I have been meaning to write this for a while, but today is as good a day as any. The Aarushi-Hemraj murder trial — a trial I follow closely — has entered a decisive phase. On Friday, the Allahabad High Court allowed the accused, Aarushi’s parents Dr Rajesh and Nupur Talwar, access to crucial DNA reports and related documents so as to enable them to mount a fair defence. (The trial court had earlier rejected this prayer). The High Court’s order comes about three months after the case was thought of as “over”. This was when the CBI’s investigating officer, AGL Kaul testified for the prosecution and told, as they say, the whole sordid story.
In court, Kaul sounded as if he was an unblinking eyewitness to the murders. Dr Talwar had discovered his teenage daughter in a “compromising position” with the servant Hemraj (45, teetotaller, grandfather). This was a matter of family honour, and grave enough provocation for him to fetch a golf club and bludgeon both to death, before surgically slitting their throats with a scalpel to make sure. An elaborate clean-up followed.
The media, such as it is, bought the story as ‘full and final’. It didn’t matter that Kaul’s testimony didn’t have a shred of material evidence: except Kaul’s word, we have nothing that suggests Hemraj was in Aarushi’s room in the first place. Kaul relied instead on the persuasive power of perception: the story wasn’t new, it had been disseminated and ‘bought’ by reporters and writers all over the country. On the day Kaul testified, the khulasawalas of Indian television made the “revelation” yet again, packaging it with ‘reenactments’ during which you were tempted to wipe the saliva off the screen.
This is what they do night after night (and it appears to work) so good luck to them. But it is sometimes forgotten in the din of breaking news that one of the early adopters of the tripe the CBI was dishing out was Shobhaa De, the influential celebrity columnist. No sooner had Kaul told his story in court, De reminded us of this herself. Patting herself on her elegant back, she blogged: “I wrote this on January 4 2011.... at the time, there was much outrage at what I had suggested — that Aarushi’s parents were the culprits. I received a lot of hate mail and a few nasty phone calls asking me to back off and zip up. “Well the startling revelations by the CBI officer today insist that it was Ramesh Talwar (sic) who clubbed and killed both Aarushi and Hemraj and then slit their throats. His wife helped him to dress up the scene of the gruesome crime. What sort of monsters are these parents??” She then republished the 2011 article under the heading “Aarushi’s Monster Parents”.
I read the piece with interest and once I got past all the exclamation marks, what I was left with was a sense of Ms De’s staggering unfamiliarity with her subject. This continues in 2013: The accused is ‘Rajesh’ Talwar, not Ramesh. Perhaps some poor fact-checker will now be fired, but I think it’s fair to say that if you’re going to call someone a monster, it makes sense to get his name right.
However, let’s set this one aside. Ms De’s piece outlines, with some authority, how grieving parents ought, or ought not to, behave. She calls the reactions of the Talwars “puzzling”, “bizarre”, “too calculated”; grief-stricken parents behave “differently”. According to Ms De, they are normally “rendered incoherent”.
Upon reading the piece, I wondered if Ms De had lost a loved one (I sincerely hope not): her incoherence was striking. She says “the media has been conducting its own trial night after night, pretty much stating: the dad did it”, as if to make for herself a little perch for independent observation. And then she goes on to say — before the trial has even begun, that the dad did it. Before it’s over, she says it again. She adopts the voice of the Talwars, asking, sometimes within quotes, sometimes without: what proof do you have? what evidence do you have?
I have a simple question here: if I were to accuse Ms De of murder, what would she say? Take me to the gallows? Or would she ask for evidence? Ms De’s unfamiliarity with the case possibly extends to her lack of knowledge of the investigating officer whose testimony warranted that pat on the back she gave herself. This officer was the one who created the macabre e-mail-id ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’ to conduct official business with the Talwars at the time of investigation. (This was exposed, much to the embarrassment of the CBI). Witnesses have testified that he beat them in his office. Clear proof that he tampered with evidence — the golf clubs, no less, whose seals were broken when brought to court, because they had been opened in his office — has emerged during the trial.
Ms De is probably not interested in the details, but here are a few more that may help her better understand the story she’s bought and is now reselling. One of the prosecution’s arguments is that erections can be sustained two days after death. (Hemraj’s penis was swollen: science says this is due to putrefaction). The CBI has produced as witnesses, people who take 56 km morning walks; cops who cannot smell; and a doctor who realises after two years that Aarushi’s vagina was unusually dilated.
This is the quality of evidence. But in this country, perception trumps proof.
I wouldn’t dare threaten Ms De with a “zip up”. (I would no doubt be given the harshest sentence in South Bombay: death by mwah mwah). I ask her only to consider that freedom of speech isn’t just a right. For those of us writing in newspapers, it is a privilege. It comes with the responsibility of having to know what you’re talking about.
The writer is an author, journalist and consultant editor with dna