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Delhi case left NY with little option

- Indian injunction backfires on Devyani by closing civil litigation route and triggering criminal action
Devyani Khobragade

Washington, Dec. 14: Authorities in New York sought recourse to the extreme step of arresting India’s deputy consul general there, Devyani Khobragade, after India blocked any chance of resolving the dispute between her and her maid, Sangeeta Richard, over violation of her employment contract and charges of human trafficking through other means.

A Delhi High Court ad-interim injunction restraining Richard from instituting any actions or proceedings against Khobragade outside India meant that the civil legal route was closed in this case, according to sources with knowledge of how the case became a diplomatic hot potato.

These sources, who briefed this newspaper on background, insisted that authorities in New York were then left solely with the option of criminally proceeding against Khobragade.

These sources insist that her condition of employment which prohibited Richard from seeking recourse to justice in the US, where she worked, was tantamount to interfering with the due process of law on US soil.

The Americans argue that they respected the Indian court order barring civil proceedings against Khobragade. At the same time, they then used the criminal route to get the better of Indian tactics, according to sources with knowledge of how the thinking in the case evolved in the office of Preet Bharara, the attorney for the Southern District of New York, who authorised action against the diplomat.

Since the matter is sub judice, no one is prepared to go on record on the process and will only speak on background without attribution.

While these may point to the rationale behind American high-handedness in the case, it will remain a matter of diplomatic debate in the months and years ahead whether the political leadership here should have risked the bonhomie between Washington and New Delhi by allowing an Indian diplomat that too, a woman with small children and its attendant sensitivities to be humiliated in public.

Whatever the Obama administration may tell Indians for their consumption during the efforts to resolve this issue, no one here doubts if Khobragade would have been arrested without notifying the department of justice in Washington and in turn the state department.

At the same time, secretary of state John Kerry, who met foreign secretary Sujatha Singh during her Washington trip, is being given the benefit of doubt in the matter.

Unlike his one-time predecessor, Colin Powell, who deliberately kept under wraps in New Delhi the non-NATO ally status for Pakistan on his way to Islamabad, Kerry may not have known of the impending arrest in Manhattan. He met Singh two days before the arrest and may not have been notified at that point about what was to come.

While the Americans complain of attempts through the Indian judicial process to infringe US sovereignty in a domestic dispute, the Indians too have grievances in this matter.

Indian sources point out that after the maid absconded, the US government was requested to locate Richard and facilitate serving an Indian arrest warrant on her. That warrant was issued by the metropolitan magistrate of the South District Court in New Delhi under Sections 387, 420 and 120B of the Indian Penal Code.

Even if the ad-interim injunction by New Delhi may be construed as interference in the American process of law the US ought to have given a proper arrest warrant against Richard due and weighty consideration.

Instead, they completely ignored India’s request even as they knew the whereabouts of the maid. There is speculation that locally India used methods to intimidate the absconding maid instead of following US laws both in letter and spirit although this could not be confirmed.

If true, that may explain the hard line by law enforcement authorities in New York, who at that point, decided not to cooperate with India.

India’s charge d’affaires in Washington, Taranjit Singh Sandhu, again met senior officials in the state department regarding the treatment meted out to Khobragade and emphasised she is “entitled to the courtesy due to a diplomat in the country of her work,” according to a press release by the embassy here last night.

“It was also conveyed in no uncertain terms that this kind of treatment to one of our diplomats is absolutely unacceptable,” the release added.

Those here who argue that India was ill-advised to bring to bear on Americans the power of a Delhi court point to another incident which could have become a similar hot potato.

A year and a half ago, an embassy official in the consular section was accused by his neighbour in a Maryland suburb, a woman, of unwarranted advances by the official. Ambassador Nirupama Rao did not allow the official to even return to his residence that evening where he may have been arrested.

Instead, she put him on the first flight out of Washington to New Delhi and his belongings were later packed and sent back to India. The matter was closed as a consequence.

If Khobragade had been similarly sent back to India in June after her maid absconded and complained to local authorities, that would have been the end of this episode too. Instead, India relied on the presumed powers of a Delhi court injunction to tide over the matter.

The official who was swiftly repatriated by Rao was subsequently sent from India on a very comfortable foreign posting after it was conclusively ascertained that he was innocent and that the complainant woman had a habit of trapping men of substance with such false complaints either for extortion or other benefits.