Friday, April 18, 2008

Bad Things Happen To The Best People

Last month my father-in-law ("Daddy") informed us about the murder of Asha (aka Aasha) and her husband Brij Chhabra in Troy, Michigan. Asha was the only child of Daddy's best friend and cousin, S.K. Mirchandani who had passed away a few years ago. She had inherited a sizeable estate in India worth over $2 million.

Now in the US with her family, Asha let a close family friend still maintaining Indian connections manage the property for her. This person whom she trusted completely was Narayan Thadani, who now lived in Texas. Well, Thadani secretly sold off her estate and stole all the proceeds. When he was exposed and on the verge of losing a lawsuit in Texas, he hired two El Salvadoreans to kill Asha and her husband. As this news story reports, by sheer chance the two were caught following a routine traffic stop after they drove away from the crime scene.

Their deaths were horrible news to us, though Anita recalled little if anything about Asha and I hadn't met her or her husband. Or so I thought. But Daddy said my own parents knew the family of Mr. S.K. Mirchandani well. When I called with the news my parents said that I too had known Asha well from way back. I was surprised.

They told me Asha's dad Mr. S.K. Mirchandani was my dad's boss for about two years when he first joined the Indian government long before I was born. Mr. Mirchandani was one of the finest and upright of people so my Dad was devoted to him, and remained friends long after their official association ended. My parents said we'd visit the Mirchandanis often in Delhi, and I loved playing with Asha.

Then it hit me who Asha really was. She was the first person that I had asked to be my best friend (she accepted) when I was five and she was eight years old. She was bubbly and caring and fun. My favorite play then was simply to run and she'd laughingly run alongside. Or we'd play tag on her lawn. I'd eagerly look forward to going to her house. I was too young to have been a true playmate for her, but she indulged me with gusto and kept me so happy and excited that I'd hate to leave.

I last saw her when I was eight, after quite a gap because of my parents' preoccupation with other family matters. I was excited to see her again and noticed how much she'd changed. She must have hit a growth spurt because she was now a few inches taller than I. She had become graceful and lady-like and with her large eyes and now shoulder-length hair looked to me like an angel. While we didn't play physical games like before, she showed me interesting things in her room and responded to my chatter. I remember how she laughed at my fascination with flashlights and produced one for us to play with.

Till now I was unaware that I had ended up marrying her second cousin. Her family (maiden) name Mirchandani hadn't registered in my young mind when I knew her or I'd have made the connection much earlier. Now she and her husband are tragically gone, and I've heard they were every bit as nice as what I recalled about her. This other news item other details of the killing and its immediate aftermath. There are also pictures of them and their killer(s) on the internet - just search Google images. My heart goes out to their young daughter Suman that they left behind.

I'd like their cold-bloodied killers (including the family friend who ordered the hit) to be punished under the fullest extent of the law. But this won't bring Asha and her husband back.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Supreme Court Under-Delivers In Gere Case

On March 14, 2008 the Indian Supreme Court finally acted on that arrest warrant against actor Richard Gere which had become an object of concern and derision around the world. Gere's alleged offense was playfully kissing actress Shilpa Shetty on her cheek at an AIDS awareness gathering in Delhi on April 15, '07 that I discussed in my May 9, '07 post.

Some may be relieved that the Supreme Court suspended the arrest warrant so Gere is free to visit and travel around India again. But the courts and/or the legislature should have done much more to prevent such abuse in the future. Here's why I am so dissatisfied with the outcome:
  • This case should have been used to lay down jurisdictional guidelines by the Indian Supreme Court which would have been binding on all lower courts. In Gere's case an obscure judicial official based in another state (Rajasthan) hundreds of kilometers away from the incident in Delhi started the proceedings and issued the arrest warrant. Just because media footage is aired in some place should not give the local judiciary the authority to summon or proceed against people who were never within their physical jurisdiction. For interstate occurrences there should be a clear single jurisdiction court. That way you need to only depend on the good sense and judgement of that court instead of being hostage to the whims or shenanigans of any one of the thousands of courts.
  • This arrest warrant and proceedings should have been nipped in the bud by Rajasthan's own higher courts. There's the District and Sessions Judge of Jaipur, and above that the Rajasthan High Court that could have taken suo motto (i.e., of their own) notice to quash the proceedings and to admonish this lower official. Instead, Gere's lawyers had to go all the way to the highest court of the land, and I can imagine all the hassle and expense this entailed.
  • The Supreme Court did not issue any strictures (i.e., rebuke) against the judicial official which would impact his service record and discourage similar actions in the future. The Supreme Court instead chose just to scold the original complainants which is a hollow action.
  • The Supreme Court has only "indefinitely suspended" the arrest warrant, instead of quashing the entire case against Gere.
  • The Supreme Court ruling came after 11 long months. In this time the original judicial official succeeded in his primary objective of harassing a celebrity and garnering importance and publicity for himself.

Sadly, there has been a pattern in the Indian judiciary of protecting their own and to expand their powers. Over twenty years ago began this trend of higher courts taking up so-called "Public Interest Litigation" (PIL) and to make executive decisions or legislate from the bench in the guise of court orders. In Himachal state I had also seen judges filing cases with each other and passing judgements granting themselves bigger budgets, better housing or other benefits.

The Supreme Court judges in Gere's case apparently sympathized with him but were not neutral arbiters of justice. They were unwilling to lay guidelines however justified to curb judicial overreach and diminish the capacity of their junior colleagues to do mischief. Ideally, the Legislature can step in and at least lay down the juridictional parameters for this purpose. The lawmakers have other preoccupations, and are currently too fragmented politically to act. But I hope this situation changes soon.