UP chief minister. Mayawati was being asked to say, in some way, that she had lost faith in her police force, and required the Centre to help out. This would, of course, be used against her politically, and she was well aware of this.
But by the following week the voices against Gurdarshan Singh only grew louder, sharper. Sanghvi wrote:
Most worrying of all is the IGP’s obsession with sex. Every possible motive leads back to sex. First, there was the extraordinary statement that Rajesh Talwar found his daughter in an objectionable position with Hemraj, the servant. As Aarushi and Hemraj are dead, and Rajesh Talwar denies the incident how could the IGP possibly have known about the incident? Then there’s the suggestion that Rajesh Talwar was having an affair with a colleague and that his daughter objected; off the record, the police have painted the parents as orgy goers and wife swappers. And now, the cops are claiming that the father was motivated by Aarushi’s relations with various boyfriends.
This is not a sex crime. So why is the Noida police going on and on about sex, ruining the reputations of the dead and the living without a shred of evidence?
My guess is that they are not just incompetent, they are also sex starved. Perhaps the IGP needs professional help.
On 1 June 2008 Mayawati was forced to transfer Gurdarshan Singh and two of his subordinates and hand over the case to the CBI. But even this was handled politically: the chief minister said she had transferred the officers not for botching up the probe, but because her government did not want to be accused of causing problems for the CBI or of projecting that the line the UP police had taken was correct.
The lines of politics were redrawing the lines of investigation. Within days of the CBI taking over, headlines such as ‘Noida Police Theory Trashed’ began appearing in the press. Those who held the view that the UP police was in serious error may have had good reason to do so, but for the average media consumer, it looked less like investigation, more like politics.
The Talwars neither approached nor knew any of the politicians who publicly or otherwise intervened, but an impression was formed that they must have had an inside line to them. Why else would such powerful people speak up on their behalf, transfer officers, and so on?
A rumour that Nupur Talwar was Mayawati’s dentist began circulating in the cesspool of chatter in Delhi’s upper circles. Nupur assisted her senior Dr Sidharth Mehta at his Khan Market clinic, and he did indeed treat Mayawati. But she had never even seen the chief minister, whose appointments were specially fixed and never during regular clinic hours.
Earlier in the investigation the UP police had found on Rajesh the prominent lawyer Pinaki Misra’s visiting card. This was seen as a sign of guilt. Who else but the guilty would carry a hotshot lawyer’s card around? It went even further. Misra was interested in the case, and expressed outrage at the Talwars’ victimization. So now a rumour gained ground that Misra was Nupur Talwar’s uncle. In no time, this became the ‘truth’. In fact, Pinaki Misra was Rajesh Talwar’s patient. But he wasn’t Nupur’s uncle.
What were people thinking? A
-C-Fore survey published on 1 June polled people in six major Indian cities and found that 41 per cent now ‘feared’ being harmed by friends or family. But two-thirds, or 66 per cent, thought the police would never find the killers.
Another survey in the same publication in the second week of June gives us an idea of what people thought of the media coverage. Nine out of ten people felt the media was ‘obsessed’ by the case. Three-fourths of the respondents said they were following the coverage very closely. Three-fourths also felt that the media had already pronounced Rajesh Talwar guilty; 64 per cent felt that the coverage would bias both the investigation and the courts.
Inside a month of the murders, with an investigation that wasn’t worth a cheap magnifying glass, the damage had been done. Rajesh Talwar passed multiple lie detector tests. But the public didn’t believe him. It preferred to believe the policemen and the press instead.
The planting of stories in the media didn’t stop even after the CBI had taken over the case. Perhaps the most scurrilous story that was put in circulation was one meant to cement the Talwars’ image as orgy-goers. The story went that on the night of the murders the couple took part in a major orgy. Mumbai’s
, in the last week of June, quoted unnamed sources saying that a wife-swapping ring which was under investigation since February that year had led them to the Talwars in Sector 25. The report quoted sources as saying neighbours of the Talwars felt that they were in some sort of ‘club’, and that when the members of the club met Aarushi would be locked in the room while the club’s activities were arranged around the flat.