Every murder chips off our veneer of civility, exposing the dormant beast within. But once in every few years there comes along a murder case that stands out from the rest—crimes that dent our psyche, holding up a mirror to our darkest fears and anxieties. The trial of Aarushi’s parents, accused of the double murder of their daughter and domestic, Hemraj, is not the first murder trial that has us by the throat, refusing to let go of its stranglehold on our fickle memory, even after four years since we woke up to the sensational news.
Bawla murder case 1925 The first mass-followed
case starring a rich trader, a pretty mistress,
a disgraced prince
The first murder that can be counted as a modern-day national sensation happened on a January evening in 1925 on Malabar Hill, Bombay. Abdul Kadir Bawla was neither the wealthiest nor the best-known businessman in town, but when he was shot dead by armed assassins in his limousine near the Hanging Gardens, his name was on the lips of all who read newspapers in pre-Independent India. The story that unfolded had the nation riveted: Bawla, with his mistress, Mumtaz Begum, a beautiful singer from Amritsar and formerly in the employ of the ruler of Indore, was waylaid by paid assassins who shot him dead. They then tried to abduct Mumtaz at knifepoint. Fortunately for her—and the press—some British officers passing by came to her rescue. Armed with only a golf club among the four of them, the officers grappled with the murderers, managing to catch one and hand him over to the police, as the others fled.
Newspapers, which used to publish the Viceroy’s speech over several pages, refused to let go of the first sensational story to come their way. They vied with each other for “scoops”, while interested parties protested against a “trial by press.” Letters to the editor complained of the press “imputing the crime to all and sundry in advance of the trial” and claimed it was “for the sake of sensation and sale”. Reporters were accused of “constructing their theory” and then circulating “thrilling cannards” to suit it. The police, reluctant to follow a trail that led to a ruling prince, threatened to stop the daily crime briefs that fed the press.
It was just the kind of story to grab the attention of the newly-emerging Indian elite: English-educated professionals—modern, impatient and embarrassed of the extravagances of the princely set. Nor were they spared the details, provoking the defence lawyer to apply for a contempt of court case. The jury was warned of the papers’ “sensational journalism” to hike up “sale of copies.” After a deliberation of nearly an hour, the jury delivered their verdict: seven of the nine accused were declared guilty of murder.
But the story lingered on—the accused appealed to the Privy Council and lost the legal battle. Three of the guilty were hanged, the remaining were transported for life. Nor did the Maharaja of Indore escape punishment: Tukoji Rao was asked to either face a Commission of Enquiry or abdicate. On March 1, 1926, he stepped down from the throne.
Rajgopal murder case 1929 A Hindu publisher killed
by a Muslim, it cleft the country along communal lines
The next murder that shook India occurred not in bustling Bombay or Delhi or even Simla—but in the backlanes of Lahore. At around 2 pm on April 6, 1929, a 40-year-old small-time publisher called Rajpal was sitting in his bookshop when he was stabbed by a pyjama-clad young Muslim intruder. His death sent tremors across India—from the Northwest Frontier Province to Madras, from Delhi and Bombay to Calcutta, dividing the country irrevocably into Hindus and Muslims.
Newspapers spared no detail: the wailing wife and children, the murderer caught in an exciting chase, armoured cars patrolling the streets, the funeral delayed because the Arya Samajists insisted on taking a route through the most crowded lanes, the people thronging balconies and roads, showering scented water and flowers on the funeral procession....
The murder even overshadowed Bhagat Singh’s shooting spree in Delhi’s legislative assembly the following day, led to cancellation of a procession to celebrate the National Day, and for weeks was the sole topic of discussion. Rajpal’s only claim to fame was that he wrote and self-published an inflammatory pamphlet three years back under the provocative title of Rangila Rasul. It lead to a lengthy legal battle which Rajpal, incredibly, won in the high court, leading to a country-wide Rangila Rasul agitation by Muslims. The murder reflected the lengthening walls between Hindus and Muslims, with Hindu leaders belligerently demanding that every Muslim leader publicly condemn the murderer, Ilamuddin Din. For weeks, it was as if two public discourses were going on simultaneously: one about what was being said in the British parliament about the bombings in the assembly, and another addressing the Indians’ real preoccupation: where do you stand on Rajpal’s murder?
