Authors: Avirook Sen
Tags: #Non-Fiction, #True Crime, #Essays, #India
As I spoke to Aarushi’s friends, I realized the staggering order of improbability of a consensual liaison between Hemraj and Aarushi. For is it possible to have a relationship with someone who is invisible?
Yam Prasad Banjade—or Hemraj—had come to work for the Talwars seven months before he was murdered. He was born in 1963, according to his passport, but he was probably much older. Originally from Agrakanchi in Nepal, Hemraj had come to India seeking work in the 1980s. ‘Yamraj’ would have been closer to his name, but you can hardly address someone as ‘the lord of death’, so Hemraj stuck.
The Talwars remember him as mild-mannered, if a little moody at times. But his conduct with everyone—from the Talwars to their servants—left no room for complaint. His job was cook and factotum rolled into one, and he was proficient at it. Those who knew him, like Aarushi’s grandparents, said he treated her like a grandchild.
Hemraj had arrived at the Talwars’ through the Nepali servants’ network, and he was friendly with Rajesh’s assistant Krishna and the Durranis’ manservant Rajkumar. When he came to live with the Talwars, he also got to know Vijay Mandal, Puneesh Tandon’s employee.
For their part, the Talwars tried to make Hemraj comfortable: they gave him the servant’s room within the flat, appointing it with a television and a desert cooler. Hemraj, as far as they knew, was a teetotaller, so Rajesh Talwar’s bar was safe.
Information on Hemraj was thin. He had a wife and grandchildren back home; he hadn’t been with the Talwars long enough for them to really get to know him. Rohini Gupta was a former employer who could speak authoritatively about him, as he had worked for her and her businessman husband at their South Delhi home for a decade and a half. Gupta, now in her sixties and divorced, had two girls of her own. ‘I can say one thing: I’d vouch for his character one hundred per cent. We never ever had any situation. In fact, he was extremely protective. If in a fit of anger I wanted to whack the children, he would always intervene. He’d always stop us. And we lived in a joint family, there weren’t just my two girls, there were six others. We never had a trust issue with him.’ In fact, she added, her ex-husband was a man with a volatile temper; yet he never, in all the time that Hemraj worked for them, ever raised his hand against the servant.
Hemraj did, however, ‘like a drink every once in a while’ she said. ‘We had to be careful about the beer bottle count in the refrigerator, and keep an eye on the liquor stock in the bar. That’s all. But we were okay with this—he had been very loyal to the family.’
Hemraj left her employ to put his feet up, said Gupta. ‘He told me that he’d been able to construct a pucca house and had enough savings to get by. Also, he was getting old, he was becoming hard of hearing. He just wanted to retire.’ Hemraj returned to the Guptas four or five years later. He had run out of money because of a health problem in the family and was looking for work. Rohini Gupta and her husband had divorced by then, and the circumstances in that household had changed but Hemraj was told he could always come back if he didn’t find employment elsewhere. Shortly thereafter, he informed them that he’d got a job with the Talwars in Noida.
The myth about Hemraj being a teetotaller had been around since the murders. Since he was not a drinker himself, he was less likely to host a booze party in his room: this was the CBI’s logic for later dismissing the possibility that Hemraj’s friends had visited him and then killed Aarushi and him. Hemraj’s post-mortem report didn’t throw up any traces of alcohol. He hadn’t had a drink the night he was killed, but this didn’t mean he never drank. Minor indiscretions such as pilfering a drink or two weren’t beyond him. This wasn’t his defining trait, but a little booze party at his place for his friends wasn’t that implausible after all.
His reputation in shreds, Rajesh Talwar was released from Dasna jail on 11 July 2008. His release took place two weeks before a very important event for the CBI: a change of guard at the top. It is a transition that never takes place without a power struggle. The CBI is charged primarily with investigating corruption in high office and serious economic offences, so the director’s post is a sensitive one. The intrigue surrounding the exit of Ranjit Sinha in late 2014 is the most recent example that shows how political the appointment can be.
