Author: Avirook Sen
Pages: 312 pages
Price: Rs 209
In November 2013, the Talwars — Rajesh and Nupur — were held guilty of killing their only daughter Aarushi and domestic help Hemraj in the couple’s apartment in Jal Vayu Vihar, Noida. Long before the verdict though — in fact, with the discovery of the murder itself — this quiet suburb had become the talking point of the nation. The case had all the elements that make for saturation coverage. A young girl brutally murdered, an upwardly mobile middle-class family, multiple investigations by the Uttar Pradesh police and then the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and their theory of sex and juvenile rebellion that argued it was an honour killing perpetrated by the parents.
Now, two years after Ghaziabad Additional Sessions Judge Shyam Lal sentenced the parents to life imprisonment based on circumstantial evidence, comes journalist Avirook Sen’s book simply titled Aarushi. Sen covered the Talwars’ trial from 2012 for the Mumbai Mirror and after the verdict, interviewed key witnesses, investigators, family and friends. At the outset, Sen makes it clear that his book is not about who may have actually killed Aarushi, but rather on whether there was enough evidence to convict the Talwars. Sen is clearly convinced that the parents had nothing to do with it. Through two broad chapters on the investigation and the trial, he presents how the Talwars were hit with a double whammy: a shoddy and insensitive investigation by the UP Police and the CBI and what Sen believed was a premeditated judgment.
While Sen does present new theories and hitherto little-known details, like poor forensic evidence, cruel interrogation techniques which ultimately helped convict the Talwars, the book, through meticulous reporting and persuasive examples, is more a wicked indictment of India’s criminal justice system. In taking us through five years of the Talwar’s lives, Sen gives us a chilling account of what could happen, or more likely, would happen to any family caught in the jaws of the police and lower judiciary and a hungry media. A particularly disturbing example comes from the CBI investigation officer AGL Kaul’s treatment of the Talwars. “Nupur Talwar had annoyed Kaul because she wasn’t intimidated by him in person. So he came up with his own little psy-ops project. He created a special e-mail address in order to communicate with Rajesh and Nupur Talwar: ‘hemraj. firstname.lastname@example.org’, under the user-name ‘Hemraj Singh’…Rajesh Talwar would receive e-mailed summons from this address. When he was asked for his consent to undergo narco-analysis, for instance, ‘Hemraj Singh’ wrote him a mail on the CBI’s behalf”, writes Sen.
The antagonist in Sen’s deconstruction of the CBI probe is the investigating officer AGL Kaul, who died about a year after the Talwars’ conviction. We read of his “draconian” methods, his megalomania and his conduct that his superiors in the CBI ignore. Sen even mentions the little-known ODI list in the CBI: Officers of Doubtful Integrity. “Kaul was consistently on it. It’s fair to ask why Kumar didn’t just sack Kaul. But that’s not how governments work: the government servant is too well protected for that…,” he writes. He offers other insights of policing in the country. In talking about the Ghaziabad police, Sen writes about the HLI or “High Loot Index”, a term to rate a plush locality and the RHI, or the “Robin Hood Index”, which rates personnel. “A cop who has a high ‘RHI’ mark isn’t someone who as the name might suggest, robs for the rich and gives to the poor. He simply robs,” he notes.
The media is the other institution that Sen trains his attention on. He berates its treatment of the case, whether during the investigation when it allegedly reported everything the police fed it or during the trial, when it allegedly ignored “crucial” hearings.
Sen saves his opinion about the court that sentenced the Talwars and the men who preside over it till the end. It is through his interview with Lal (nicknamed Saza Lal for his high rate of conviction) and his son Ashutosh that he hopes to seal his argument in favour of the Talwars. During the course of the interview, Ashutosh lets slip that he helped his father write the judgement and that it took “more than one month”. In the book, Sen notes that the judgement was pronounced on November 25 and the final arguments began on October 24.
“Judge Shyam Lal wasn’t waiting for them to persuade him, he had made up his mind. The guilty verdict was already being written,” writes Sen.
If we are to buy this argument, then the trial was a travesty of justice. It’s a scary thought because, as a middle-class Indian, if you ever find yourself on the wrong side of the law, the book will give you a gruesome insight into what might come your way.