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How India left gates open for ‘evacuation’
- Devyani filed complaint on July 3 but officials waited and did little to plug loopholes

New Delhi, Dec. 19: If America “evacuated” the husband of the nanny from right under the nose of the Indian establishment, an unsuspecting New Delhi appeared to have unwittingly facilitated it by leaving the gates wide open for as long as three months.

Devyani Khobragade, the Indian diplomat who was arrested in New York, had sent a complaint against housekeeper Sangeeta Richard and her husband Philip to Delhi police on July 3 this year. Two days earlier, the same mail had been sent to the external affairs ministry, too.

But, for some reason, Delhi police registered the first information report only in October. The long delay suggests Indian officials reposed unquestioning faith in the Americans or did not take the complaint seriously — suspicions that are strengthened by the fact that Philip was not arrested even two months after the FIR had been registered.

Which meant Philip, accused of being a co-conspirator in an extortion bid, could be “evacuated” without any daredevil operation by the Americans. He applied for a visa, they issued it and he flew out with the couple’s two children on December 10, unchallenged by the hawk-eyed Indian immigration.

On July 3, Devyani had lodged a complaint with Delhi police against Sangeeta and Philip for cheating and hatching a conspiracy “to procure Indian passport and enter the USA to work as freelance servant and earn huge money”.

The diplomat had also sent a draft of the complaint to the ministry of external affairs in Delhi on July 1, a little over a week after the maid disappeared from her official residence.

“I am sending an FIR against Sangeeta Richard and Philip Richard… for fraud, wilful deceit, harassment and extortion,” said the opening line of Devyani’s mail to Delhi police.

But the FIR was registered only on October 9 at Fatehpur Beri police station in south Delhi. The FIR was registered under Section 120B (criminal conspiracy), 387 (an extortion-related charge) and cheating (420) against the couple.

“Had the police acted promptly on the basis of Khobragade’s complaint, he would have been behind bars,” said an IPS officer.

In her email complaint to then police commissioner Neeraj Kumar, Devyani said Sangeeta and Philip, both residents of 45/S 1, Sultanpur Colony in Mehrauli in south Delhi, cheated her. The mail lists an accusation of making an attempt to “earn huge money” but does not elaborate on the extortion demand mentioned in the opening sentence.

Indian officials had yesterday said that a demand for $10,000 (Rs 6 lakh) was made when Devyani met Sangeeta at a Manhattan attorney’s office on July 8 — five days after the email was sent to the police. It is not known if Delhi police were later updated on the fresh allegation.

Asked about the FIR delay, senior Delhi police officers said they were asked to “go slow” in the case by officials of the foreign ministry.

The ministry officials attributed the delay to “ongoing negotiations” between Devyani and Sangeeta. “The police were told to register an FIR in the case after the negotiations failed in September,” said a senior official of the foreign ministry.

But the official did not explain why the police did not arrest Philip even after the FIR was registered on October 9. A Delhi court had issued an arrest warrant against Sangeeta in November. Yet, neither the police nor other agencies kept track of her husband.

In September, the diplomat had moved Delhi High Court, which passed an injunction barring Sangeeta from filing any criminal or civil charges outside India. Some police officers said the guarantee might also have made the ministry complacent.

M.V. Kini, counsel for Devyani, said: “Given the way police work in our country, it is not surprising that the cops took three months to act on the complaint and lodge an FIR.”

In the complaint, Devyani said that on August 17, 2012, she was posted in New York and was looking for a domestic help to take care of her household. “Both accused approached me stating that they are not having jobs and need money for children’s education,” according to the email to the police.

In the complaint, Sangeeta is mentioned as Accused No. 1 and Philip as Accused No. 2.

The complaint said Sangeeta told Devyani to take her to New York as household assistant for a monthly salary of Rs 30,000 and free accommodation and food.

On this promise, Sangeeta was given an official passport. “Both the accused were fully aware about the official passport and that it is the property of Government of India and she can hold it as long as she works with her as domestic help,” the letter said.

Sangeeta was provided an air ticket by the government because of her status as domestic assistant. “She was in charge of kitchen, baby-sitting and other domestic work from her landing at New York,” the letter said.

In mid-March 2013, Sangeeta asked Devyani whether she could work outside on her off-days, to which the diplomat told the nanny that her position as a domestic assistant on official passport with dependent visa did not entitle her to such work, according to the complaint.

“On June 18, Sangeeta went to Devyani’s office at the consulate-general of India for the first time and said that that she felt overburdened by work at home and would feel happy to stay and work outside her employer’s house from 7pm to 7am,” the complainant said.

Devyani again explained to Sangeeta that her well-being and conduct during stay in New York was the diplomat’s responsibility and she could not allow her to work outside. On June 21, the complainant went to New Jersey for the weekend.

When she returned on June 23, Sangeeta was not at home. “As every Sunday, Sangeeta used to go to church and meet friends at beauty parlour, Devyani treated her absence as routine…,” the complaint said.

However, when she did not return on Sunday night, Devyani tried calling Sangeeta over phone but there was no response.

On enquiry, Devyani’s husband told her that Sangeeta had left the house on June 21 afternoon, saying she was stepping out for shopping.

The diplomat called Sangeeta’s husband on June 24. Philip said he was not aware of the whereabouts of his wife. Thereafter, she checked Sangeeta’s room and found that she had left with most of her belongings and the passport.

Devyani then requested Philip to send a missing person complaint by email so that a case could be registered with the local police in New York. Philip refused to do so, the complaint said.

“After repeated requests, Philip confirmed to the complainant that his wife contacted him on June 28 but he did not give the phone number. It is evident from the conduct of both accused that they made a false promise to work as domestic assistant just to procure official passport and enter the USA by misusing position as domestic assistant and thereafter to work as freelance servant and earn huge money,” the letter said.