/ 15 July 2008

Murder whodunnit grips India’s middle-class

A young girl’s throat is slit in her bedroom. A servant is also found dead nearby. The dentist father is arrested, injected with a ”truth serum”, held for 50 days and then released. The murder weapon has still to be found.

India is gripped by a murder whodunnit that has highlighted its bumbling police, aggressive media and a deep-seated unease among the Asian giant’s newly rich about household servants amid increasing numbers of crimes in its cities.

When Rajesh Talwar walked free at the weekend after about 50 days in jail, it was the latest twist in a case that has dominated headlines for weeks, often overshadowing news of rising inflation and an embattled government that faces a vote of no-confidence.

Talwar’s 14-year-old daughter Aarushi was found dead in her bedroom in May in Noida, a town of new shopping malls and IT offices just outside Delhi and a place synonymous with the Asian giant’s new, confident middle-class lifestyle.

India is awash with horrific crime stories, often related to caste, among its billion-plus people. These stories, most from remote villages, make small paragraphs in newspapers.

But the Noida murder mystery resonated among many of the new, middle class, reflecting their fears as the country quickly urbanises and wealth disparities rise.

Police immediately named the murder suspect as a missing servant, hitting at the heart of households where middle- and upper-class families regularly employ poorly paid, often ill-treated, servants to cook, clean and walk the dog.

”Noida is basically Delhi, it is about the people who we call middle-class in India,” said Dipankar Gupta, a sociology professor at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

”It’s a nightmare of the middle-classes,” Gupta said, referring to fears of servants attacking their increasingly wealthy middle-class employers.

Media frenzy
But then came another twist. The day after the girl’s murder, a family friend opened a locked terrace door and found the missing servant, his throat slit as well. Police had missed finding the body in their initial investigation.

There started a frenzied media coverage with more twists and turns worthy of a soap opera leading to the arrest of the father for murder by the state police of Uttar Pradesh, widely seen as one of India’s most corrupt states.

Noida police said the father murdered his daughter after finding her in a ”compromising” position with the murdered servant.

Such was the chaos of the probe — the police even misquoted the name of the murdered daughter at a press conference — that the CBI, India’s equivalent of the FBI of the United States, were brought in.

It was the CBI who said they had no evidence that the father, who all along protested his innocence, was involved. A court freed him over the weekend. The suspect is now an assistant of the father and two neighbourhood domestic helpers, the CBI says.

Places such as Noida have suffered rising crime in recent years, a phenomenon many sociologists say is related to the increasing disparities and flaunted wealth of the new India.

Noida was also the scene of one of India’s most famous crime cases last year, when remains of at least 17 women and children were dug up in the backyard and drain of a rich, well-connected businessman’s house. The owner and the domestic servant are being investigated.

With middle-class families now living in small, urban apartments and parents working long hours, servants have also gained increasing influence in middle-class, nuclear households.

Adding to the sense of unease, newspapers often report on crime cases involving servants. Gossipy middle-class conversations often treat the subject of possible robberies, or even poisonings, by maids.

Soul searching
”Once the scandal in India was always bride burning,” said Shiv Visvanathan, an anthropologist. ”Now it’s moved on, it’s the domestic servant.”

”This case is all about the imagination of India’s middle classes, its fears with increasing urbanisation, new family structures and fears of social violence,” Visvanathan added.

The case — especially the release of the father — has also sparked soul searching in India’s media, increasingly aggressive since its liberalisation in the early 1990s. Many media broadcast rumours and allegations with little evidence or official sources.

”The story was cast in the mould of a sensational crime-thriller. Scant respect was paid to objectivity or in trying to get all sides of a story,” the Times of India said in one of just a series of mea-culpas of India’s press.

Meanwhile, no murder weapon has been found. Police have reportedly injected the remaining suspects with truth serum — the anesthetising drug thiopental sodium has become increasingly common in India in the past five years despite criticism from lawyers and human rights groups.

Woozy suspects are supposed to find it harder to lie or deflect questions.

But, like thousands of crime cases in India, many viewers are wondering if police will ever crack the case. – Reuters