Op-ed and Comment

Devyani Khobragade

Or how Preet Bharara jeopardised Indo-US relationships by showing off.

Only the US has the power to calm its dispute with India
Shoba Narayan

December 22, 2013 Updated: December 22, 2013 18:25:00

The continuing diplomatic row between the US and India over the Devyani Khobragade case is a lose-lose situation for both countries.
From the US point of view, Ms Khobragade is accused of exploiting her nanny by paying her lower than the minimum wage and then lying about it on a visa application. She stands charged with visa fraud.
From the Indian point of view, the US has violated the Vienna Convention by arresting a serving Indian diplomat, strip searching her, doing a DNA swab and cavity search, and keeping her in a cell inhabited by drug addicts, among others.
To make matters worse, Preet Bharara, US attorney for the southern district of New York, has issued a statement that casts aspersions on Indian laws and citizens.
“One wonders whether any government would not take action regarding false documents being submitted to it in order to bring immigrants into the country. One wonders even more pointedly whether any government would not take action regarding that alleged conduct where the purpose of the scheme was to unfairly treat a domestic worker in ways that violate the law,” said the statement.
When you get on a high horse – as Mr Bharara has done – you have to make sure of the facts and history.
Underpaying a nanny is not exactly unusual in the US. In 1993, Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood, two of Bill Clinton’s choices for attorney general, had to drop out after it was discovered that they were underpaying their nannies. In 2010, Meg Whitman lost the California gubernatorial race when it was discovered that she had employed an illegal alien.
One wonders whether Mr Bharara is singling out Ms Khobragade for ignominy because he is confident that India will not retaliate. Even more pointedly, one wonders whether his own government has taken action regarding the routine employment of illegal aliens in restaurants and at home. And one wonders why there is precious little outrage from Mr Bharara for those Americans who are known to be breaking the law.
Commentators in the US speculate whether this is because Mr Bharara has designs on higher office. Whether he has – to use common parlance — a thing against Indians even though, or because, he was born in India.
Whatever the case, Mr Bharara has compounded an already unnecessary arrest with his unnecessary words.
The matter could have been handled sensitively and quietly by summoning Ms Khobragade to his office and resolving it by making her pay back wages to Ms Richards or any of the other methods used to punish Ms Baird, Ms Wood and Ms Whitman, all of who were in similar situations.
Instead, Mr Bharara had Ms Khobragade arrested. By doing so, he has jeopardised decades of relationship-building between the world’s two largest democracies. By arresting Ms Khobragade, a serving diplomat, the US attorney’s office clearly violated the spirit of the law and the code enforced by the Vienna Convention.
The US government has distanced itself from Mr Bharara’s remarks, something that was conveyed by Wendy Sherman, undersecretary for political affairs, to her Indian counterpart. Now, both countries need to figure out a way to move forward and restore calm to their fragile friendship.
India has moved swiftly to transfer Ms Khobragade to the UN Permanent Mission thus providing immunity from future action. The US has the discretion to accord retrospective immunity. With this action, the matter could easily be settled.
Longer term, India needs to figure out its stance with respect to the US. There is nothing wrong with “playing hardball”, if the ends justify the means.
One supposedly mature politician has called for India’s stringent anti-gay laws to be used against US diplomats and their partners. Politicians in the opposition are demanding an outright apology from the US government.
In my view, there are two messages that India needs to send to the US. One is that it will not tolerate the US violating the spirit of the Vienna Convention.
It has shown that it will take action when needled. It now needs to put back those barricades and take action when the stakes are higher, as in the case of demanding David Headley’s transfer to India to be tried for his role in the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
Both countries need to move from pointing fingers and take the high road. They need to think about reconciliation instead of name-calling. In my view, this process needs to be driven by the US.
Firstly, in this instance, the US is wrong and I say this as someone who – like Mr Bharara – was born in India and became a naturalised US citizen.
In my opinion, arresting Ms Khobragade when there are thousands like her – Indians and Americans both – who commit the “crime” of underpaying domestic help, is clearly an attempt by Mr Bharara to make a name for himself.
If she has, indeed, committed the alleged offence, it could have been handled far more quietly and without fuss.
The US needs to rein in Mr Bharara’s office rather than collude with it. It also needs to show the world that Mr Obama meant what he said during his remarks at Nelson Mandela’s funeral about absorbing the ethos and values that Madiba lived by.
The US needs to do the right thing because peace and a constructive relationship between two large democracies is a higher stake game than the alleged injustice to the two women involved.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir



  1. Preet bharara is an outstanding lawyer.
    I would rather believe him on the immunity convention.
    Just read the bharara indictment. It will open your eyes to the woman diplomat’s wrongdoings.
    She must count herself lucky she’s back in india instead of languishing in a u s prison- so strong is the case.
    Sensibly she didn’t contest.
    Shoba narayan, u s has the upper hand by far in the india relationship.
    If you want better treatment, be like china in terms of pursuing national interest instead of selling out the country day in day out like our politicians and bureaucrats.
    You can bet delhi is already at u s’s doorstep for normalisation.
    Only thing interesting now is how dk is going to try to manouvre her way back to the u s.
    A financial settlement with the maid, guarantee not to prosecute her in india with her clout?
    If i am the maid i wouldn’t believe it considering the vengefulness of the diplomat snd her father.


