It’s time another Ambassador-at-Large is put in place.
By Sujeet Rajan
NEW YORK: In the most significant diplomatic, legal blow to the United States in recent times, and a victory, vindication of immunity, rights for diplomats living in the country, a federal judge dismissed the indictment brought by the Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara against the former Deputy Consul General of India Dr. Devyani Khobragade, here, on Wednesday.
The ruling closes, for now at least, a shameful chapter for the US, which went against all legal, diplomatic reasoning in a near witch hunt against Khobragade; in a matter which was at best a matter destined for the civil courts over allegations of paying less money to her maid.
At Bharara’s directives, signed off by the State Department, Khobragade was arrested by US Marshals without warning outside the school of her children, stripped, cavity searched, shamed, humiliated, thrown into jail with hardened criminals.
Despite India providing evidence in the following days that Khobragade was also a part of the Indian Mission to the US, enjoyed full diplomatic immunity from such unwarranted action, Bharara and the State Department stuck stubbornly to their guns, gave their backing to a cause which was not only unfair and hurtful to Khobragade and India, but was also a show of arrogance to the entire diplomatic community who work in New York City, the home of the United Nations.
When India took a hard stance on the issue, started retaliatory diplomatic measures of its own, Khobragade was asked to leave the country – the diplomatic jargon of her being deported of her own volition. But in a last minute action, before she boarded a plane to India, came perhaps the most controversial decision by Bharara and the State Department – which showed the frustration, anger and vengeful manner this case was conducted: an indictment against Khobragade, who was uprooted from her husband and two daughters, who are all American citizens.
That indictment in January, which was thrown out by the U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin, on Wednesday, was a parting shot to ensure that Khobragade could not come back and be reunited on this country’s soil at least, with her family, at the cost of being imprisoned. It was also to show who was boss. Diplomatic immunity be damned. Indo-US relations is after all a friendship between a Developed and a Developing nation. That the State Department cannot be wrong; Bharara is perfect.
In the intense debate that ensured in the days following the arrest of Khobragade, what people who stood by the action of Bharara and the US missed or could not fathom was that it was not a case of a privileged, born-with-a-silver-spoon, highly educated and accomplished diplomat who had allegedly paid a maid less than promised, and who the Indian government supported. What it was really was a case of wrong doing by the US against a diplomat with immunity, who cannot be prosecuted criminally on such grounds; common courtesy, diplomatic civility, close bilateral ties between two democratic, friendly nations warranted that such an action should never have been contemplated in the first place.
There was universal condemnation from India, including from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The Indian National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon called the treatment of Khobragade “despicable and barbaric.”
The US compounded matters by more egregious decisions, like transporting secretly, without India’s permission, the entire family of the maid, Sangeeta Richard, from New Delhi to New York at taxpayers’ expense, to be given legal residence in the US. All in the name of furthering, strengthening their case against Khobragade. To put a stamp of authority on proceedings they could have avoided by direct government to government negotiations, never have had to bring this matter to court. To spend hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars on a case that should never have been pursued with such aggression.
But try telling this to Bharara. The matter may not be over, as yet. According to a report in the Associated Press, his office may pursue the case, with another indictment, on grounds of Khobragade not paying her maid as per law.
Look at it from Bharara’s viewpoint: he has no other choice to save face, to defend his action of spending all that taxpayers’ money to get the family of Richard flown here for court proceedings. He needs a court proceeding where the family of Richard can testify to justify his action against Khobragade.
While legal residents here spend tens of thousands of hard earned dollars to get permanent residency, wait for decades sometimes to get it, ironically, Bharara has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, played the God of Green Card, in giving residency to Richards’ family flown from India. To get another victory, yet another feather in his illustrious career cap.
Khobragade’s attorney, Daniel Arshack, gave a warning to Bharara on any new measures, an indictment, against Khobragade, saying, it “might be viewed an aggressive act and one that would be ill-advised to pursue.”
While that new indictment may or may not happen, India can only hope that following the Khobragade debacle, the US will relent harassing, persecuting her. Protectionism is at an all-time high. US companies have taken a cue from the government’s actions against India, are trying aggressive measures to curb its IT, pharmaceutical, energy industries, to reduce competition.
India should also importantly change its diplomatic policies as far as dissemination of information is concerned, following the Khobragade incident.
While the State Department gave daily updates on the issue from Washington, DC, and from its embassy in New Delhi, not a single statement was issued officially by either the Indian Ambassador to the US S. Jaishankar in Washington, DC, or the Indian Consul General in New York, Ambassador Dnyaneshwar Mulay since Khobragade’s arrest, till her deportation. It may have been textbook diplomacy, but not the best recourse of action, as far as the Indian and Indian American community is concerned.
The Indian Embassy had a couple of unofficial, off-the-record briefings on the issue. No calls were retuned by the Embassy or the Consulate regarding the Khobragade issue. Even as the issue evolved, then turned nasty, with the entire media in India up in arms against the treatment of Khobragade, the Indian Embassy in Washington continued to maintain stoic silence, issue a regular newsletter highlighting only positive Indo-US news, blanked out news on the Khobragade issue. The only statement that came from an Indian diplomat in the US was one issued by the Permanent Representative to the United Nations Asoke Mukerji, in New York.
What this curiously con-committal action by the Embassy and the Consulate did ultimately was that the Indian and Indian American community in the US did not treat it as a community issue, of an Indian legal resident who was done wrong by the law enforcement and the government. There was negligible community activism.
It’s one thing for condemnation to pour in from the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi, and quite another for the Ambassador and the Consul General to do the same. It’s one thing to exhort the community to come out in support of issues like the civil nuclear deal, but not to say a word against a wrong doing.
In 2003, when Atal Behari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister, India conducted an experiment: an Ambassador-at-Large to cater to the NRIs and PIOs was appointed: Dr. Bhishma Agnihotri was stationed in New York City. That experiment didn’t last too long with Agnihotri and the then Indian Ambassador Lalit Mansingh not getting along too well; it soon turned into an ugly one-upmanship show.
But times have changed. The excellent ambassador Jaishankar, who took over in late December of last year after a stint in China, has a lot on his plate, to try keep in control the brittle nature of Indo-US ties, further bilateral relationship behind closed doors. By all measures, he is going about his way in a very efficient manner. But perhaps, it’s time the community here has a spokesperson and an advocate, who can take up their issues forcefully, whether it be a Khobragade or a Richard. It’s time another Ambassador-at-Large is put into place.
(Sujeet Rajan is the Editor-in-Chief of The American Bazaar)
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