It’s been over half a century since Navy Commander Kawas Maneckshaw Nanavati drove out of his Cuffe Parade home after lunch, dropped his wife, Sylvia, and their two children at the Metro Cinema for the afternoon show of Tom Thumb, stopped at his ship to pick up a revolver and ammunition to shoot dead his wife’s lover, Prem Ahuja, as he emerged from his bath with a towel around his waist, earning himself a glory unrivalled in the annals of criminal history.
It was a murder that had to touch the pulse of a rapidly modernising middle class: a love marriage, an upright Navy officer with a strong sense of family honour, a victim who was a philanderer who refused to do the honourable thing by marrying the woman he slept with—love, adultery, betrayal in the relatively innocent India of 1959. With the screaming headlines—Three Shots That Shook the Nation—came street peddlars selling ‘Ahuja towels’ and toy ‘Nanavati revolvers’. In another ‘Trial by Press’—a far more effective one, it resulted in the jury acquitting Nanavati eight to one in the sessions court. Nanavati was later sentenced by the HC to life imprisonment.
According to sociologist Aarti Sethi, who has done a paper on Nanavati’s trial, the weekly tabloid Blitz, owned by a Parsi, Rusi Karanjia, “ran a sustained campaign for Nanavati’s release”. Blitz blatantly sided with Nanavati, says Sethi, recounting his love story, how the dashing naval officer had met his wife in England, how Sylvia was tricked and seduced by the vilain Ahuja. “Even after Nanavati was convicted, Blitz did not let up,” says Sethi, who attributes his subsequent pardon partly to Blitz’s exertions “in keeping the case alive in public memory.”
The second case that tore at the veil of respectable Indian marriages was the murder of Vidya Jain, a vivacious, attractive woman of 45 by her husband, Narendra Singh Jain, Delhi’s leading eye specialist. She was found by her husband in a ditch outside their house with 14 stab wounds and a broken arm. In the following fortnight, the story knocked all political developments out of front pages as readers drunk in every prurient detail that reporters assiduously dug out:
Dr Jain’s popularity with his women patients, his repertoire of Urdu poetry which he quoted with effect on female clients, his liaisons with several women, including the widow accused of being his accomplice. “The Jains, who gave the appearance of a happily married couple, were said to have indulged in extramarital affairs—the latest before her murder being an architect and a building contractor,” said the Illustrated Weekly report in its year-end issue in 1973.
Billa & Ranga 1978 The murder of two teenaged
children rocked India, leading to swift justice
But the one murder that really shook India, rocked Parliament, eclipsed Indira Gandhi’s Emergency excesses, and spurred countless public demonstrations and mass hysteria on a nation-wide scale, was the murder of two teenaged children of an airforce officer, Sanjay and Geeta Chopra, in August 1978. It seemed a random, motiveless killing—eyewitnesses had seen the two children struggling in a Fiat with a Haryana licence plate. An eyewitness, unusually for a Delhi citizen, had even informed the police about the kidnapping, but they did nothing. By the time the children’s bodies were discovered the next day, the trail had gone cold.
The case exploded in the face of the new Janata government. The murder made banner headlines for weeks, refusing to go away even with serious floods, with the army summoned in several states. A nationwide hunt began for two Bombay criminals called Billa and Ranga who the police insisted were behind the murders. Conveniently, the duo was caught red-handed by an army jawan a fortnight later while stealing in a running train. Some faint voices of scepticism were raised, but quickly smothered in the ensuing excitement. There were such huge crowds at the court where the two were to be produced that the police had to sneak them in. They were eventually sentenced to death, but for a whole generation of Delhites, Billa and Ranga was their coming of age moment, the day they lost their innocence.
Syed modi 1988 Sports and politics mingled in a
‘love triangle’, leaving a shuttler dead
Ten years later came what The New York Times described then as “the murder scandal that mixes sex and politics”. It was not the first time that a murder caused such intense speculation, interest and gossip, but the murder of soft-spoken badminton player, Syed Modi, in July 1988, left a wound in the public psyche that has yet to heal. Modi was shot dead by two young men in a Maruti car outside the Lucknow stadium, where he went for his daily practice, but speculation was so rife about a “love triangle” involving his wife, Amita, and a politician close to Sanjay Gandhi that the CBI had to be called in. The two were eventually acquitted, but the case lingers on in public memory, leaving unresolved all those questions about foul play and the acute mistrust of those in power and their continued immunity to the law.
