THE UNCANNY MYSTERY OF SHEENA AND AARUSHI MURDER
Every journalist arrives at such definite conclusions, whereas they should be stickler for facts, and the purveyor of truth, but they believe in police version of a crime. This shows their incompetence. In 2012, when police and mediamen were informed by the locals of the Gagode Budruk village in Pen in Raigarh district of Maharashtra about a partially decomposed body, they did visit the site, but didn’t bother to file an FIR and conduct proper investigations, though there were tell-tale signs of foul play. There is still no forensic evidence to prove that the body was Sheena’s. Yet, systematic leaks from the police have been lapped up by information hungry reporters, who then duly pass it on to the higher-ups, who, in turn, dress up facts for mass consumption. Who doesn’t love a scandal? It ensures readership; boosts TRP, and with every new revelation — however bizarre and conflicting it might be — salacious gossip becomes the driving force of journalism. This is not to say that Indrani is above suspicion. But, at this point, the media spectacle is framed by the presumption of guilt — a dangerous idea, one that can influence the course of investigations and colour the opinion of the judiciary. It has happened before, during the investigations and the trial of the double murder case of Aarushi and Hemraj. Back then, like now, the media-conducted trial had proved to be extremely damaging for Rajesh and Nupur Talwar, the dentist parents of Aarushi. Back then, like now, something vital, something integral to the existence of society was missing — The presumption of innocence — without which institutions will crumble and the human collective that goes by the name of civilisation will lose direction. You either get North Korea or chaos. Take your pick, as a serving judge put it: “The presumption of innocence is fundamental to anything that claims to call itself a civilised society.”
It is in this context that one should read and revisit Avirook Sen’s book Aarushi, which, apart from being a compelling read and a thorough work of journalism, time and again reminds us of the pitfalls of inaccurate reporting and ill-formed conclusions. And, it’s scary when responsible voices in the media indulge in this exercise because of the impact it can have on the public psyche. In her review of the book on The Wire, Pulitzer award winning journalist Ellen Barry’s observation, “Just because the prosecution was flawed doesn’t mean they didn’t do it,” comes from an already made-up mind, one that has presumed the Talwars guilty and hence worthy of punishment. In one line, Ms. Barry turns a fundamental principal of justice — and civilisation — upside down. The fine mind that she is, she should know that the book Aarushi is not about Sen being caught in the “trap of his sympathies” for the Talwars. Nor is he supposed to play the sleuth “after handily hollowing out the reader’s confidence in the state’s fact finding”, and track down the actual murderers. His job was to stick to facts and resist the temptation to make a subjective judgment. Sen has done exactly that. He has highlighted a series of prosecution lapses, which is more than sufficient to show that the CBI had completely botched up the case in their singular focus on painting the Talwars guilty; and that alone should have been sufficient ground to acquit the couple. Aarushi is a must read for those who have blind faith in the judiciary — the CBI, anyway, had lost its reputation long ago. Nonetheless, it’s scary to discover that a premier investigative agency can overlook crucial pieces of evidence — such as Hemraj’s DNA was found on Krishna’s (a domestic help) pillow cover — and fudge facts to bolster its narrative of the Talwars as criminals. Where the judge had started writing the judgment much before the defence’s final hearing.
Rajyasree Sen’s review in www.newslaundry.com, a media watchdog, goes a step further and puts the onus on the Talwars to prove their innocence. Rajyasree’s question — why the terrace door was simply not broken open by them and their families when blood stains were spotted near the terrace — shifts the burden not just of proof, but of investigation on to the Talwars. This is a bit absurd.
The newslaundry reviewer also dwells at length on the key that unlocked the door of Aarushi’s room, which, she says, the author ‘glosses over’ making only one reference ‘without comment’. This is wrong. There are at least four references in the text to the key, with comment. So does the argument of bias hold? It’s one thing to say one reference to make that point, but quite another to discover, upon reading, that there are four. The thesis of guilt or bias can stay — but can it be called a credible argument when it is evident that the fact that support it is false? This calls for some reflection: Why is it that we in the media cannot get ourselves to admit errors? The tragic consequences of this intransigence is out there. The Talwars have been convicted because they were presumed guilty.
Curiously, both Barry’s and Sen’s pieces, published on August 8 and August 10 respectively, reaffirm what a reader, a member of the public, had said in her review of the book on July 9 at the Amazon site: “The author assumes Talwars to be innocent from First Word and doesn’t even give the investigators benefit of doubt.” The question then is: Are we commentators just following public sentiment? Are we looking at texts or evidence closely enough? But, there are exceptions in the media who have come to believe in the overarching principle of the presumption of innocence. Noted author and columnist Dilip D’Souza is one such voice: “You have to believe in it because it is central to the idea of justice; the judicial system is predicated on that. If you are unwilling to stick to that, the world as we know it will turn into a dog-eat-dog society,” he says, appalled at the way journalists have resorted to speculations and abandoned facts. The Indrani Mukerjea scandal has uses that stretch beyond the profits that news organisations may make. It makes us reflect, now that we have the lesson of the Aarushi case, on a principle as old as civilisation itself: The presumption of innocence.