Not Narendra Modi anymore, Congress leaders becoming new pariah in the US.
By Sujeet Rajan
NEW YORK: A startling new development on Monday, in the Federal summons case against Sonia Gandhi in the courts of New York City – accusing her of protecting members of the Congress party for their alleged role in the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 – has set the stage for the judge to make a ruling, which could also have an impact on the Lok Sabha elections in India.
Brian M. Cogan, the United States District Judge, Eastern District of New York, had in an order last month, on March 20th, required Gandhi, the President of the Indian National Congress party, to provide documentary evidence, such as a copy of her passport, to further demonstrate her non-presence in the United States during the period September 2, 2013 through September 12, 2013, by Monday, April 7.
The lawsuit brought against Gandhi by the Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) had claimed that numerous summons were served on Gandhi in September of last year when she was allegedly admitted to the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, the first half of the month, through her security personnel and hospital staff. SFJ did not claim, however, to have served the summons directly to Gandhi.
SFJ, a non-profit group, had brought the civil suit against Gandhi, along with two victims of the 1984 riots, Jasbir Singh, and Mohender Singh, claiming she had a “leading role in shielding the members, office bearers, leaders and supporters of her party that played an active role in the Genocide.” They are seeking compensatory and punitive damages against Gandhi.
The lawsuit is filed under the Alien Tort Statute, which allows U.S. citizens to file civil suits in federal courts for violations of international law, and under the Torture Victims Protection Act, which allows civil cases to be brought against any official in a foreign nation.
Gandhi, through her attorney, Ravi Batra, had refuted those charges all along saying that she has no connection to the riots, and also that she was not present in the United States during those days in September of last year, so there was no question of summons being served on her.
On Monday, Batra filed a letter signed by Gandhi – a copy of which is with The American Bazaar – in the court, in which Gandhi explains that the government of India has refused the allow her to divulge the details of her passport, but she has “nothing to hide” and that she “voluntarily relinquish” her position that she was not present in the United States from September through September 12th of 2013.
The full text of the letter, addressed to Batra, dated April 5, 2014, says: “In matters of disclosure of my travels, which are contained in the passport document, the Government of India has informed me that they would not permit such a disclosure.
“However, as I have nothing to hide, I voluntarily relinquish the plea of lack of personal jurisdiction. I may add that the present submission is without prejudice to the plea of want of jurisdiction in relation to the subject matter.”
The letter is signed by Sonia Gandhi.
In a separate letter to Judge Cogan, Batra write that “the Indian Government has refused to permit the release of Mrs. Gandhi’s passport because of concerns with respect to her personal security and keeping confidential the methods used to protect her. It appears that much as our government’s Secret Service and Diplomatic Security agents need to keep their means and methods confidential, so too do the Indian authorities with respect to those they are charged with protecting.”
Batra continues: “Our client, however, wishes to be as cooperative as she can to arrive at a final determination of this matter, notwithstanding that she was not in the United States, nor served with process However, Mrs. Gandhi does not possess the records of United States government agencies, such as Customs and Border Protection, or records of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center – given she was not there during the subject period. Accordingly, in an effort to bring this matter to an expeditious resolution, without the delays occasioned by requests to federal government agencies for the production of their records, or the need to burden Sloan-Kettering with a hunt for non-existent records, Mrs. Gandhi has informed us in writing that because she has “nothing to hide” she is willing to withdraw her objection, by pending motion, to the defective/non-service of process (Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b )(5)) and to the exercise of personal jurisdiction (Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b )(2)) so as to permit the Honorable Court to address the substantive arguments of her motion. Mrs. Gandhi has emphasized, however, that she in no way waives her objections with respect to the exercise of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1).”
In an interview to the Bazaar on Monday, Batra explained that Gandhi has by no means decided not to contest the case, like in the case of Devyani Khobragade, which the Indian government have said they have abandoned after a second indictment against her in New York. On the contrary, this move by him, on Gandhi’s behalf, was to bring matters to a conclusion, and have the case dismissed, he said.
“Mrs. Sonia Gandhi has taken a brave step,” said Batra.
In essence, this latest move by Gandhi contends that it doesn’t make a difference whether she was in New York City or not during the time frame of September 2-12, 2013, or summons were served or not. What matters is that she wants the case to be heard on its merits, and dismissed.
But the important question is if that is going to happen? Will judge Cogan indeed do that?
Batra is confident of that, pointing out to a case brought by the SFJ against Union Minister Kamal Nath that was dismissed in 2012, after a summon was served on him at the Indian Consulate in New York. He also refers to the ruling by the US Supreme Court in April, 2013, in which it was decided that alien tort statute does not permit US courts to make judgments outside of the home country jurisdiction.
Batra points out that he has also filed an “anti-suit injunction” in January of this year, which if implemented, would have courts in the US not take up lawsuits on issues that occur on foreign land.
“The Sikhs for Justice has started a cottage industry seeking lawsuits, which is unusual,” said Batra.
Judge Cogan is expected to give a ruling on the Gandhi case within the month. In his March 20th ruling, he had specifically asked for documentary evidence, however.
“This would appear to obviate both the need for any documents from the hospital-resolving defendant’s medical privacy concerns — and the need to rely upon a third party government agency like Customs and Border Protection,” Cogan said in that ruling.
Now in the absence of any documentary proof, Cogan may decide to ask for proof from the hospital or the Department of Homeland Security for the arrival and exit records of Gandhi. SFJ has a pending Freedom of Information request with the hospital, since January of this year.
Batra is banking on the judge going ahead with a final ruling – and adhering to the Supreme Court ruling made last year and tossing the case out, rather than extending the case further and asking for documentary proof, which if it is contradictory to what he has been claiming all along – that Gandhi was not in the US during those days in September – could prove to be highly embarrassing for not only Gandhi, but to the entire Congress party. It could also taint India’s image in ways right now unimaginable. Needless to say, it could also adversely affect the Congress party in the crucial last leg of the Lok Sabha polls.
There was widespread speculation in the Indian media in September of last year that Gandhi was being treated at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, for a suspected ailment. One of the closet aides of Gandhi and a senior Congress party leader, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, had also made a comment that seemed to indicate that was indeed getting treatment in New York.
“Summons issued almost 30 years after the event when the Congress president is on a medical visit is, to put it mildly, astonishing. Undoubtedly, appropriate legal action will be taken,” Singhvi was quoted as saying then by the Press Trust of India.
But the vilification of the Congress party leaders, and to have them be perpetually hounded by US courts, for the 1984 riots, is perhaps a phenomenon here to stay. It is also likely to prevent top Congress leaders to contemplate casual visits to the US – which may end up with them being sued, served summons and subsequently would require expensive services of attorneys to keep groups like the SFJ at bay.
Though not related, a separate summons case against the Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh, by the Sikhs for Justice, is also looming large in a federal court in Washington, DC, later this month.
The court had given SFJ time till April 14th to serve Singh the summons in India, or to update on its progress. SFJ has hired Process Forwarding International (PFI), a Washington-based firm, to serve the summons in India according to the Hague Service Convention.
With even lawmakers on Capitol Hill now taking the riots of 1984 in the same breath as the riots of 2002, with increasing regularity – one such instance being last week – what’s getting clear is that the new pariah in the US is not Narendra Modi anymore. It’s the Congress party, and its leaders who have been associated with the party since the 1984 riots.
If the Devyani Khobragade episode marked a bad phase in Indo-US relations, the worst part is still to come.
(Sujeet Rajan is the Editor-in-Chief of The American Bazaar)
To contact the author, email to email@example.com