In less than a month, Indian Deputy Consul in New York and members of the Russian Permanent Mission to the United Nations came under judicial harassment by U.S. federal law enforcement in contravention of well-established and recognized diplomatic conventions, norms, and practices.
On December 12, Devyani Khobragade, the deputy Indian consul general and advisor to the Permanent Mission of India to the United Nation, was arrested by law enforcement officials in New York. The arrest was in violation of the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations. Khobragade was criminally charged by the chief federal prosecutor in New York with committing U.S. visa fraud to hire an underpaid domestic servant. The 39-year old Indian diplomat was stripped naked, subjected to an invasive body cavity search, and jailed before posting bail.
On December 5, the same federal prosecutor charged 49 Russian diplomats assigned to the Russian Mission to the United Nations, the Russian Consulate General in New York, and the Russian Trade Mission with committing Medicare fraud over a ten-year period. In the case of the Russian diplomats, the prosecutor recognized the defendants’ diplomatic immunity. However, in the case of Ms. Khobragade, diplomatic immunity was ignored.
The common denominator in both U.S. government assaults on diplomatic immunity in New York is the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Manhattan Preet Bharara, a native of Firozpur, Punjab, India and a naturalized U.S. citizen. A possible explanation for Bharara’s rough arrest of Khobragade in comparison to his decision not to arrest the Russian diplomats lies in India’s arcane caste system.
Bharara, the son of a Sikh father and Hindu mother, is a member of India’s upper caste. Khobragade, on the other hand, is a dalit, a member of India’s so-called “untouchable” or lower class. The fact that Bharara, a Columbia University law school graduate, a Democrat, and a Barack Obama loyalist, would permit Indian caste politics to creep into his decision-making processes, has many legal experts in New York and around the country alarmed. Even as Secretary of State John Kerry tried to assuage India’s outrage over America’s treatment of its diplomat, Bharara stood his ground in defending the treatment of Khobragade, even as Kerry was officially passing his “regrets” to senior Indian officials.
Bharara’s outrageous treatment of Khobragade may also have its roots in the treatment Indian males generally afford females. Recent stories of misogyny and the routine rape that Indian women are subjected to in a largely male-dominant society were eclipsed in the media by Bharara’s charge that the diplomat exploited her maid by paying her a sub-standard wage and lied on visa papers to bring her into the United States.
The Russian diplomats were charged by Bharara with underreporting their income in order to qualify for Medicare subsidies for health care. A number of UN diplomats in New York, a high cost-of-living area, have received Medicare subsidies to offset their relatively low income.
In neither case, that of the Russian diplomats or Khobragade, were the foreign governments notified in advance of the actions to be taken by the federal prosecutor. Bharara apparently acted, at least in the case of Khobragade, without the knowledge of Kerry. That, itself, is a gross breach of the authority of the State Department as the chief interlocutor between the U.S. government and governments abroad.
It is a simple matter for the record that a number of naturalized U.S. citizens who have become senior Justice Department officials have shown utter contempt for the U.S. Constitution and long-established American legal practices. In this regard, Bharara is joined in his misconduct by former Justice Department officials Viet Dinh, a native of Vietnam and one of the primary authors of the draconian USA Patriot Act; John Yoo, a native of South Korea and an architect of America’s secret kidnapping and torture program; and extreme right-winger Miguel Estrada, a native of Honduras whose nomination for the U.S. Supreme Court was blocked by the U.S. Senate because of his extremist views.
There is another factor behind Khobragade’s arrest. The maid who accused the diplomat of grossly underpaying her is Sangeeta Richard, whose father is an employee of the U.S. embassy in Delhi. Ms. Richard’s mother reportedly worked for a senior U.S. diplomat in Delhi (some Indians claim the diplomat was actually with the CIA). Furthermore, Ms. Richard’s husband, Philip Richard, was an official driver for the Mozambican embassy in Delhi. Yet, with all of these diplomatic and intelligence contacts, we were told by Bharara that Sangeeta Richard was some sort of abused and powerless domestic servant being paid much less than a living wage.
Moreover, on December 10, two days before Khobragade’s arrest, someone in the U.S. State Department arranged for Philip Richard and the couple’s two children to fly on Air India to the United States and be granted T-visas, a normally tough visa to procure and reserved for those who are going to testify in the United States about criminal activities abroad. The Indian government and media now suspect that Sangeeta Richard was a “dangle” used to exfiltrate a CIA family out of India. Khobragade’s arrest two days after the Richard family was spirited out of India has many Indians and Americans convinced that Bharara was acting on behalf of the CIA and that the professed ignorance of Kerry in the matter was a result of a highly-compartmented intelligence operation.
In 2004, Army Major Rabinder Singh, a senior official of India’s foreign intelligence Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and a CIA agent, was exfiltrated out of India via Kathmandu, Nepal. Burned by the fact that the exfiltration, which was facilitated by the CIA station chief in Kathmandu, became public, the CIA may have engineered the exfiltration of the Richard family by concocting a visa fraud story against Khobragade. Bharara, the Indian-American, was the perfect choice to handle the India caper on behalf of CIA headquarters in Langley.
India’s response to Khobragade’s arrest by canceling special identity cards and duty free shopping privileges for U.S. consular officials in India appeared to be a measured retaliation often employed in espionage scandals. Among the U.S. consular officials to lose their special privileges were those at the U.S. Consulate General in Chennai, from where the CIA once staged another recruitment of a senior RAW official.
There is also an element of racism at play in the humiliating arrest of Khobragade. Abuse of Indian officials and diplomats is nothing new in post-constitutional America. Former Indian President Abdul Kalam was frisked twice by U.S. authorities, in 2011 on board an Air India plane at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport and in 2009 before he boarded a Continental Airlines flight from Delhi to the United States. Indian protests were largely ignored by Washington.
In December 2010, Indian ambassador to the U.S. Meera Shanka was frisked by a U.S. security screener in Mississippi who did not understand the meaning of diplomatic status. Former Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes was strip searched at Washington Dulles Airport in 2003.
Similar stories can be told by other “non-white” diplomats and officials who have visited the United States. In 2006, Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro, who was foreign minister at the time, was verbally abused and strip-searched by officials at John F. Kennedy airport. Maduro was returning home after attending the annual UN General Assembly plenary session.
Barack Obama has done nothing to change America’s bellicosity toward diplomats, especially those of color. Obama is merely a congenial face of color that hides America’s true nature: a nation that condones racism along with an ever-looming threat of a jackboot and strip-search…