The Perfect Mystery

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A case that challenged India’s system of criminal justice

How is it that what might have been an open-and-shut double-murder case became this perfect murder mystery? A review might be instructive.

The parents, Nupur and Rajesh Talwar, have been awarded a life-imprisonment term for the murder of their 13-year-old daughter, Aarushi, and domestic help Hemraj by judge Shyam Lal of a Special CBI court that held the trial in Ghaziabad. He termed the sentence ‘just and proper’.

Even as the Talwars are sent to Dasna Jail, however, uncertainty still hangs in the air over their guilt beyond reasonable doubt. Nobody except the killer/s knew what really happened on the night of 15-16 May 2008. The four—Rajesh, Nupur, Aarushi and Hemraj—were last seen together at 10 pm in the Talwars’ flat, L-32, Jalvayu Vihar, in Noida. Two of them were put violently to death by someone between 12 am and 2 am. Aarushi is believed to have been killed first, Hemraj later, within an hour. They had similar injuries: the head bludgeoned and throat slit with a sharp object. The Talwars claimed to have slept through the mayhem. The flat had no sign of a forced entry. After the murder, the murderer had a drink of Scotch from the home’s mini-bar, as the evidence of a blood-stained bottle/glass indicates. These circumstances point to an inside job.

But the above does not rule out a fifth person having gained entry. The Talwars claim that they went to sleep at midnight and were woken up only at 6.01 am when their maid Bharti rang the bell. According to Bharti, she found the iron-grill outer door of the flat’s main entrance locked, and she rang the bell four times before Nupur—instead of the usual Hemraj—opened the inner door. Bharti says she was surprised to see Nupur awake, as well as Rajesh, who she caught sight of, since they were late risers. By Bharti’s testimony, they showed no loss of composure at this point; Nupur told her Hemraj may have locked it to go on a milk errand, went back in to retrieve the grill-door’s keys, which were inside the house (possible since it had a side door), and threw them off the balcony for her to go down two flights of stairs and pick up. When she returned with the keys a few minutes later, she found that the exercise was pointless since the outer door was merely bolted from within (a detail she added later to her testimony).

Nupur told her: “Dekho Hemraj kya karke gaya hai” (look what Hemraj has done). Bharti entered Aarushi’s room to find her lying under a sheet in a pool of blood and rushed out to alert neighbours.

Investigations revealed that Aarushi’s phone, by which she would usually chat with friends well past midnight, was inactive after 9:10 pm that night (though her friend Anmol had tried to contact her by landline and SMS). Rajesh, in a room adjacent to Aarushi’s, was up at least till 11:57 pm, when he sent his last email before—as he says—he went to bed. Aarushi’s bed was barely 10 feet away from that of the Talwars, separated by a thin wall.

The Noida Police reached by 7 am and found that some friends and relatives had already arrived. The police handling of the crime site was so shoddy that crucial evidence was lost. Yet, it’s clear that the girl’s body had been moved and dressed up after she was killed and before the police arrived. She lay on a neat bed with her neck slit and a wet patch on the bedsheet below her pelvic region, though her visibly untied pyjamas were completely dry. The CBI reported a vulval dilation and observed that the drain-and-droplet bleeding pattern meant that her neck was slit after her death. She had died of a blow from a blunt object that left a ‘U/V’ shaped scar on the forehead. Her pink pillow, found within the blood pattern area, was clean and appeared to have been placed later. Her room’s door was open.

Once the body was sent for its post-mortem enquiry, at 9 am, there is evidence of a telephonic loop of calls between Rajesh’s brother Dinesh Talwar, a family friend Dr Sushil Chaudhary, ex-cop KK Gautam and an unidentified number, in this order, and soon after in the reverse sequence. This was on the evening of 16 May—while the post-mortem report was being prepared. The CBI says that this was done to keep the word ‘rape’ off any record. A similar loop occurred twice between 9 and 10 the next morning, just before KK Gautam helped the police recover Hemraj’s body from the Talwars’ terrace. The CBI has no clarity on the purpose of this second loop.

Shockingly, it was found that Aarushi’s vaginal swabs, sent for testing to the Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics, Hyderabad, did not match her blood samples. In other words, the swabs were fake. The CBI raided the Noida District Hospital to find that Aarushi’s original medical file, her pathology reports and autopsy findings had all gone missing. The CBI failed to find out how the samples were switched and thus lost vital clues to the case.

In its closure report, the CBI states, ‘The vaginal orifice of the deceased was unduly large and mouth of [the] cervix was visible.’ The post-mortem report makes no mention of sexual assault in spite of the police’s first onsite report asking for this to be determined. This aspect of the case appears to have been covered up. What gave the case fresh wind, however, was the recovery of a golf club—missing for a year from Rajesh Talwar’s golf-set—from the loft of Jalvayu Vihar flat during a dust-up. Found by Rajesh’s close friend Ajay Chadha, it had no body fluid or bloodstain, but going by its dimensions, it was probably the murder weapon.

The Noida Police arrested Rajesh Talwar soon after the twin murders. But the case was handed over to the CBI on the Talwars’ insistence and its first investigation— June 2008 to April 2009—under Joint Director Arun Kumar resulted in three of their domestic staff being accused, even as the Talwars were let off the hook on the argument that the noise of their AC made it plausible that they slept through it all. But the case against the domestic helps didn’t hold. Asked about the probe’s tardy pace, Arun Kumar had told me: “Certain facts should not be made public in the larger interest of society.”