  2. * The A-3 Visa requirements, should have been objected by the Indian Foreign Ministry as unworkable. US should have been told, that Indian diplomats will not a sign a document that was illogical and could be used by the US to trap diplomats for the purposes of black mail. Lo and behold- this is what exactly happened to Ms.Devyani Khorgbade.
    * The 2014 economic projection for India: Growth 6.1% Inflation 9% and GDP 1700$ and US, Growth 2.5 % Inflation 2,2 % GDP 54,000$. Average Indian GDP of 1700$ translates to 85,000 Rs. US needs India more than India needs US.
    * The requirements of the A-3 visa was not contested by the IFM and the diplomats signed them with an irrational and Indian mentality of “adjusted” aftermath or worked out between them and the employee. This was a serious mistake, that left them vulnerable to US Law enforcement at the “Discretion” of the US.
    * The US Embassy, the travel agency and Air India, committed a treasonous felony, when the emigrated an Indian National, whose passport, was revoked by a Delhi Court, back in July of 2013 and she should have been on No-Fly List.
    * US is gave a fugitive a guarantee of asylum for the sake of providing a witness to fake charges and false arrest.
    * DK was black-mailed by an Immigration attorney in Ny, few months before her arrest, asking her to pay Sangeetha Richard,10,000$, as back pay and help her to get a regular visa. Dk duly reported it to the NYPD and Foreign Embassy service with no avail, Inaction makes sense since the SR was not a maid but US operative working as a maid.
    * The investigation for her fraud was done in a hurry, shoddy with no details, but enough legalese, to make an arrest, which has proved not only a wrongful arrest but an illegal search and seizure in violation of constitutional rights of a legal resident and that too a diplomat.
    All in all, US, has breached covenant of good faith and never since the independence a Nation insulted and an Indian and Indians violated and humiliated.
    If DK (a good attorney will not advise a client not to appear) appears in court-she will end up in jail with no bail and even God won’t be able to save her. The fugitive family will get asylum in US and live happily ever after and of course-all this will be done in the name of Justice !


  3. As we now know and undestand, she did have full immunity, and the complaint for arrest was tainted with mis-information. A low level employee was consulted by the investigator and he was told not the truth but what he wanted to hear-limited immunity and not full immunity to make a case and arrest her. This was an act of retribution by US to humiliate an Indian diplomat.
    Adding to this fiasco is the fact that a Delhi travel agency, was paid by the US Embassy, to get the family two days before her arrest. This is tatamount to fraud by the Embassy. The travel agency did not deduct the 4.5% tax and the fugitive family were treated like diplomats in Air-India even thought they were under sanction by a Delhi Court. The travel agency is under scrutiny.
    If this diplomat appears in court, chances are she will never be released and she will never return to India, no matter what and how well she is represented or the case argued. If she does not appear, she will arrested for contempt-of-court, and the full immunity being retroactive and the current immunity conferred on her by the United Nations-she cannot be arrested. Then we will see the real drama unfold.


  4. For this man who claims to have Indian ancestry, to treat another Indian woman this way, he has to have a canine ancestry on his mothers side and a canine loyalty to his masters.


  5. OMG I am just disgusted at this. Preet Bharara is a mean-spirited and spiteful man. There are a thousand others who continue to commit far worse crimes than underpaying the nanny. Bharara does not have the guts to go after an American or European CEO and has acted in a most indignified and self-serving manner.

    I think India should call for a UN sanction against the USA. Shashi Tharor where the hell are you?


    1. Naina I quite agree. Very sad that Mr. Bharara has done something as insensitive and thoughtless as this. Flies in the face of globalization, global unity and harmony. It always amazes me how some Americans are still so thoughtless and tactless with their actions.

      Very very sad indeed.


  6. There is nothing like a limited immunity. You have immunity or none. This diplomat had immunity and her constitutional rights were violated with unlawful seizure (arrest) and search (body cavity, DNA,0 under immunity and India should take it up in the International Court in Geneva.. The A-3 visa was besieged with problems and it was not addressed by the US state dept and USCIS.. You cannot expect a country with a GDP of 1700$ (as compared to USA of $54,000) to pay a domestic, a salary of $45,000 a year when the diplomat was making a paltry $50,000.

    All diplomats will transgression not fraud to overcome this dubious requirement and it is overlooked. In her case it was a trap set by the US Attorney’s office with co-operation by the State dept., to frame people who are on the sh…t list and invariably the Indian diplomats are targeted historically they do not retaliate or they are not fully supported by their own Govt. If they do it is meek and not equal and opposite.The issue should have been solved between the US State dept. and Indian Foreign Secretary.

    The diplomat would have been called back to India and the maid arrested and sent back to India. The way the case was handled was the most undiplomatic and heinous way. India should retaliate with the American diplomats treated the same way and this diplomat should not appear in the court. If she does it means she accepts the fact that there was no immunity.


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