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.
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.
To no avail: so relentless was the spotlight that the accused had to be brought for trial within two weeks. When a huge crowd turned up to witness the trial, special arrangements had to be made to regulate admission to the court-room. It was worth the jostling: celebrity lawyers were lined up for both sides, including M.A. Jinnah, who represented the adjutant-general of the Indore Forces, one of the nine accused. The main witness, the beautiful Mumtaz, stood up to two days of grilling by India’s best lawyers, giving details of her life with the Indore ruler: how she became his mistress at age 12 or 13, how she and her mother were kept under guard and forced to accompany him wherever he went: on shikar, to Bombay, Mussourie or London, the daughter she gave birth to that she alleged was killed at birth, the ruler’s refusal to let her go despite her pleas, running away from his guards and the plot to assassinate her after that.
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.
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.”
Cracks within the family—and the deep anxieties it aroused— were reflected in the way the nation reacted to two murders—both committed in 1973. In the first of the two cases, a senior IAS officer, N. Nagmani, was arrested on the charge of murdering his wife, Rajeswari. An advocate of Patna High Court, Rajeswari’s naked body with a fractured arm and broken tooth was found on the highway, 75 km from their Patna home, five months before Nagmani was arrested. The unclaimed body was cremated, and the case closed. The story would have ended there, but for the efforts of Rajeshwari’s son and mother, who campaigned through the press for reopening the case. Soon after Nagmani’s arrest in August 1973, details began trickling into the national papers: a peon, also arrested, alleged that Nagmani and a doctor first injected Rajeshwari with poison, then strangled her and finally dumped her body outside Patna. Rajeshwari’s relatives said she had been gathering evidence of her husband’s extra-marital affairs. But the case dragged on for four years, and in 1977, in the aftermath of political upheaval, Nagmani was finally acquitted, leaving the mystery of who really killed Rajeswari still unsolved.
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.
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.
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.