Over eight decades, these murder cases, and the pursuit of truth they involved, forced India to look at society from the reverse—its grimy undercarriage, and not in terms of decorum, the platitute of ‘trends’ or dry technicality. In their way, they shaped, and shook, the national psyche.
Apropos the article Along The Blood Meridian (Jun 18) on modern India’s crime history, the Nanavati murder is particularly fresh in memory. Karanjia’s Blitz had Bombayites waiting for Friday for updates. However, I vividly recall two murders in Madras in the late ’40s/early ’50s. One was the Lakshmikanthan murder case, the other the famous Alavandar Kolai case: with its elements of lust, sex and cruelty. Tonnes of newsprint were used on both.
M. Sankunny Menon, Palakkad
The superb article on the murders that rocked modern India should have included the Lakshmikanthan murder case. Lakshmikanthan was the editor of a magazine specialising in yellow journalism. He wrote unverified, even malicious gossip about leading south Indian public figures and took hush money. He was stabbed to death in Madras in 1944. M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, the then matinee idol of the south, and seven others were arrested. A long trial whetted public interest; finally, MKT was sentenced to jail. The Privy Council, overturned his sentence on appeal and MKT was released after 30 months; his later films were all flops, and he died a broken man in 1950. To this day, the real murderers have not been caught.
Venkatesh G. Iyer, Chennai
A few details on the cases you mention. Bollywood, for instance, took off on the Nanavati case, with the film Achanak. In the Vidya Jain case, the accused accomplice, Chandresh Sharma, was employed in Dr Jain’s clinic. In the Syed Modi case, when the details of the gory murder started coming out, Amita Modi said Sanjay Singh was like her elder brother. Later, she married him and the Rani sahiba of the constituency, (once a princely state), went on to become an MP.
R.N. Bhat, Ghaziabad
"..Rajpal’s only claim to fame was that he wrote and self-published an inflammatory pamphlet three years back under the provocative title of Rangila Rasul. It lead to a lengthy legal battle which Rajpal, incredibly, won in the high court, leading to a country-wide Rangila Rasul agitation by Muslims. [His] murder reflected the lengthening walls between Hindus and Muslims, with Hindu leaders belligerently demanding that every Muslim leader publicly condemn the murderer, Ilamuddin Din."
Ah yes - a book written by someone is "inflammatory" and "provocative," he is murdered by a Muslim and supported by Muslim mobs (Jinnah defended him in court free of charge), but it is the non-Muslims who are "belligerent" by demanding that this murder be condemned.
More evidence of the Stockholm syndrome of Hindus and in particular, of our "secular" journalists.
I see a worrying trend that's symptomatic of the social regressiveness that India is fast plunging into, even in the 5 star murders that captivate the nation-- From the murders of love and passion to the murders of extra marital affairs to the murders of honor killing.
The Nanavaty/Ahuja murder trial in Bombay in 1959 did indeed attract as much attention as a cricket test match. The court room would be full to capacity and during recess, people would rush out to offer namaaz on the lawns praying for the acqittal of Nanavaty. When the jury returned a verdict of "not guilty", the judge called the verdict "perverse" and dismissed the jury. That is exactly the word that the judge in the O.J.Simpson trial in Los Angeles should have used, but unfortunately American law does not permit the judge to question the jury's verdict.
Billa and Ranga were interviewed by the press. Billa confessed to the crime and gave details of his gory crime of an attempt to rape the minor girl. The girl’s younger brother was stabbed several times while he tried to save his sister. Later the girl was killed.
This incident involving these dangerous criminals is mentioned as if "they were conveniently arrested" by police or the police "insisted" that Bill and Ranga were criminals etc., The author was trying to cast doubts about the arrest and trials.
In the same way Nanvathi was granted pardon by Governor in shortest time in history of India which became sensational than the murder itself.
Now the present Arushi murder case ,these parents were arrested only on circumstantial evidence. There is no need to put them in jail until proved guilty but the court chose to put them in jail many years after the crime even while trial is going on. Presumably because they might tamper with the evidence !!!!!
A murder ignites a living tale of interest.Society craves for reassurance time and again about its sense of sanity and civilized existence.A murder,especially the type which involves well placed individuals satisfies such craving.It allows us a chance to give opinion and take sides depending on the circumstances as reported by the media.On a benign note,a murder which becomes talk of the town keeps our innate deviant tendencies satisfied and still.A murder is a murder.It will continue to shock us for times to come.
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