In Indian Case, Line Between Classes Is Drawn With Blood

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 16, 2008

NEW DELHI -- When in doubt, blame the servants.

That's what detectives did after they found a teenage girl dead in her bedroom in a posh suburb of New Delhi, her throat slit, her body in a pool of blood.

Since a household servant was nowhere to be found, he must have killed her and taken off, police reasoned.

No evidence was collected, Indian newspapers reported. No police tape closed off the scene of the May 16 killing.

Instead, police announced a manhunt for Yam Prasad Banjade, 45, also known as Hemraj. They dispatched an elite team to track him down in neighboring Nepal. His face was displayed in newspapers and on television.

Police warned urban Indians to keep a closer watch on their help and register their servants with local precincts so investigators could track them down if crimes were committed.

But just one day later, with a media circus buzzing around the home in the capital's Noida suburb, police opened a terrace door, followed a trail of blood and found Hemraj -- dead, slaughtered in the same way that the teenage girl, Aarushi Talwar, was killed.

Nepali maids, nannies, guards and cooks rallied on the streets, outraged that one of their countrymen had been blamed unfairly for the crime.

Known as the twin Noida murders, the case offered a peek into the often uneasy relationship between middle-class Indians and the servants who run their homes -- cleaning, cooking, shopping, walking the dogs, running errands, minding the children, driving. Some of these domestic workers come from poor states in India such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, while others hail from Nepal.

Maids who steal the family jewels, drivers who siphon off gasoline and messengers who skip town with bill payments -- these have engendered fear in middle-class India for generations, lamented at dinner parties. Confirmed cases of serious crimes by servants against their employers are relatively rare, however.

But many newspapers report that the tensions are more acute today, as the increasing wealth of middle-class Indians creates a bigger gulf with the poor they employ in their homes. Servants often earn as little as $30 a month for six days a week of work. They live on rooftops or in the garage, usually in squalid one-room quarters.

While protesting outside the police station investigating the case, laborer Ram Bahadur told the Hindustan Times: "We are poor people trying to earn a living with dignity. Is it fair to suspect us without evidence?"

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