By Shohini Ghosh
The acquittal of Rajesh and Nupur Talwar by the Allahabad High Court in the Aarushi-Hemraj murder case has provided a much-awaited relief. The Talwars had been imprisoned in Dasna jail after their conviction by a CBI court in Ghaziabad in November 2013. The intense public scrutiny that has stalked the Talwars should now turn its attention to the role the media played in this case.
After Aarushi was found murdered on May 16, 2008, forensic evidence was compromised by the inability of the police to secure the crime scene. Consequently, the case was sought to be resolved through circumstantial evidence. In such situations, the law demands the case of the prosecution should be definite, clear and unambiguous. Every link in the chain of evidence must lead to only one conclusion.
Such, however, was not the case. The prosecution had failed to prove the guilt of the Talwars beyond reasonable doubt and the media had failed to bring this to public notice. When the body of Hemraj was recovered, IG of Police (Meerut) Gurudarshan Singh “solved” the case even before investigations could begin. In a widely publicised press conference, he declared that Rajesh, who was as “characterless as his daughter” had committed the murders after discovering Aarushi and Hemraj in “an objectionable but not compromising position”. Singh was transferred for his defamatory utterances but his sordid speculations captured the imagination of the media. For reasons that elide easy explanations, large sections of the media and the public began to identify so completely with the filicidal narrative that the consideration of other possibilities was foreclosed.
On May 28, 2008, a prominent Hindi news channel telecast a show where the anchor authoritatively claimed that Aarushi had sought comfort in an affair with Hemraj because her father was having an extra-marital affair. On discovering the two together, Rajesh Talwar had killed them in a fit of temper. The show illustrated its hypothesis through fictionalising scenes of intimacy and murder. This was not an isolated instance. In show after show and article after article, the Talwars were demonised as decadent, immoral, unfeeling, unrepentant, scheming, corrupt and resourceful. Therefore, when a deranged vigilante within the court premises assaulted Rajesh with a meat cleaver inflicting serious injuries, bloggers applauded while a senior columnist wrote: “Tough luck, Talwar”.
The CBI closure report acknowledged its failure to produce “sufficient evidence” or a “clear-cut motive” for the murders but it left behind a trail of nasty insinuations. Most intriguingly, it refused to even consider the possibility of outsiders being involved despite compelling evidence. This was justified through vague generalisations like “no intruder would bother to dress the scene of crime” and “no intruder would hide the body of the victim”. In response to this inconclusive report, the Talwars filed a protest petition requesting further investigation. The magistrate of the Ghaziabad court rejected the petition and charged the Talwars with murder and destruction of evidence. Nupur Talwar, who was never an accused, was named as one.
Once the trial began, the CBI was left with the daunting task of turning insinuation into evidence. A section of the media was happy to help. Evidence that could not be recovered from the scene of the crime was made to materialise in newspapers. On March 3, 2011, a leading national daily carried the front-page headline: “CBI says killer wore gloves”. It reported that the CBI “suspects that the killer had used gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints at the crime scene” and that “the finding that the killer wore gloves can help the CBI unravel the mystery over the mismatch between the smudges and bloodstains on the whiskey bottle and fingerprints of the Talwars” but for the fact that the “CBI has not found the gloves yet.” Had this not involved the lives of real people, we could have laughed. First, how does something that has not been found — and whose existence is a mere speculation — be called a “finding”? Second, why was there no mention of gloves in the closure report? Third, there was no mystery about the “mismatch” between the bloodstains on the whiskey bottle and the fingerprints of the Talwars. The report of the Finger Print Division of CFSL, New Delhi, had categorically stated the fingerprints on the whiskey bottle did not match those of Rajesh and Nupur.
Through the trial, the media and the CBI remained peculiar bed-fellows. News reports mysteriously appeared on the morning of the hearings, anticipating the day’s proceedings. On April 24, 2011, another leading daily carried a headline that declared: “Only parents could have killed Aarushi”. This revelation turned out to be a reiteration of the prosecution’s long-held position. The accompanying report provided a sneak-preview to the contents of the counter-affidavit that the CBI would present in court. The reporter declared the document to be “precise and damning for the couple”.
As “evidence” was being fabricated and planted, critical facts were being suppressed. A purple pillow-case had been recovered from the room of Krishna, who worked as a compounder for the Talwars. The report of the Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics showed that the pillow-case had the blood and DNA of Hemraj. The CBI dismissed this evidence as a “typographical error” notwithstanding its identification in the report several times by both name and exhibit number (Z20). This crucial piece of information went largely unreported. The presumption of innocence until proven guilty is a cardinal principle of criminal justice. In order to ensure justice, we must insist on a fair trial and ethical standards from the media. We should feel as invested in protecting the innocent as punishing the guilty.