Thursday, September 3, 2015

Aarushi: Why one must read it

Last few days have seen an interesting murder case managing to gain a lot of headlines. Any of the news medium that one choses to follow, be it the print media, electronic media or web world, one would come across this high profile Sheena Bora murder case. The Times of India group along with its TV partner Times Now seem to have taken up this case as their moral obligation to bring the accused to justice. And in order to do so, they have been coming up with several stories, each adding multiple twists to an already twisted story. Days after days, TOI is dedicating full pages to this story with several senior journalists giving their opinions on the case and the people concerned. A kind of a media trial is on the way and soon, it appears, the murderers would be sentenced on live TV debates on the prime time.

All of this has brought back the memories of another high profile murder case involving some not-so-high profile people that occurred a few years back in Noida. The Aarushi Talwar murder case was the first instance when I saw a media trial. The twists and the turns involved in the case and the hoopla created in the media made it impossible for anybody to just ignore that. The case generated interest from the very first days of its investigation which rose to its peak with the CBI filing the closure report and again re-opening the case with the Talwar parents being accused of the murder that too after the Talwars, themselves, had filed petition against the closure report. The trial ended in the conviction of the accused leaving behind many in doubts about the final decision of the court.

Recently, Avirook Sen, a journalist who covered the story for the Mumbai Mirror, has come up with a book on the particular case named Aarushi. The interest that the case generated at that time compounded with the lingering doubts on the court's verdict didn't leave much option but to have a go at the book. I went into reading the book with a preemptive opinion on the case wherein I, somehow, agreed to the court's verdict. A week or so later, when I came out having finished the book, I must say, I have serious doubts now on the trial judge's decision.

To analyse Avirook Sen's Aarushi, one first should remember the fact that there are two aspects to be reviewed in it. The first one is the legal aspect of the case that CBI put up in the Ghaziabad trial court along with the way the police investigated the dual murders or the concerned people tried to manage the post-mortem reports and witnesses changing their statements etc. The second aspect is to review the book on its literary content, whether the author does a justice to that and whether he managed to remain impartial through the course of the book. The media handling of the story can be the third aspect to be reviewed as far as the case is concerned but for the sake of the book, lets focus on the first two only. 

As far as the first aspect is concerned, there is nothing much new to write. Already many points have been raised that invoke serious doubts in the verdict. There is no doubt that the UP police did huge mistakes from the very first days of the investigations. Probably, they got serious after media showed such huge interest in the case but it was already too late till then. The absurd press conferences of the local police with the absurds theories to explain the murders not only managed to draw attention of the media towards the case but also caused serious damages to the characters of the Talwar couple that was there never to be restored as we saw later in the course.

The case was rightly transferred to the CBI but their handling of the case remained suspicious too. Changing the investigating officer midway in his investigations raise a few doubts especially when he is replaced by somebody who is known for his love of the hook-or-crook methods to solve any case. The first part of the investigation moves in a direction where the house-helps are the suspected perpetrators of the crime but it suddenly changes on its head when in the later part of CBI investigation the parents are the accused. 

However, CBI filed a closure report failing to gather enough evidence in order to grill anybody concretely. The parents filed petition against the filing of closure report demanding further investigations and the closure report is suddenly changed into a charge sheet in which the parents are made the accused and a trial is started. The trial in itself had several points that raise several doubts regarding the affirmity of the final verdict. Some of the instances being witnesses changing their statements, typographical errors on the evidence labels, post-mortem doctor himself changing statements a several times through the full course of the case and then a witness repeating again and again in the court on being questioned, "Jo mujhe samjhaya gaya hain, wahi bayan mai yahan de rahi hoon. (Whatever was taught/explained to me, I am testifying here)."

All in all, these all points raise enough doubt in the conviction of the accused. As the basic tenet of our criminal law goes, it is better to have a hundred guilty go unpunished than punishing one innocent person. In this very case, I think now, that there are several points that raise enough doubt on the Talwars being guilty of the crime and hence they were entitled for that benefit of doubt that our law has provisions for. Plus, the onus of proof lies on the prosecution and the defence needs not to do anything if prosecution fails to prove its case conclusively. In this particular case, it seems the onus was left on the defence to prove their innocence and in lack of such concrete evidences, the final verdict came against them. The book manages to raise all these important questions clearly and hence, manages to influence the reader with some concrete facts concerned with the case. Sen has done full justice as far as the legal aspect of the case is concerned.

As far as the second aspect, the literary content of the book, is concerned, Sevanti Ninan in her article about the book on her website rightly says, "Reporters in this country should write more books.They nail the system quite devastatingly when they piece together their notes after the story has run its course." The book raises a very important question on the journalism that we see in our country. The attrition rate of stories in our news media is so high that even the viewers/readers tend to forget the stories quickly. The most concerning point is a lack of follow-up of the cases by our journalists. This book is a beautiful example of how a story is followed-up even after the interest attached to the story has completely faded down.

As far as his being impartial as an author is concerned, I think Sen fails somewhat on this front. From the very first page, it seems that he has written the whole book in order to prove that the Talwars are innocent. Knowing the whole story completely himself must have made it real difficult for him not to have that preemptive opinion but then writing the book meant putting and analysing all the facts wholly and impartially. It seemed that he gave a lot of importance on how corrupt the practices of that CBI investigating officer (Kaul) were who changed the case upside down and made the parents the accused but the character of that CBI investigator (Kumar) who suspected the servants to be the murderer were put into the books just as passing remarks. Much importance was given (in fact more than few pages were dedicated) to Kaul's management of the witnesses in the cases he was involved in the past but not much importance was shown to the fact that even Kumar was found to have letting loose the rich influential people in his earlier assignments. Similarly, a lot of importance was given to what Nupur Talwar felt of Kaul but again Kaul's thoughts about Nupur were mentioned as passing remarks only.

"He would later tell Nupur that he had a bad feeling about Kaul. She told me, ‘I also felt it, in fact we talked about it. I said why is he giving us these dirty looks? He asked, what kind of bed sheet did Aarushi use? I said blue bed sheet with a Disney print on it . . . He gave me a look as if I was lying. I said ya, that is what she was using. I knew there was something wrong, immediately.’ That first meeting would define not just the relationship that Kaul and his team would have with the Talwars, but also the line of investigation. Kaul, like so many other people, may have got the impression that Nupur Talwar was cold and manipulative—and a little too assertive for his liking."
Sen questions the court proceedings also at some points. At one such instance, he questions, "prosecution never gave any indication as to which witness would appear at the next hearing and then be expected to cross-examine them the day they appeared." But nowhere does he mention whether it was according to the court proceedings or special exceptions were made for this case only. The epilogue of the book with Rajesh Talwar's diary seems to be an attempt at gathering sympathies for the Talwars. But then we must remember, there are always two sides of a story.

Who is the real murderer is a question that can be answered correctly either by the murderers themselves or the ones who where murdered. The prosecution and the defence, both, have their own sets of stories that explain the murders. Avirook Sen with his book appears to put forth the defence side of the story. A fabulously written story with complete facts is what this book is all about. He succeeds in putting forth all the points concerned from the defence point of view. Sadly, Mr. Kaul the CBI investigating officer is no more with us and we would never get a book from the prosecution point of view but what an interesting idea that would have been.

In the last, a passing remark on this article that I stumbled upon most recently relating to the book, its completely your loss if you don't chose to read the book just based on something immaterial that occurred in a panel discussion on the book. Do read this book. It would certainly force you to question the ways police handle different crime investigations and the level of forensic practices that we follow in our country. Seriously, a lot needs to be done on these aspects.