washingtonpost.com
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?"

After discovery of the servant's body, the murder mystery took on a salacious twist.

Rajesh Talwar, Aarushi's handsome father and a dentist to the rich and powerful, became the prime suspect in what was soon the most sensational Indian murder case in recent times. He was arrested.

Talwar was allegedly having an affair with a co-worker, the media reported. His daughter, 14, was said to have found out -- police discovered that 50 calls had been placed to the co-worker from her cellphone. There was also speculation that Hemraj had discovered the affair.

But police now say there's no evidence against Talwar -- he's been freed. Debate extends also to whether the media here violated the dead girl's privacy by reporting graphic details of the case -- the Ministry of Women and Child Development says yes. And the attention paid to Aarushi's death -- candlelight ceremonies and Facebook pages -- has become cause for question, too.

"Just because Aarushi's case is more mainstream does not justify overlooking the murder of someone from a poorer section of society," Udayvir Singh Yadav wrote on an online youth publication called the Viewspaper. "Hemraj's murder seems so insignificant even though it is part of the same case. No one did a candlelight vigil. No one cared to go meet his family. Do we not care about him? We just presented a perfect model of the rich-poor divide."

More headlines were generated when Aarushi's mother appeared unperturbed on national television. Indians are accustomed to those in mourning crying out in public after the family tragedy. Pundits and bloggers accused her mother of trying to protect her marriage, even one in which there was suspected murder and infidelity. They wondered in print whether India is still a society where women will go to any length to protect their husbands.

The news media at first drew blame from many Indians for sensationalizing the case. But it ended up drawing praise, on the grounds that without reporters' badgering, the police would have stuck with their first theory.

A popular soap opera producer has announced that she is interested in turning the events into a plot line.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company