Saturday, 1 August 2015

Book Review: Aarushi by Avirook Sen

The Madeline McCann Kidnapping took place in Portugal around eight years ago and the then four year old remains untraced even now. A few months after Madeline disappeared, the Portuguese police declared that Madeline’s parents, Kate and Gerry McCann, were suspects in her disappearance. The police theory was that Kate and Gerry, British doctors who were visiting Portugal when Madeline disappeared, had accidentally killed Madeline and had hidden her body. At that point in time I was living and working in London. During a casual conversation with a colleague, an Englishman who did not have much faith in the Portuguese police force, I suggested that it was possible the Portuguese police were right, that the McCanns may have accidentally killed their daughter and then hidden her body to avoid punishment. I could make out that my colleague was staggered to hear my views, though he maintained a stiff upperlip. He was also angry and annoyed, though he remained silent for a bit, only to curtly ask what made me so sure. I wasn’t. Parents Kate and Gerry belonged to the same social class as my colleague, who was also a parent and he did not believe that it was possible that the McCanns were lying to the police and trying to fool everyone, even if they had accidentally killed their daughter. Over the years, the cloud of suspicion has lifted from the McCanns and having followed this case very keenly, I am now convinced that the allegations made by the Portuguese police were completely baseless.

I was reminded of Madeline McCann’s case as I read Avirook Sen’s book on Aarushi, the almost fourteen year old who was brutally murdered in a Noida flat in May 2008, almost exactly a year after Madeline disappeared. Aarushi’s parents, Rajesh and Nupur Talwar were well-to-do dentists in their late forties and Aarushi was an only child. Hemraj, a Nepalese manservant who lived with the Talwars was also found murdered on the terrace of the same flat, though his body was detected only after a day. Pretty soon after the murder, the Talwars came under suspicion, the police theory, which was later taken on by the CBI, being that they had caught Aarushi in a compromising position with Hemraj and had killed her, a classic case of honour killing. Additional Superintendent AGL Kaul of the CBI was so convinced of the Talwar’s guilt that he went out of his way to pressurize various witnesses to give evidence damning the Talwars. Dr. S. M. Dahiya, director of the Forensic Science Laboratory in Ahmedabad, the same clever gent who examined the Godhra carriages and decided that they had been set ablaze by a mob, also toed Kaul’s line and declared that the Aarushi murder was a classic case of honour killing.

As soon as I heard of the honour killing theory in connection with Aarushi's murder, I knew that the police had got it totally wrong. A man like Rajesh Talwar would not do it, I had told myself and everyone else who was interested, just as my English colleague had refused to believe that the McCanns could be lying to the police. Avirook Sen’s book backs up my gut feel regarding Aarushi. The UP Police who commenced the investigation assume that Aarushi led a “loose” lifestyle with many boyfriends. The fourteen year old was actually no different from any other fourteen year in this day and age in a big city like Delhi and her male friends were just that, friends. Rajesh Talwar was said to be having an affair with Aarushi’s friend’s mother. Sen goes to the extent of saying that because Dahiya is a Jat, a community known for its Khap panchayats and honour killings, he assumes that Rajesh Talwar too shares his own belief systems. Nupur’s unwillingness to show the slightest subservience to police officials, her putting on make-up when the investigation was on, not crying enough, all of these pointed to her guilt in the eyes of the investigators.

When the McCanns fells under a cloud of suspicion, they too were criticized for doing similar things, for exercising, putting on makeup, having emotional resilience etc.

The various narco tests and polygraphs done on Rajesh and Nupur show them to be innocent. On the other hand, the tests done on Krishna, a Nepali youth employed in Rajesh’s clinic and two of his friends, suggests that they were around when Arushi was killed and they were probably the murderers.

If the Talwars were unlucky in having a set of biased and prejudiced investigators gunning for them, they also had a bad press which reported everything parroted by the investigators. The judges were equally unfriendly and the district judge who gave the verdict against them seems to have been cut from the same cloth as Kaul and Dahiya. Sen goes to the extent of claiming that Judge Shyam Lal, who is very proud of his English, actually started writing his lengthy judgement in atrocious, cliched English, much before the defence counsel started his arguments.

It is the prosecution’s job to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the Talwars committed the crime they have been accused of. The Talwars do not have to provide an alternative narrative or find the real culprit. They only have to show loopholes in the prosecutions case. And there is a big loophole, in that, Hemraj’s blood was not found in Aarushi’s room. Since Hemraj was found murdered on the terrace, fully clothed, it is quite likely that he was murdered on the terrace. Dahiya’s honour killing theory is based on the mistaken assumption that Hemraj’s blood and pillow were found in Aarushi’s room.

I also knew that our policemen were corrupt and inefficient. However, the miscarriage of justice in the Aarushi case is not a result of corruption, but prejudice, arrogance and wanton nastiness, a sheer unwillingness to accept mistakes even when pointed out. For me the most heart breaking scene is when Rajesh Talwar is on one occasion being taken to court from jail and has to be handcuffed. Since the police do not have enough handcuffs, they handcuff Rajesh and Krishna (the man who probably committed the murder) together. ‘Don’t do this, this man has killed my daughter,’ Rajesh Talwar pleads, but to no avail.

In Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, she has documented a specific case of police officers lying to falsely implicate a poor man in a case of attempted murder, though it is actually a case of attempted suicide. Though Boo has named the officers in question, one is sure that no action will be taken against such officers. However, I believed that the poor and underprivileged alone are victims of such corruption and inefficiency. The rich can buy their way out of trouble and the middle-classes can stay out of trouble, such as from being indicted for an offence they did not commit, or so I thought. In that sense, the fate suffered by the Talwars comes as a rude jolt. Here’s a case of an upper middle-class couple being not only falsely accused of murdering their own daughter, but also being convicted by a trial court.

I am convinced more than ever that the Talwars are innocent. I would rather not give more reasons for why I think so and end up summarizing Sen’s excellent book, written in simple, but incisive prose. If you are too busy to read it for yourself, here’s a list of ten reasons why Sen thinks the Talwars are innocent.

I have blogged about the Talwars in the past.

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