So who's not guilty here?

Published: 29 December, 2013 08:32 IST | Raj Kanwar |

The Devyani Khobragade episode is getting curiouser by the day. The diplomat may have committed an illegal act, as did her maid Sangeeta Richard. And now New York attorney Preet Bharara seems to have bitten off more than he can chew as well, says Raj Kanwar

All the three players directly involved in the ongoing Devyani Khobragade episode appear to be guilty with varying degree of culpability.

The foremost of course is Devyani Khobragade herself, India’s deputy consul general in New York and prima donna in this continuing saga whose arrest on December 12 has triggered the latest and one of the shrillest diplomatic spats between the US and Indian governments in recent times.

India's Deputy Consul General in New York Devyani Khobragade. File Pic

The second 2 actor in this drama is Sangeeta Richard, the Woman-Friday in Khobragade’s household whose complaint had led to the diplomat’s arrest and the consequent hullabaloo that has brought to a boil the diplomatic relations between the two countries.

And the last character in this circus is the highly motivated and hyper-conscientious Preet Bharara, Indian-American Attorney for Southern districts of New York who arrested and charged Khobragade with willfully committing visa fraud and perjury thatcan put, in the worst scenario, the Indian diplomat in gaol for up to 15 years.

US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara. Pic/AFP

Unmindful of the consequences of her averments in the visa application for Richard, prima facie it appears that Khobragade has committed perjury or less. Technically, Richard too is equally culpable in as much as she attested her employer’s statements about the terms of the former’s employment.

It seems Richard must have become somewhat ambitious and demanded permission to work with outsiders during her free time. On the other hand, Bharara seems to have thrown discretion to the winds by allowing himself to become a party to the indignities and humiliation inflicted upon the Indian deputy consul general even if it was the general arrest procedure in the US. After all, Bharara is not a robot and should have used some
common sense.

The initial reactions of the two governments were blunt and devoid of any diplomatic niceties. For once, stung by the incessant criticism of being a ‘lame duck’ government, the minister of external affairs Salman Khurshid came out guns blazing and wanted ‘more than a regret’ saying that “what was done is unacceptable”. Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath went a step further by declaring “we have made it clear that America has to apologise in the matter… and accept that they have made a mistake. Only then, we will be satisfied.” What bravado, absolutely out of character for Indian ministers! In fact, all of this fulmination was not per se so much against her arrest but against the indignity of being handcuffed and worse, stripped and cavitysearched.

Strident cries by all and sundry, including the bigwigs of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were raised asking ‘tit-for-tat’ reprisals against the American diplomats in India. As a result, the American embassy consular expat staffers were asked to surrender by last Monday their privileges, including the diplomatic ID cards given to them. However, Khurshid’s stridency disappeared two days later when he started singing a mellowed tune extolling the virtues of ‘Indo-US relations’. He even talked about extending by three days the deadline of Monday for surrendering of the privileges, as sought by the US embassy. However, it now appears that there was a good deal of discordance between the minister and the babus in the ministry. The ministry thus,despite the assurance by Khurshid, withdrew all the identity cards with the US consular officials as the last Monday’s deadline ended.

There is a good reason for this discordance. The issue of employing domestic ‘help’ from India is a sensitive one. Most of the mandarins in the ministry of external affairs are by and large ‘guilty’ of practicing it whenever they are posted abroad, particularly in a Western country where domestic ‘help’ is either a costly affair or not available. This obviously explains the general empathy felt for Khobragade in the corridors of the South Block.

The initial US reaction was couched in legalese rejecting the demand for withdrawal of the charges against the Indian diplomat saying that the State department did not have any say in such matters and that the issue was entirely in the hands of the prosecutors. The State department further maintained that
Khobragade did not enjoy any diplomatic immunity being a consular officer and made it clear that there was no question of either withdrawing the charges against her or even of apologising. Later the US reactions, however, were somewhat muted and conciliatory. Secretary of state John Kerry even went to the extent of expressing regret.

Spokespersons of the State department took pains to explain that the arrest was a limited, isolated and separate incident where somebody was ‘charged with a crime’ and should not provoke ‘a tit-for-tat’ reciprocal measures.

Incidentally, Khobragade boasts of an opulent upbringing; she was born in Mumbai to a dalit family. The daughter of an IAS officer, she studied in the elite Mount Carmel School. Later, she did her MBBS but instead chose to join the Indian Foreign Service in 1999. One of her uncles, too, is an IFS officer of the 1985 batch. With her influential family background, she was treated with kid gloves and given plum postings in prestigious missions including Pakistan, Italy, Germany and now New York. However, this is not to doubt her merits; she was selected in 2012 for the coveted ‘Chevening Rolls-Royce Scholarship’.

The Indian government has now transferred her to the UNO so that she could get the diplomatic immunity from this prosecution and the resultant trial. That effectively means that she would have immunity from the court case but it would only last until she stays on in the UNO. The immunity, unfortunately, is not with retrospective effect. If she returns to the US, her prosecution will automatically be reinstated. Her only option could have been to not ever come back to the US but that cannot be since she is married to an Indian-American professor with two daughters aged three and six and the rest of her life is forever linked with the United States.

Preet Bharara, born Preetinder Singh in 1968 in Ferozepur in the Punjab, is not a Johnny come lately. He is not a brash attorney trying to prove himself. Bharara is already an accomplished and prominent figure in the US. He was named by the TIME magazine in 2012 as ‘One of the most 100 Influential people in the world’. No mean achievement for someone not well known outside his profession and the country. He was also named the ‘Man Of The Year in 2011 by India Abroad magazine. Bharara, in fact, has earned much fame as a crusader against all sorts of white collar crimes such as Insider Trading and other financial irregularities at the Wall Street that falls within his jurisdiction as US Attorney for the Southern District of New York. However, he could be embarrassed, to say the least, if this Khobragade episode turns nasty.

PS: Interestingly, Philip Richard, Sangeeta’s husband and their two children flew by an Air India flight on December 10 to the US. Their tickets were paid for by the US embassy in New Delhi. The return journey is slated for March 3, 2014 but the ticket also has the ‘Open’ option. Wonder why Uncle Sam did such a philanthropic act?

Raj Kanwar is Dehra Dun-based writer and freelance journalist.

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