Ten years is a long time to steal from someone’s life. But that is exactly what the media, police, CBI and judiciary is guilty of: stealing close to 10 years of Nupur and Rajesh Talwars’ life. Ten heart-breaking years stolen as an outcome of extreme incompetence, prejudice, unprofessionalism. And, mass hysteria.
On October 12, the Allahabad High Court acquitted the Talwars of murdering their only child Aarushi Talwar, and their live-in house help, Hemraj. This is not merely an acquittal: it is a giant rebuke. In an ideal world, this verdict should lead to a public catharsis. Television channels, in particular, should flash repeated headlines saying, we’re sorry, we got it wrong. We often get it wrong.
But if that courage is absent, if not publicly, at least in the quiet of their minds, hundreds of journalists, TV anchors, police officers, CBI officers, lawyers and judges should resolve: never again. Never again will I follow the herd. Never again will I fail my core duty. Never again will I fail to apply my mind; never again privilege sensation over principle. Noise over spine.
The Talwars’ story is the worst miscarriage of justice - possibly in the history of India. There have been injustices before, thousands of people falsely accused, many who have spent decades in jail before being acquitted. But none have been this twisted and this tragic: the Talwars lost their only child - precious, joyous, beloved - in a gruesome murder. Then were falsely accused and jailed for doing it.
But that’s only the tip of it. The Talwars weren’t merely falsely accused: they were vilified and hounded. Turned into modern-day monsters who could not walk the street without having their faces cleaved open with hatchets. They were stripped off the grammar of being human. Turned into clotheshorses. Everyone mounted their most fervid fantasy on them. Every organ of society failed them.
First, there was the police. In the immediate aftermath of the murders, they failed their most basic duty: they failed to cordon the scene of crime. Failed to secure crucial evidence without it being vitiated: a bloody palm print on the terrace wall; a bloody foot print on the floor; a whiskey bottle on the dining table; three booze bottles in Hemraj’s room. Jaw-droppingly, on the first day of the crime, they even failed to break the terrace door which had a bloody door handle. When the Talwars insisted the terrace door be broken and Hemraj’s putrefying body was found with a water cooler panel on top of it - presumably the last thing the murderers touched - the police forgot to secure the panel. (Later, they claimed before the court it was too big to keep as evidence). Having failed their core functions, the police then held a press conference: since Hemraj’s body had been found, they leapt to a fantastical theory based on absolutely zero evidence: they declared the Talwars had murdered their child and servant as an honour killing because they’d found them in bed together.
They set the cat loose.
The media jumped in: they did not ask the police questions. They did not demand facts. TV channels began simulating scenes of the Talwars’ 13-year old daughter in bed with their 50-year old domestic-help; they simulated Rajesh Talwar stealing up on them with a golf club and bludgeoning them. Many spoke authoritatively about Aarushi’s prurient character; about how she was adopted; how relations between her parents and her were strained. Yet others about how the Talwars had been wife-swapping and had killed their daughter because she’d chanced on their depraved secrets. Many taunted Nupur Talwar for not crying enough on TV - a sure sign she had helped murder her child. Others reported darkly about a “surgical scalpel wielded by surgically trained people”. About how the Talwars had “dressed the scene of crime”; how Rajesh had put his internet router “on and off” after the murders; how Rajesh was having an affair with a friend; how it was impossible for anyone to sleep through a murder in their house. Some dimly seemed to recall the first murder weapon was a khukri. But mostly, the media simultaneously put out all of this all at the same time, 100 per cent sure; unbacked by evidence; unmindful of inconsistency; untroubled by ethics. It was an unconscionable orgy of unprofessionalism.
A bullet train speeding murderously off-track.
Then, there was the CBI - preeminent investigative organisation in the country. In 2010, having botched an already botched investigation, the CBI filed a closure report. In the intervening years, the needle of suspicion had moved towards three servants - friends of Hemraj, one of them an assistant in Rajesh Talwar’s dental clinic, who was resentful for having been shouted at by the doctor. Both the Talwars and these three servants had been put through lie-detector tests and narco-analysis. The Talwars had come clean each time.
The servants, on the other hand, had given a blow-by-blow account of how they had murdered Aarushi and Hemraj - with a khukri. A khukri with a blood trace was even discovered in one of their rooms after their narcos. Later, explosively, it was discovered, one of the servant’s pillow cover also had Hemraj’s blood on it: hard evidence that the suspect had at least been at the scene of crime.
But all of this was set aside.
The khukri was abandoned because India’s forensic experts could not identify whose blood was on it. They said it was not the blood of a goat, cow, chicken, or human, but they could not suggest which other earthly species the blood trace could be from.
The pillow case with the victim’s blood on it was abandoned - quite simply because the CBI forgot to look at the forensic report on this explosive bit of evidence. (Later, caught out in court, they claimed outrageously that the report was a “typographical error”.)
And justice was abandoned because, quite simply, no one, no player in the entire cast, could be bothered to do their duty.
So, in 2010, the CBI filed a closure report. They exonerated the servants entirely on a bizarre ground: they argued that the servants could not possibly have had the gumption to be drinking in Hemraj’s room that night with the Talwars present in the house, possibly awake. However, in the same breath, they found it perfectly plausible that Hemraj and Aarushi could have been fornicating in the house with her parents present in the adjacent room, possibly awake. And fornicating so loudly that it woke her parents up and brought them to the room.