Vijay Shanker and Ashwani Kumar were Indian Police Service (IPS) batchmates, but Shanker enjoyed a career of seniority over Kumar because of early service in the armed forces. Ashwani Kumar, however, may have been politically more connected. He had been a senior officer with the Special Protection Group (SPG), which handles the proximate security of the prime minister, former prime ministers and families of present and former prime ministers. Ashwani Kumar’s job at the SPG had been at 10 Janpath, the residence of Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
Vijay Shanker’s vote for the next CBI director had been for a CBI veteran investigator, M.L. Sharma. At a party on the eve of his departure on 31 July came informal confirmation that Sharma would be taking over. Arun Kumar held Sharma in very high esteem. In fact, through the course of the Aarushi–Hemraj investigation, he had spoken about the case more with Sharma than with Shanker. He was happy with the turn events were taking. But the day after the party, things changed. Sharma, it turned out, wasn’t going to be the next director. The position would be Ashwani Kumar’s.
Shanker told me he had no discussions at all about the Aarushi case as he handed over charge to his successor, Ashwani Kumar. ‘Directors don’t investigate cases, so they are never really talked about as you hand over charge,’ he said.
This may seem odd, given that there was almost non-stop coverage of the double murders at the time, but there was another reason why the case wasn’t part of any discussions between the outgoing director and the incumbent: there was no meeting between them.
‘I retired at the end of July and my successor joined about three days later,’ said Shanker.
Within a week of his taking over, Ashwani Kumar held a meeting about the Noida double murder investigation. The media pressure was unrelenting, and the new director needed to get a grip on the case. At the meeting Ashwani Kumar said that he had watched Arun Kumar’s press conference of the previous month with rapt attention as an ordinary viewer, and felt it didn’t show the agency in a good light. This was because there had been several minutes of silence at the beginning of the press conference, during which Arun Kumar and others sat facing the cameras saying nothing. It made the CBI look tentative. This, the new director felt, was embarrassing.
This silence had indeed filled out several minutes. It also had a simple explanation: some channels had set up their cameras and gone live, broadcasting pictures. Others were still sorting out their equipment and connections. Arun Kumar had no response to his director’s charge. But the first meeting on the Aarushi case hadn’t gone well.
Through the month of August, Kumar and his team had worked on Vijay Mandal to turn approver, and testify against Krishna and Rajkumar. That deal was as good as struck; all that was required was the director’s approval. Ashwani Kumar was away in Kolkata when his approval was sought. He turned it down. Why?
Arun Kumar’s track record had become the subject of rumour within the CBI. He had earlier investigated two high-profile cases: the Nithari murders and the killing of Rizwanur Rahman, a computer engineer who was allegedly murdered in Kolkata in 2007 after marrying Priyanka Todi, the industrialist Ashok Todi’s daughter. Though public perception was that the Todis had killed Rizwan and made it appear a suicide, the CBI finally found it to be a case of suicide. Similarly, in the Nithari murder case in Noida, in which remains of women and children were found in a drain behind Moninder Singh Pandher’s house, Kumar’s initial investigation found that only his servant Surinder Koli was the culprit.
An impression may have been created about the cases Arun Kumar handled: the wealthy and powerful who were initially suspects in sensational cases managed to get off as innocent.
Arun Kumar told me he was aware of these rumours. Ashwani Kumar would have been as well. From thinking he had the case wrapped up, the investigator found he was back where he had started. In early September, the three new suspects were released on bail, for lack of evidence against them.
Kumar felt direct DNA or blood evidence was his best chance now. CFSL test results hadn’t yielded anything on any of the suspects. Dozens of samples had gone to the Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics (CDFD), Hyderabad. Kumar decided to lie low and await the reports from there.
The most voluminous of these arrived in early November. And no sooner had they entered the CGO Complex than the scandalous part of the report was immediately leaked to the press. Aarushi’s vaginal swabs had been sent to the government lab in Noida after the post-mortem. Dr Sunil Dohare had not even marked them as Aarushi’s—he had just wrapped the slides in paper and handed them to a runner who took them to the pathologist Richa Saxena at the Government District Hospital, Sector 30, Noida. Why hadn’t Dohare at least marked the slides? In his fourth interview with the CBI, on 30 September 2009, Dohare calmly said, ‘There is no procedure of collection of swab in our district and in entire UP state.’
