From Divyendu Sinha to Devyani Khobragade, 2013 was a rough year of injustice for the Indian community in the US

A dastardly ‘knockout game’ resulted in murder, and in another case, loss of dignity.

By Sujeet Rajan

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NEW YORK: On June 25th, 2010, Prof. Divyendu Sinha, 49, was walking after dinner with his wife and two sons, who were 16 and 12 at that time, outside their house in Old Bridge Township, New Jersey, when a group of five teenagers – one the driver of the car the group came on – attacked them viciously.

As his young sons were overpowered, restrained, beaten, trying to help their beloved father, four of the murderous gang viciously punched, kicked, brutalized Sinha. The genial and brilliant computer scientist died from his injuries at the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, three days later. He never regained consciousness from the attack.

The Jersey police termed the attack as “youth wilding.” But Sinha, an alumni of the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, with a Doctorate in Computer Science from the Stevens Institute of Technology, was probably the first victim of the murderous, cold blooded assault termed frivolously in popular culture as “knockout game.”

On December 12th, 2013, Dr. Devyani Khobragade had gone to drop her children to school in Manhattan. She was in for the worst surprise of her life. US agents surrounded her, arrested, strip searched, cavity searched, DNA swabbed her, threw her into jail for six hours with criminals with a record. The Deputy Consul General of India at the Indian Consulate in New York, who was also at the time an envoy for the Indian government at the UN, as an Advisor, had no prior criminal record, had diplomatic immunity — unlike ordinary citizens — against arrest for any crime deemed to be not grave in nature. She lost her dignity that day, was shamed, humiliated.

The Attorney General’s office of the Southern District of New York revealed Khobragade was arrested for alleged visa fraud and misrepresentation, charged with offenses that carry 10 and five years jail sentence, respectively.

Two similar charges in the past against Indian diplomats resulted in civil suits, not an arrest. No diplomat in the US has ever been charged criminally for a similar offense, jailed. Khobragade was the exception.

Khobragade seems to be the victim of a discriminatory diplomatic “knockout game” played by the US, with a sucker punched, startled India still reeling from the after effects of the roundhouse blow, unable to come to terms with the sudden, traitorous attack.

How much of a factor is race in the surprising verdict last year in Sinha’s case, with the accused getting off leniently, and in Khobragade’s unnecessary arrest? It’s not an easy answer, but if one were to dismiss and laugh off the race equation in both, it’s foolish.

To say racism doesn’t exist in America is not like saying that there is no 800 pound gorilla in the room (by the way, how many of you have actually seen one at a reception or in the living room of a friend’s house, or even heard somebody saying he has one in his head), but it’s more like going to a zoo, and saying you did not see any animals.

Race is a factor in everyday life in all parts of America. It’s a pervasive entity in the history and culture of the country, energizes and divides public discourse, dictates laws, demarcates boundaries between people of ethnic descent with the Caucasians, and between ethnicities, to the present day. Racism will end in America when global warming comes to an end, or when zoos turn greenhouses, nurse only flowers, and you would be right in saying you did not see any animals on a visit.

A week ago, the US government filed its first hate crimes charges in a “knockout game,” the first such case filed in the cowardly attacks. It’s against a white male, 27, who attacked a black man, 79, in Fulshear, Texas, in November. It’s not hard to guess why. Most of the perpetrators of these attacks are young black males, caught on surveillance tapes, not many have been nabbed.

If a black man had been put on the dock, the African American community would have risen as one and termed the action discriminatory, racist. Blamed for retaliation for centuries of subjugation, as slaves. By trying a white man first, the Obama administration is trying to deflect criticism from the number of cases that is soon going to be brought up as hate crimes against African Americans who have attacked mostly Caucasians.

