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.


Anonymous said...

I think Gere's case is a strange one. India does have some pretty raunchy movies in Kerela and Tamil Nadu, so they can't claim to be a obscenity-free zone. And there was nothing too graphic by today's standard that Gere did. But as you point out, it's a lot of politics and only a little law. But I'm surprised it went all the way to the Supreme Court, an institution that only deals in general public policy issues. This should have been dismissed a lot earlier.

Sandip Madan said...

We're on the same page on this, Jadra. Other than politics on the part of the petitioners, there was also the personal agenda and probably a publicity seeking ego trip on the part of that original judicial official.

Since it did go all the way up to the Supreme Court they should have at least passed orders clarifying jurisdictions that would bar such abuse in the future. That Jaipur magistrate asserted jurisdiction because the show / news was picked by TVs in his area.