The middle-class murder mystery that has gripped India

Rajesh and Nupur Talwar are accused of killing their daughter. But is it their liberal lifestyle that is really on trial in a country where class divisions still run deep?

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The Independent Online

For almost four years they have endured innuendo, accusation and even physical attack. Now, later this week, the parents of a murdered Indian schoolgirl will begin the battle to clear their names and secure justice for her in what is certain to become one of the country’s most sensational trials.

In a case that has taken an unyielding grip of India, Rajesh and Nupur Talwar, both dentists, are accused of murdering their 14-year-old daughter, Aarushi, along with a servant, and then hiding the evidence. They angrily deny the charges and say they are victims of a miscarriage of justice perpetrated by both the police and the media.

“As I say to [my husband], if we are going to go down, we are going to go down fighting,” Mrs Talwar said in an interview at the couple’s clinic in Delhi. “It’s more about [Aarushi.] People can talk about me – there’s nothing I can do about it. But to protect her…”

Her husband added: “In our country, you are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. They have made us guilty and told us ‘prove your innocence’. I have to go to trial.”

The murder of the couple’s only child and the subsequent, ceaseless media frenzy was an episode that drew attention to many of the fault lines within India’s changing society and to the often grating clash between different classes and cultures. For the Talwars, it exposed what they said was a superficial veneer of accountability and process. “I feel a lot of anger and sadness and complete helplessness about the whole thing,” added Mr Talwar. “Not just about not finding out who did this to our child, but that they [have blamed the parents.]”

Aarushi, a popular teenager and a high-achieving pupil, was found dead on the morning of May 16 2008, when Mrs Talwar entered the girl’s bedroom at the family home in Noida, a satellite city of gridded streets east of Delhi. The girl was covered in a white flannel sheet and her schoolbag had been placed over her head. When Mrs Talwar drew back the cover, she saw her daughter’s throat had been slit and her head badly injured. Her husband screamed. On the dining table, stood an empty, blood-stained bottle of Ballantine’s whisky.

Initial suspicion fell on the couple’s 45-year-old servant, Yam Prasad Banjade, known as Hemraj, who had disappeared. Mr Talwar told police he believed the servant must have been responsible and urged them to locate him. The police tended to agree. But then, two days later, after a neighbour spotted blood stains that led to a locked door to the top-floor terrace, the servant’s decaying body was discovered. He too had suffered a head injury and his throat had been cut.

While the Talwars’ community of pastel-coloured apartments and solid, professional residents is located just a few miles from India’s capital, it falls inside the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) and under the jurisdiction of a police force that has long faced accusations of corruption. Less than two weeks later, a senior UP police official, Gurudarshan Singh, announced Mr Talwar was being arrested on suspicion of murder. He claimed the dentist had killed his daughter and the servant in a fit of rage after they learned he was having an affair, and that he had found them in “an objectionable position”. The officer added: “We have sufficient evidence to prove that Talwar committed both the murders.”

The Talwars found themselves fighting on two fronts – a legal battle to secure bail for him and the battle of public opinion. Newspapers were filled with salacious stories from purported “sources” each more exotic than the last. It was claimed the couple were involved in wife-swapping parties and that they had killed their daughter because she objected, that they had “cleaned-up” her body and the crime scene and hastily cremated her corpse (a claim that overlooked the fact that it is common in India to cremate a body within 24 hours after death.)

Internet message boards filled up with accusation and rumour. Some said Aarushi’s father had committed an “honour killing”. The former model and author Shobhaa De took to Twitter to ask: “Is it true Nupur is not Aaroshi’s (sic) biological mother?” The couple dismissed each and every accusation and offered to show their daughter’s birth certificate. “We have been the victims of the media,” said Mr Talwar, whose interview with The Independent was the first for almost 12 months.

One of the most persistent pieces of “evidence” levelled at the couple was that they had not appeared to grieve sufficiently during television interviews.  Mrs Talwar said the people making such comments had no insight into how the couple behaved in private. “He starts to cry,” she said, her face grim, gesturing towards her husband, “then I start to cry and then we say ‘stop – we’re going to do this for her’.”

The couple also found themselves involved in a clash of cultures inside their own country, a bewildering experience documented in the historian Patrick French’s book India: A Portrait. Mrs Talwar said the police had been particularly interested in a “sleep-over” party Aarushi organised for her friends, several days before the murder. She said she explained that during such events, while the children listened to music in Aarushi’s room, the parents normally stayed next door. “They asked me ‘why did she not want you there’,” said Mrs Talwar.

In the summer of 2008, the case was handed to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). They declared the case a “blind” matter and Mr Talwar was released on bail. But then a new investigative team took over and the couple were again in the sights of investigators, who asked an expert based in Gujarat to “reconstruct” the scene of the crime using photographs without visiting and sought new testimony from two of the doctors involved in the original post-mortem inquiry.

While the initial examination of the teenager’s genitalia noted “NAD” or nothing abnormal detected, the final report from the CBI claimed they were “extraordinarily dilated”, insinuating that she had been involved in sexual activity. For Aarushi’s parents, the blackening of the reputation of their murdered daughter has been one of the hardest things to bear.

Throughout this they have not sat still. They have undergone a series of lie-detector, brain-mapping and narco-analysis tests, all of which they have passed,  nd have called for the police to re-examine the case with more modern forensic techniques. When the CBI filed a closure report in December 2010, saying there were “circumstances that indicate the involvement of the parents in the crime” but insufficient evidence to charge anyone, Mr Talwar went to the Supreme Court to try to have the investigation reopened. A year ago when he attended a court summons, a man with mental health problems attacked him with an axe and he almost lost his life; today he still suffers partial facial paralysis. Two weeks later, the court in Ghaziabad, in UP, decided there was sufficient evidence to charge both Mr and Mrs Talwar.

In a statement, the CBI declined to comment, other than to say they would assist the court. A spokeswoman added: “The matter is subjudice.”

The tactic of the couple’s lawyers will likely be to try and undermine the police’s handling of the case and point out inconsistencies in their evidence. They will say that tests showed no trace of Hemraj’s DNA in Aarushi’s room and that he was not killed there, thereby undermining the “objectionable position” claim. They will point out inconsistencies in the CBI’s claim that one of Mr Talwar’s golf clubs could have been used as a murder weapon, and they will tell the court that forensic tests show the blood of Hemraj was found on the bed-clothes of another man who worked for the family, and who was initially arrested and questioned by police before being let go.

“I think they have been hung on the altar of prejudice rather than any legally-admissible evidence that would justify them facing trial,” said Rebecca John, the couple’s lawyer.

As they await their day in court, the Talwars say they have become more spiritual, and have started “questioning everything”. Having never returned to the Noida apartment, they moved to a flat near their clinic and built a prayer room. They also visit a nearby temple. “I hear a voice that says the truth will prevail,” said Mrs Talwar. She said she tried not to think too much about the impending case and instead focused on each single day, adding: “I don’t look ahead. It’s on a day-to-day basis. If I start imagining [what might happen], I am sure I am not going to survive the next 24 hours.”

The Talwars say even if they do prove their innocence – a struggle that could take many years – they will then have to push for a fresh investigation into the murder of their daughter, and the often-overlooked Hemraj. And at the end of it, nothing will bring back their child. Mr Talwar said: “The rest of our lives we are going to be proving our innocence, but what about the people that did this to our daughter?”