In the Sinha case, for which judgment was delivered in 2013, it’s hard to ignore that when it came to the jury selection, three Indian-origin jury members selected were not favored by the defense. That despite the five teenagers tried as adults, as perpetrators of hate crimes, they were let off softly with aggravated assault and reckless manslaughter plea bargains. Two of them, both blacks, including one who threw the first punch at Sinha — as testified by his widow Alka Sinha at the trial and who had deleted texts between themselves exulting in how much they enjoyed attacking Sinha — were indicted with only counts of simple assault, rendered to six months in jail.

Six months for a brutal, cold blooded murder?

And even the six months delivered to the two was because the judge decided to punish them, disgusted by the jury’s decision, who found the duo not guilty of grave crimes.

For the Indian and Indian American community in New Jersey, this is the worst affront, injustice, since the hate-fueled dotbuster attacks in the fall of 1987 through 1993, with Indians in Jersey City attacked and harassed.

In fact, in July of 1987, a group called Dotbusters published a threatening letter in the newspaper Jersey Journal, gave warning of the attacks to follow. The attacks claimed eventually the life of an Indian man, Navroze Mody, beaten to death like Sinha was, and left another man, Kaushal Saran, in a coma for a week. The letter stated:

“I’m writing about your article during July about the abuse of Indian People. Well I’m here to state the other side. I hate them, if you had to live near them you would also. We are an organization called dot busters. We have been around for 2 years. We will go to any extreme to get Indians to move out of Jersey City. If I’m walking down the street and I see a Hindu and the setting is right, I will hit him or her. We plan some of our most extreme attacks such as breaking windows, breaking car windows, and crashing family parties. We use the phone books and look up the name Patel. Have you seen how many of them there are? Do you even live in Jersey City? Do you walk down Central avenue and experience what its like to be near them: we have and we just don’t want it anymore. You said that they will have to start protecting themselves because the police cannot always be there. They will never do anything. They are a week [sic] race Physically and mentally. We are going to continue our way. We will never be stopped.”

The outcome for the perpetrators who were caught in the murder of Mody? Charges of aggravated assault, like for three of the men in Sinha’s murder.

If in Sinha’s case, the five cowards who attacked him and his family with force was also an attempt to devastate a close-knit loving family they never had the luck to enjoy in their miserable lives, in Khobragade’s case, the answer is more complicated.

Why did the US punish her and India? Decide India was the one they would go after in a knockout game style attack diplomatically?

Racism in the US exists in different forms, like it does in the caste system in India. If the glass ceiling has been breached in an industry (read brown people), it’s after a mere few decades, if not a century or more; if you excel in academics (read black people), it’s an exception, not the rule; if you work as an agricultural worker (read white people), it’s an excursion to explore life, a vacation between real jobs.

But increasingly, in the modern world, racism comes also in the form of subjugating the other on the business, diplomatic front, to herd a lesser partner in an enterprise to a cowshed, with the least amount of belching and spread of manure to clean up afterwards.

India, with its increasingly confident front in the world arena, has been taking on the US in areas like intellectual property rights, global warming, outsourcing, questioning rights for the IT industry who were wiping jobs in the US, filling with Indian personnel from Bangalore-based companies, questioning, lobbying against aspects of an oppressive immigration reform bill in Congress. A defiant India was becoming a nightmare for the US on the world stage, a bully, who was also an ally.

Super powers like to give direct messages to each other, and to the rest of the world, not necessarily through a hotline phone call, be is Russia giving asylum to Snowden or China collaborating with Pakistan on a nuclear reactor plant.

The US’s message to India: embarrass her, put them in their place, by arresting a bindi-wearing Khobragade — like the dotbusters went after bindi-wearing Indian women in New Jersey — filing criminal charges against her. Teach those bloody Indians a lesson, as the Brits would have said a few decades ago, before they left the shores of the Indian Ocean.

One thing is for sure, the Sinha and Khobragade cases have exposed deep flaws in two seemingly strong, reliable fronts the US showed to the world as a mark of their democracy and first world order: their jury system and their impeccable investigation by law enforcement agencies before an arrest and filing charges.

 (Sujeet Rajan is the Editor-in-Chief of The American Bazaar)      

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