Within hours of the post-mortem, Saxena received the samples. She tested them for semen and biological fluids, found none present, and sent her report on 16 May itself. Then she put the slides away in a steel almirah in her office along with all other slides.
A couple of weeks later, when she was in Patna, she received a call about the slides from the CBI. She directed them to the almirah. Of the samples that went to the CFSL, a forensic scientist found traces of Aarushi’s DNA, but also DNA from another female source—given their handling, this would come as no surprise.
This anomaly forced the CFSL to send the samples to Hyderabad’s CDFD for DNA testing in July 2008. The report from Hyderabad was even more troubling than the one from CFSL. It concluded that the DNA extracted was ‘not from the biological daughter of . . . Dr Rajesh Talwar . . . and Dr Nupur Talwar’.
The traces of Aarushi’s DNA seem to have just disappeared at the Hyderabad lab. Now there was speculation that the slides had been swapped. Half-hearted inquiries about how this might have happened followed. But there was no real explanation by the CBI for the discrepancy. Some unnamed sources in the agency said that there had been a genuine mistake, that this wasn’t a cover-up. Others put out the story that the Talwars had used their ‘influence’ and were responsible for the ‘swap’.
A layer of plausibility was added to this theory. The Talwars knew the pathologist Richa Saxena. Their children went to the same school, and Saxena had once interacted with them on a dental matter. That interaction could hardly have been termed ‘friendly’, according to the Talwars. In fact, it was a dispute over a bill. But things were even more complicated than that. Richa Saxena also happened to be married to Dr Naresh Raj. A paediatrician by training, Dr Raj had conducted the post-mortem on Hemraj’s body, and appeared happy to fall in line with whatever investigators were saying. His wife, however, wasn’t going to be pressured. Saxena had a track record of standing up to this kind of thing. A few years ago, a powerful cartel of doctors who ran an illegal blood bank in Muzaffarnagar had tried to threaten her not to test blood samples that would incriminate them. They failed, and were eventually convicted.
The CBI tried to discredit Saxena, saying she had discipline issues, and was in a running battle with her superiors at the government hospital.
According to Saxena, her records were snatched from her in early April 2008—a month or so before the murders. She told CBI investigators that there were orders to bar her entry into the hospital so that she could be marked absent. In addition, the hospital administration had withheld her salary. She said she turned up for duty every day despite all this, and had taken her grievances to the Allahabad High Court.
Saxena confirmed to the CBI that the samples the hospital received were stored unsealed—and that contamination could not be ruled out as a result. When investigators summoned her again a year later, in November 2009, she told them firmly that there was no foul play and that she was willing to go through a lie detector or any other test if required. But the thing to note here is that the CBI’s own lab, CFSL, had found Aarushi’s DNA on the slides. They had had custody of the material till that time. They had sent the slides to the Hyderabad lab; the Talwars had not.
A whole new angle to the case seemed to be opening up, in which lay infinite avenues of speculation. New stories now began circulating: the Talwars had used their influence to swap samples to prevent the discovery of a sex act having been committed; Aarushi was adopted, which explained why her parents didn’t love her and eventually killed her. Arun Kumar had not succeeded in building a case against the servants. And now, in November 2008, there seemed to be evidence implicating the man whose release he had sought in July.
Both the agency and the media turned their focus on the ‘biological daughter’ issue. Neither Arun Kumar nor anyone in his team noticed anything interesting in a dense little bit which appeared a few lines above it.
If anyone had bothered to look at item number two, on the preceding page, they would have found the hard evidence required to charge Krishna:
. . . Exhibit R (two razors, articles said to be of Mr Hemraj), Z20 (one pillow cover, purple coloured cloth) and exhibit Z30 (one bedcover, multicoloured) with suspected spots of blood are from the same male individual . . .
Stripped of the numbers and the jargon, this is what it meant. The razor and the multicoloured bedcover belonged to Hemraj, and his DNA was detected on these. Hemraj’s DNA was found in the traces of blood on an item that did not belong to him: the purple pillow cover belonged to Krishna.
This was a potential case-cracker: it suggested that Krishna was at the scene of the crime. It could have been the proof Arun Kumar and his team were looking for against Krishna. But for that it would first have to be noticed.