Convicts are beneficiaries of a caste system and class hierarchy when they are sent to prison. Michael Milken, the king of junk bonds in the United States of America, was sentenced to ten years in prison, but he got out in two — released for good behaviour and other reasons. Ivan Boesky, one of the first insider traders to be prosecuted in the US, became a legend in popular culture because such prosecutions were rare in the 1980s. He, too, got out of jail in two years, but he was sentenced only to three and a half in any case. At one point, he embraced Judaism and took seminary classes in that religion.
Men like Milken and Boesky do not live with common criminals in prison. White-collar convicts are often better off separated into relatively more comfortable quarters in jail with facilities that convicts of a lower order are not entitled to. The rationale is that such segregation is necessary for their own protection.
The wholly unacceptable arrest of India’s deputy consul general in New York, Devyani Khobragade, and the barbaric way in which she was handcuffed and separated from her daughter at school to a lock-up, while another three-year-old child was waiting for her at home, proves that distinctions prevail in America even in the treatment of those accused of crimes. Raj Rajaratnam, whose crimes were far more grave than anything the Indian diplomat is being accused of, was arrested in the privacy of his exclusive Sutton Place residence in Manhattan in the early hours of the morning, when there was no public display of law enforcement. Arguably, Rajaratnam caused more harm to Americans and their institutions by illegally profiting off them to satisfy his greed.
Khobragade’s actions, if they are proved in court, affected a single person, but as of now, even that assumption is open to question. Her maid, Sangeeta Richard, is in New York on Indian official behalf because she landed on American soil not on an ordinary passport like an immigrant or a visitor, but with a travel document that is issued only to those travelling on official Indian government business.
Rajat Gupta, the fallen idol of the Indian American community, once an oracle on business strategies for all Americans in corporate boardrooms, was allowed to ride in limousines with his band of high-profile lawyers to the office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to surrender when he was charged with financial crimes. The authorities did not pick him off the street, as they did Khobragade.
There are no two opinions that New York City and its namesake state have lost all sense of proportion in dealing with diplomats in their jurisdiction. Why that is so is another matter. Because Khobragade has been described everywhere by her normal designation of deputy consul general, it is not very well known that at the time of her arrest, she was actually acting consul general in New York. Thus, she was head of a diplomatic post, and therefore, the action against her was irresponsible on the part of the Obama administration, which, without doubt, approved the arrest. At any rate, it did nothing to stop it, which it well could have.
It is the US state department’s mandate to ensure the smooth functioning of diplomatic missions in its country. In this case, because the state department did nothing to stop an acting consul general’s detention by an out-of-control Manhattan law enforcement, Taranjit Singh Sandhu, the charge d’affaires at the Indian embassy in Washington, had to fly out a senior diplomat from his office to keep work at the New York consulate going.
Sandhu, on his third posting in the US, knows the American system better than even many Americans. He is more hands-on than the ambassadors of most countries who get to serve in Washington. He then personally rushed to New York to put one of India’s busiest and most important diplomatic posts in working order, although complete normalcy there after last week’s traumatic experience for its staff will take a very long time.
Only a few days before Khobragade’s choreographed detention, New York’s heady prosecutors drew up a litany of charges of medical- insurance fraud against 49 Russian diplomats to the tune of $1.5 million. These 49 Russians now figure in a criminal complaint unsealed in the same Manhattan court, where India’s acting consul general was produced for a $250,000 bail hearing last week. Of these, 11 Russian diplomats continue to work at the Russian consulate in New York or at Moscow’s permanent mission to the United Nations in the Turtle Bay area of Manhattan.
So when Preet Bharara, the attorney for the Southern District of New York, unsealed the criminal complaint against the Russians in court in his usual flashy style, reporters who cover Bharara expected at least a few of the 11 Russians still within the reach of New York’s law enforcement to be paraded before them: it would have been a precursor to Khobragade’s arrest and subsequent bail. But nothing of that sort happened. Instead, when Bharara’s men set out in quest of the alleged offenders, with handcuffs in their pockets, they were promptly restrained by the US state department, according to authoritative sources who spoke to this writer. The state department told Bharara’s office that all the 11 serving Russian diplomats on US soil had diplomatic immunity and could not be arrested.
How could that be? It has been ascertained that many of these 11 Russians are in far more junior positions than India’s deputy consul general — acting consul general at that time. Yet the Obama administration told Bharara to take his hands off those 11 men and women and not go anywhere near those Russians still on American soil because they enjoy diplomatic immunity. But in Khobragade’s case, the same state department insisted that she does not enjoy immunity except in the discharge of her official duties. There is a clear double standard here. That is because the Americans fear Russia. They have no such worries about India.
Within minutes of Bharara unsealing his complaint, the Russian deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said ominously that “we have many claims against American diplomats in Moscow. There are dozens of situations where we can make a complaint against them”. Offering an olive branch, though, for a negotiated settlement, Ryabkov added that “we don’t air them out in public”.
Last weekend, Russia’s macho foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, weighed in: “Foreign diplomats, including from America, regularly violate Russian laws.” He said embassies had been set up in each other’s capitals to resolve such issues, not to make “an information bomb out of it”. Because some of the Russian diplomats allegedly committed the insurance fraud in 2004, Lavrov had only ridicule for Bharara and his tactics. “If diplomats are seen violating the norms of behaviour and laws of their country of stay, why wait ten years. They probably wanted to stockpile more cases so that the figure would be more considerable.”
It is clear by now that not one of those Russian diplomats charged by Bharara will be touched. If the Americans act otherwise, Moscow will come down on Washington like a ton of bricks. The state department spokesperson, Marie Harf, was proportionately conciliatory: “We don’t think this should affect our bilateral relationship with Russia. Quite frankly, there are too many important issues we have to work on together.” The implication, on the one hand, is that with India there are no such important issues. On the other, White House knows that it can offer the Indian prime minister another state dinner and all will be forgiven.