Sometimes, a single event can tell us more about the times we live in than an entire library full of sociological treatises. The Aarushi murder case is one such event. The responses to the case reveal the flaws in the institutions that we depend on: the police, the government, the media and the great Indian middle class itself.
But, first, let’s clear up one thing: I’m not a detective and neither are you. One of the problems with the way in which we have approached this case is that we’ve all spent too long trying to solve the mystery of who the killer was. That’s a legitimate goal, but not one that we, in our living rooms or our OB vans, are qualified to pursue. Perhaps her father killed her; perhaps he didn’t. I don’t know. And nor do you.
Many of us forget that there are two separate issues at stake here. The murder mystery is only the first. The more important one is our response to the murder. How have we treated the reputation of a slain 14-year-old girl? What does the manner in which the police have behaved tell us about law and order in India? Should we have any faith in our political system? And is it time to regulate the media?
The Police: The Noida police appear to have the investigative abilities of the Keystone Cops and the sensitivity of the Gestapo. At almost every stage, the case has been bungled. There’s been the failure to properly search the house and, therefore, the inability to discover the corpse of their chief suspect. There’s the fiasco of the remand of the father with no evidence, no confession, no motive and no murder weapon.
More worrying is the way in which the police have deliberately set out to destroy the reputation of a murdered teenager. The IGP in charge of the case has called Aarushi “characterless”. Her emails have been leaked to the media. So have her texts to her friends, violating not just her privacy but that of her schoolmates.
Most worrying of all is the IGP’s obsession with sex. Every possible motive leads back to sex. First, there was the extraordinary statement that Rajesh Talwar found his daughter in an ‘objectionable’ position with Hemraj, the servant. As Aarushi and Hemraj are dead, and Rajesh Talwar denies the story, how could the IGP possibly have known about the incident? Then, there’s the suggestion that Rajesh Talwar was having an affair with a colleague and that his daughter objected; off the record, the police have painted the parents as orgy-goers and wife swappers. And now, the cops are claiming that the father was motivated by anger at Aarushi’s relations with various boyfriends.
This is not a sex crime. So why are the Noida police going on and on about sex, ruining the reputations of the dead and the living without a shred of evidence?
My guess is that they are not just incompetent, they are also sex-starved. Perhaps the IGP needs professional help.
The Government: The media act as though the Noida police report to nobody. Some channels have even confused the IGP with his boss, the DGP of Uttar Pradesh. In fact, there is a chain of command. The DGP reports to a home secretary who reports to both a chief secretary and the home minister.
What is bizarre is that nobody in this chain of command has reprimanded the IGP or taken the investigation away from him. Instead, chief minister Mayawati has turned it into a political issue.
Imagine now that a joint commissioner of the Delhi or Bombay police had referred to a murdered child as “characterless”. The media uproar would have been enough to seal his fate. Why doesn’t the same happen in UP? In fact, why does this never happen in UP? Even during the Nithari killings, the Noida police got off scot-free, and Mulayam Singh’s brother dismissed the serial murders as being of little consequence.
I would argue that it’s the difference between national parties and regional parties. A BJP, CPM or Congress chief minister would have felt obliged to act, both because of an innate sense of right and wrong, and because of public pressure. But neither Mayawati nor Mulayam have any sense of right and wrong. As for the media uproar, they don’t give a damn: it doesn’t touch their vote-banks.
Now that regional parties threaten to take power at the Centre as part of a Third Front, it’s worth pondering the difference.
The Middle Class:
As an educated Indian, I share the general outrage at the shredding of reputations, the sloppy investigation, the manhandling of a suspect against whom there is no solid evidence, and the denial of the presumption of innocence.
But let’s consider another scenario. Suppose Hemraj had lived. The police were certain to have arrested him. Would anybody in the middle class have given a damn about how he was treated in custody? We, who are so angered by the manhandling of Rajesh Talwar, would have been unaffected by the third-degree methods that would almost certainly have been used on Hemraj. He would have been beaten up and tortured into signing a confession. He would have no right to privacy, no presumption of innocence and none of us would even have noticed.
I have always been suspicious of the manner in which every crime committed in a middle class home is blamed on the servant. Whether it’s a robbery or a murder, the cops never bother to draw up a list of suspects. They always arrest the servant and declare, a few days later, that he has confessed.
This has less to do with detective work and more with callous laziness. The motto of all Indian police forces is: we will hang the suspect and then find the evidence. It’s far easier to blame the servant than to launch an investigation. Rarely is any genuine evidence ever found. Instead the case rests on confessions and bogus ‘recoveries of stolen objects’.
Do we in the middle class mind? No, not at all. None of the outrage that has been expressed in this case ever extends to servants, to the poor and to anyone who is non-middle class.
Has there been any case where the media have behaved so badly? TV channels have carried MMSes purporting to show Aarushi’s loose ways. Even if these were genuine, there were privacy issues involved. But they were fakes. The channels carried them without verification. And now, they don’t even bother to apologise.
The coverage of the Aarushi murder has been marked by lurid sensationalism. Anchors have appeared on the screen with their hands dipped in red paint. Fraudulent ‘re-enactments’, based on a dubious sense of what really happened, have been telecast. Even the English channels, which pride themselves on being more sensitive than their Hindi counterparts, have telecast the contents of private SMSes, sometimes, having them read out in theatrical re-enactments.
In their pursuit of ratings, television channels have acted as though no liberal value (presumption of innocence, privacy etc) matters and no journalistic rule (verification, attribution etc) is valid.
In their own way, the media have been as bad as — if not worse than — the Noida police. Journalists are too self-obsessed to sense the revulsion with which educated Indians have responded to media coverage of this case. Broadcasters sometimes believe that they can do anything they like as long as they get ratings, because there’s nobody to stop them.
But I think somebody will stop them. For the last five years, the government has been trying to regulate the media. All of us have fought this effort, arguing that self-regulation is the answer.
After all, we have asked our readers and viewers: who would you trust more — a civil servant or a journalist?
Ask that question today, and I suspect that we, in the media, would not like the answer. If the civil servant is an educated person, determined to impose liberal values and standards of accuracy, and the journalist is some sensation-hungry moron, metaphorically dancing on the grave of a murdered child, speculating breathlessly about her love life, and vulgarly suggesting that her parents were sex maniacs — well, then, my guess is that most educated Indians would pick the civil servant over the journalist.
The vagaries of Indian politics will ensure that the Noida police get away with murdering Aarushi all over again. But the media may not be so lucky. Any demand for regulation will now have widespread public support.
And can you really blame the public for feeling this way?