29 November-5 December 2013 #683

Delhi double

The Hemraj-Aarushi murder case holds serious implications for Nepali society

NEW DELHI -- The case of the double murder of 45-year-old Hemraj Banjade (the house-help from Arghakhanchi district in Nepal working for a family in the Delhi suburb of Noida) and 14-year Aarushi Talwar was finally decided by a ‘special CBI court’ in the Indian capital on 25 November. The gavel came down against Rajesh and Nupur Talwar, the dentist couple parents of Aarushi. The husband committed the double-murder, with the wife as accessory to cover-up.

The case has polarised society here between those who firmly believe that the Talwar couple was innocent and others maintaining this as a case of poor, powerless, and foreign domestic helpers being made easy targets of violence. A trail of incompetent investigations of the UP Police and CBI marked the five-year-passage of this case, with the press following it with great interest due to suggestions of a sexual nature in more than one quarter.

The body of Aarushi was found in her bedroom the morning of 16 May 2008. The immediate suspect was Hemraj, but then his decomposed body was discovered in the terrace upstairs the next day. Other Nepali migrant workers were dragged into the net of investigations and subjected to narco tests, ‘brain mappings’, psychological evaluations, and polygraph tests. The workers included Krishna, Rajkumar, and Vijay, who were later released, but the stigma remained so strong that they are all said to have left for Nepal.

The Talwars were sentenced and they apparently plan to submit an appeal to the Allahabad High Court and from there, if required, to the Supreme Court. As the case seems set to proceed through the Indian judicial system, the issues and implications for Nepali society need to be considered back in Kathmandu. At the basic level, it is an agonising testament to the failure of politics to guide the economy that Nepali citizens of plains, hills, and mountains continue to have to go to India (Himachal’s ‘kalapahad’ apple orchards, Punjab’s wheat fields, Bombay bylanes, etc) as they have historically, for the sake of feeding their families.

While the Uttarkhandis (from Kumaon and Garhwal) were roughly at the same place and status in the plains as Nepalis some decades ago. They have since moved up the social ladder. The Nepalis, on the other hand, are competing with others communities who have entered the occupations of domestic help such as chowkidari, restaurant labour, workshop helpers, and agricultural work.

The various marginalised groups within India (adivasis, Dalits, and others) and Bangladeshis are in competition. The Indian citizens of Nepali origin are faced with some of the same, as well as other challenges.

Several criminal cases over recent years have hurt the image of Nepali migrant workers in India and the name of the ‘bahadur’ has been sullied. The extraordinary media interest in such cases, especially where the urban middle and upper classes are victims, has had the effect of negative labeling. It is very likely that the innocent poor have been made scapegoats in many instances, with the salary scales of migrant Nepalis impacted correspondingly.

The political instability in Nepal has affected employment and this must be reversed so our citizens won’t have to go elsewhere for work, a move that disrupts family life, weakens the home economy, and creates a cumulative burden of national psychological distress.

The media interest on ‘manpower’ issues related to the high-visibility labour migration of Nepalis to Malaysia and the Gulf diverts attention from the very poorest undocumented workers in India. There are few studies of Nepali workers in India and matters related to their social status and security are ignored with fatalistic negligence. The government in Kathmandu has not even placed an ambassador at Barakhamba Road for more than two years.

As Nepal transitions towards more representative and accountable government, the single focus and goal for policy-makers and politicians should be on generating mass-level dignified employment within Nepal.

Hemraj Banjade was forced to serve a society and economy far away from his own. When the departure of Nepali citizens for work in India ends, it will indicate that Nepal is about to fulfill its historical promise as a nation-state to its citizens.

Kanak Mani Dixit