Devyani Khobragade Scandal: The View From India

If it's a simple case of a poor maid being mistreated by her diplomat employer, why are so many Indians so angry over the Devyani Khobragade affair?

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Ahmad Masood / Reuters

Supporters of Rashtrawadi Shiv Sena, a Hindu hardline group, carry placards during a protest near the U.S. embassy in New Delhi Dec.18, 2013

The Indian government has slammed the arrest in New York City of one of its middle-ranking diplomats as being contrary to the Vienna Convention, and characterized the U.S. prosecutor’s explanation as “rhetorical” and an act of “interference.”

Deputy consul-general Devyani Khobragade, 39, was arrested on Dec. 12 and later bailed on charges of visa fraud and underpaying her domestic helper, who is also Indian. The alleged offenses do not appear to be covered by diplomatic immunity and U.S. prosecutor Preet Bharara said that in detention Khobragade was given courtesies “well beyond” what regular suspects are shown.

“The agents arrested her in the most discreet way possible, and unlike most defendants, she was not then handcuffed or restrained. In fact, the arresting officers did not even seize her phone as they normally would have,” said Bharara, who added that marshals “brought her coffee and offered to get her food.”

In an official statement issued Thursday, the Indian government criticized Bharara and said that “There were no courtesies in the treatment that was meted out to the diplomat, under the normal definition of that word in the English language.” New Delhi also accused Bharara of attempting to make “a post facto rationalization for an action that should never have taken place in the first instance.”

The claim that Khobragade was strip- and cavity-searched — standard practice for all defendants in U.S. custody — caused outrage in India.

(VIDEO: Indian Diplomat’s New York Arrest and Strip Search Sparks Fury at Home)

Many Indians believe that Khobragade’s domestic helper, Sangeeta Richards, went to the U.S. on Indian government sponsorship with the sole intention of securing a green card. The Indian edition of the Mail Online reports that Richards went missing from her place of employment in June — seven months after arriving in the U.S. with Khobragade — and surfaced two weeks later with an immigration lawyer demanding $10,000 and a regular passport instead of her diplomatic one. Khobragade then filed an injunction in the High Court in Delhi in an attempt to protect herself from any legal action launched by Richards in the U.S.

The Indian government thus considers the affair to be a dispute between two consular staff, subject to Indian laws. “When the legal process in another friendly and democratic country is interfered with in this manner, it not only amounts to interference but also raises the serious concern of calling into question the very legal system of that country,” the official statement said.

New Delhi is also livid that Richards’ husband and children have been brought to the States by U.S. authorities, because they were, in Bharara’s words, being “reportedly … confronted in numerous ways regarding this case” and because of legal action being brought against Richards in India. Al Jazeera, quoting media reports, said that Richards’ family had been taken into custody for a time. The Indian government asked “what right a foreign government has to ‘evacuate’ Indian citizens from India while cases are pending against them in the Indian legal system.”

The Indian press has meanwhile turned on Bharara, an Indian-born attorney behind some of America’s most high profile convictions in the last few years — among them those of Rajat Gupta, a former Goldman Sachs director, and billionaire hedge-fund mogul Raj Rajaratnam, for insider trading. “Is US attorney Preet Bharara using the Khobragade case for a political career?” asked the Firstpost news website. “There are whispers that Bharara jumped the gun because he is looking for trophy ‘scalps’ as a springboard to public office,” it added. India Today asked “Is Bharara targeting Indians?”

Some analysts fear that the Khobragade affair has exacted a heavy toll on U.S.-India relations. “We may not be back to square one, but are not very far from it either,” says Mohan Guruswamy, founder and chairman of Delhi think-tank Centre for Policy Alternatives.

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