The CBI’s second probe, led by Deputy Director Nilabh Kishore after May 2009, brought the Talwars’ likely guilt back into focus—based on the same evidence—but it filed a report in December 2010 asking for the case to be closed on the grounds of insufficient proof.

Too much evidence had been destroyed. The Talwars protested the case’s closure. As a member of their extended family told me, this was because they did not want to live with the stigma of being the prime suspects of their daughter’s murder. They wanted justice for Aarushi, as Dinesh Talwar said.

Accepting their plea, a special CBI court took on the case for trial, but with a twist: that the Talwars would be the prime accused, with the closure report deemed as the chargesheet. It is this court that has held the couple guilty. The judge has stated that the accused cannot be acquitted on lack of evidence. Yet, what happened that night remains a mystery. The motive of the twin murders is still in the realm of conjecture.

As a journalist, I have tracked this case for the past five years. I have never met Aarushi, but I wanted justice for her, as I told the Talwar family.

I first met Nupur Talwar in July 2008 with my then colleague Kaveree Bamzai. It was a meeting arranged by a cousin of Rajesh Talwar, and Nupur had agreed to talk to us on condition that we would discuss Aarushi as a talented teenager and not the crime. We met at Nupur’s father Balchandra Chitnis’ house, who lived in the same neighbourhood as the Talwars. We were shown letters and papers that portrayed the couple as good parents, much loved by their daughter. Rajesh Talwar had just been released from Dasna Jail after 50 days in the lock-up. As we were about to leave, Nupur told me, “Don’t forget to mention that we were doting parents.”

After the CBI’s closure report a year-and-a-half later, the Talwars picked on gaps in it to argue that the case needed further investigation. Determined to relook at the case as a journalist, I did not contact the CBI, for the agency had already stated all it had to in its report. Instead, I travelled to Lucknow to meet senior police officers who were posted in Ghaziabad at the time of the murder. Three officers gave me a detailed account of the circumstantial evidence that pointed to the role of insiders.

I filed a report ‘The Untold Story’ for India Today (issue dated 14 January 2011), on the possible role of insiders. Senior police officers had told me that that the murderer/s had destroyed enough evidence to ensure that their culpability would never be established. That is why they were open to the idea of reopening the case. However, the officers were sure that they would not escape charges of destruction of evidence. And why, the officers argued, would they have done that if they had nothing to hide? After his first arrest, Rajesh Talwar had even been in a confessional mood, claimed a sub-inspector who had escorted him to jail.

After the India Today story, Team Talwar sent us a scathing letter of rebuttal with a threat of legal action. The close relative of the Talwars who had arranged my first meeting with them called to swear at me over the phone. Calling me an agent of the CBI, she asked me how much I’d been paid by the agency for the story. I snapped off the call saying the real killers of Aarushi would not escape. She kept calling again and again, but I did not take her calls. When I returned to the office, my editors pulled me up for using foul language with the Talwar family. In response, I submitted a written explanation of events.

All this was brought on by the mere hint that the killers were ‘insiders’. It was only after the court concluded that there was a prima facie case against the parents, and that they should be tried as prime suspects, that I could breathe easy again.

The second time I met the Talwars was in January 2011 on a visit to their new house in Azad Apartments, South Delhi. They passed me some documents pertaining to the case. In October 2012, I had been contacted by someone called Rahul who introduced himself as a friend of the Talwars, offering to set up a meeting with them. He told me the family believed my reports were erroneous, as I was articulating only the CBI’s version and had missed the family’s version. To get a rounded view of the case, I agreed to meet the Talwars. A series of meetings followed with Dinesh Talwar, Rajesh’s elder brother and other members of the extended family. I was open to let new facts revise my grasp of the case. Dinesh wanted to know the source of my information. I only clarified that it was not the CBI, as he might imagine. He didn’t believe me. Instead of answering my question of why the keys to the outer door locked on the outside were inside the house—though Bharti’s testimony on this has changed since—he made a note to consult his lawyer on this matter. He asked me how I had arrived at certain details in my story that were not even part of the CBI closure report. I had this eerie feeling of being grilled by him.

The story carried in Open (‘The Survivors’, issue dated 3 November 2012) on the basis of that meeting was on the lives of Aarushi Talwar’s family and friends, of whom I met several. Ajay Chadha was furious with the CBI’s conduct. “How could the agency’s second team discard the conclusion of its first team,” he asked, “without even questioning the three early suspects [of the first team]?” The Talwars’ fear of being sent back to prison was “real and debilitating”, he’d said.

I was attacked by Masuma, another family friend, and also the mother of Aarushi’s closest friend, Fiza. She held my reports especially responsible for the plight of the Talwars. With the notable exception of Tehelka and NDTV, she said, the coverage had been one-sided.

Open was not allowed to meet either Rajesh or Nupur Talwar till the very end, despite repeated visits to their house. At the short meeting I finally had with Rajesh, he repeated what his brother Dinesh had already said: that they were being fixed by the CBI. He offered no reason why it would do such a thing. I reminded him that the family had asked for the case to be re-examined. Their friends had been courting to media on their behalf, especially before court hearings and so on. The media had been polarised over this case, but there had been no witch-hunt.

‘We regret day and night. But overcoming those regrets is not that easy’: these were the last words Aarushi wrote on her whiteboard.