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In India, servants are seen as the usual suspects

In a nation where nearly every middle-class family has servants — often entire crews of poorly paid country people — fear and mistrust are always bubbling.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The butler did it.

In the West, it's a cheap way to end a second-rate whodunit. But in modern India, it's a common refrain for police.

In a nation where nearly every middle-class family has servants — often entire crews of poorly paid country people — fear and mistrust are always bubbling among the different social classes sharing one roof.

And when crimes are committed in India's well-to-do neighborhoods, the suspicion boils over, often landing on household servants who are labeled criminals before the blood dries.

The murder of 14-year-old Arushi Talwar, found dead May 16 in her bedroom in suburban New Delhi, has caused a national uproar and become the cardinal example of servant fears run amok.

Servant immediately named suspect
After the murder, police immediately named the Talwars' missing Nepali servant Hemraj as the prime suspect and dispatched a team to Nepal to look for him.

One catch: The servant wasn't missing. The day after the murder, his body was discovered lying on a terrace a floor above where the teenage victim had been slain. It had been there the whole time.

Police now believe Talwar and Hemraj were killed by the girl's father. The speculation was that he either caught them having an affair or they had caught him in an indiscretion of his own.

The authorities' initial blame-the-servant reaction and quick about-face prompted Nepali servants and laborers in the days following the killing to protest outside the police station investigating the murders.

"We become prime suspects every time there is a crime in the house or the neighborhood we work in," 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?"

Fair or not, police say the servants' poverty, and their employers' wealth, is enough to cast suspicions on the help.

"The class difference of employers and the employed is so big and that tempted them to commit crimes," New Delhi police spokesman Rajan Bhagat told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

A cultural bias
So far this year, five people in and around New Delhi have been robbed or killed by their servants, compared with six in all of last year, Bhagat said.

Suspicion of servants committing crimes has been a part of Indian culture for years, although the recent attacks have heightened the alarm. Also in the background is India's caste system: The servants often are also of a lower caste than their employers, adding to the mistrust and discrimination.

While the numbers are minuscule in this city of roughly 16.6 million, the cases usually get heavy play on India's hyper-competitive TV news channels and in its newspapers.

So the specter of the "bad servant" haunts the dreams of the rising middle-class. Tales of shifty guards, drunk chauffeurs, and meals laced with sedatives get told like ghost stories at posh dinner parties. A popular new novel even tells the story of a bitter chauffeur in New Delhi who slits his employer's throat.

Fear of the servant menace reached a fever pitch in New Delhi following Monday's slaying of Anil Sharma, a 55-year-old property dealer found dead in his home, his hands tied, a bedsheet around his neck. Police promptly announced a manhunt for Sharma's Nepali servant, who was seen fleeing the scene by the victim's mother.

They also warned the public to keep an eye on their own help, urging people to register their servants with local precincts so police could track them down if they were to turn on their employers.

In the two days since the killing, TV newscasters have been reporting breathlessly from the murder scene, just as they did in the days following the Talwar killing. A newspaper Tuesday published a cartoon of a crazed servant robbing an old woman.

In India, servants are mainstream
The very notion of butlers may evoke musty visions from a lost era: tea served on fine china, white gloved hands opening parlor doors.

But in India, servants have never gone out of fashion, although they certainly don't serve dinner on silver trays, if they ever did.

They're usually young men and women from rural India or neighboring Nepal who work for small salaries, live in tiny, dingy rooms in their employers' homes, and are expected to clean, drive, cook and shop — to serve quietly and to move quickly. They earn $25 to $150 a month, a small price for the employers, many of whom are enjoying the fruits of India's booming economy, and enough to scrape by for the young migrants.

While they often become almost like members of the family, some feel the widening gap between rich and poor has made the relationship fraught with danger.

The paranoia has reached Manish Gill, 23, an engineer at a New Delhi telecommunications company who says his family is afraid to hire new help.

"Now lots of crimes are committed by servants," said Gill, who wears a gold chain and two fake diamond earrings. "We are not safe."

His family has employed the same maid for six years, a woman Gill said he trusts entirely.

"But I'm nervous," he said. "They're poor people and they want huge money and that's why they kill people."