Having spun these patently outlandish and insupportable arguments, the CBI, however, admitted they had no evidence against the Talwars to support their claims. And could not prove any motive against them either. They recommended the case be closed.
Bravely, the Talwars - determined to find their daughter’s murderers - went to court asking for the closure report to be set aside and the investigation to be re-opened. Even though this meant they would remain one of the suspects for a longer period of time. (Standard op for murderers, you think?)
In the cruellest twist of all, the magistrate hearing the Talwars’ appeal, set aside the closure report and ordered not a re-investigation but a trial. She also foreclosed bringing the servants into the purview of the case: the Talwars were left as the only murder suspects. To put it mildly, it was a Kafkaesque situation. The burden of proof shifted to the Talwars. There were four people in the house, two were dead. And now they had to prove they were innocent without being allowed to refer to, or include, any other suspects in their arguments.
This was not the only sub-human absurdity the Talwars were put through.
They were accused of being murderers because they insisted their terrace door be broken down in the police’s presence. The police argued this proved they knew Hemraj’s body was there. The feeble illogic of this defies articulation.
The CBI themselves agreed there was absolutely no trace of Hemraj in Aarushi’s room - no blood, no semen, no hair. Nothing to show he had been in bed with the little girl, or that he was bludgeoned there. However, the CBI argued this was because the Talwars had “dressed the scene of crime”. The Talwars countered desperately that it was humanly impossible for them to distinguish between Aarushi’s blood and Hemraj’s blood and selectively clean every trace of his. Was Hemraj’s blood in blue that their daughter’s blood remained splattered everywhere, while they scrubbed away his? But no one was listening. Society had succumbed to a collective brain freeze, writing headlines.
Other tragic absurdities dogged the Talwars. Everyone believed Rajesh was awake when his daughter was killed because the internet router apparently kept going on and off at the time. Set aside the fact that no one counter-argued that only a murderer in a B-Grade Ramsay Brothers film would sit around switching his router on and off after slitting his daughters’ throat. The stark truth is that the router went on and off the next day too when the police were in the house. But this detail was lost in the hysteria: the nation was convinced Rajesh Talwar was awake at the time of his daughter’s murder. Ergo, he was the killer.
The murder weapon itself is a story for the ages: it morphed from a khukri, to a surgical scalpel, to a golf club, to - in the final argument at trial - a kitchen knife! The khukri story we already know. It was discarded because the Indian forensics couldn’t decide whether the blood trace on it stemmed from a human or a bee. The “surgical scalpel wielded by surgically trained people” which dominated headlines for years was abandoned in trial because the truth it turned out is that the largest scalpel a dentist uses is 6 mm long - enough to nick a gum, not hack a throat. The golf club Rajesh Talwar supposedly used and later allegedly cleaned (one of the clubs was marginally cleaner when viewed under a microscope) was abandoned as a murder weapon because it turned out the club he had supposedly cleaned was not the one the CBI had accused him of using to bludgeon the victims. Finally, in the closing stages of the most high-profile murder case in this country, the prosecution argued that the Talwars “must have” used a kitchen knife to kill their victims. Their clinching legal argument to suggest this? Every house has a kitchen knife.
And so, the Talwars were convicted for life for murdering their daughter and house help, on the basis of a closure report, no evidence, no motive, and no murder weapon.
In any other country, this crime would have been solved. Far from dressing the scene of crime, the murderers had left palm prints, footprints, water-cooler panels, bloodied door handles, and beer bottles in their wake. But India’s forensic infrastructure could not fathom who the killer was. Rajesh Talwar - again acting entirely unlike a murderer - wrote 17 letters to the CBI pleading with them to send all of this material evidence to forensic experts in other countries, capable of solving crimes 30 years old. Inexplicably, the CBI refused.
We should read and be afraid. This is enough to make a god go mad. The Talwars were human.
It would be a pity if the high court acquittal becomes just one more headline for the day. The verdict, instead, should be an intense call to action. It demands every one of us clean up our corner as professionals. It demands we go back to the first principles that define our work. It demands collective introspection.
I met the Talwars in 2013 - five years after their loss. They had already suffered indescribable tragedy. Indescribable humiliation. Indescribable inhumanity. But they had not lost their stoic dignity.
They pleaded with me not to rush through one more interview; asking them to tell “their side” of the story. They asked that I actually take time out to study their case, look at the prosecution arguments, and check the evidence. And come to my own conclusions.
I spent 10 hours straight that night reading their case file. Then, three more days. I could not believe what I was reading. I was filled with shame for what had been done to them.
The injustice was so deep and so stark, I approached several institutional heads to independently examine their story and speak up for them, correct the wrong: editors of newspapers and channels; the CBI director; police chiefs; IB directors; lawyers and former judges. But, mostly, there was acute indifference. The media response, in particular, was daunting: what’s the peg, asked many editors.
Injustice was the peg.
Sitting in a cell with 80 other women inmates, in a dirty Dasna jail, TV blaring, co-inmates fighting and tearing hair, it was not the shit she had to wade through in the toilet, or the insects in the food, or the heat and mosquitoes that troubled Nupur Talwar. It was how to make time seem finite.
A lesser being would have cracked. But the Talwars did not. Their triumph today offers a window of redemption for us all. It would be a pity if we failed to recognise even that.