Nobody won the India-U.S. imbroglio
Diplomat Devyani Khobragade was ordered to leave the U.S. after a federal grand jury indicted her for fraud and abuse. Hooray?
A series of events on Wednesday and Thursday may have finally ended a diplomatic uproar that started in mid-December, when U.S. Marshals arrested Indian consular official Devyani Khobragade in New York on charges of lying on a visa application and treating her Indian maid like a slave. The final act of this drama wasn't very satisfying.
Here's a brief timeline of the denouement: On Wednesday evening, the U.S. State Department approved India's request to transfer Khobragade from India's New York consulate, where she was deputy consul general, to its United Nations mission, where she would have stronger diplomatic immunity. India denied the State Department's request to waive Khobragade's newly acquired immunity, and the U.S. essentially ordered her to leave the country Thursday.
Then, on Thursday afternoon, a federal grand jury in New York indicted Khobragade on criminal visa fraud changes and for making false statements. A federal judge granted her permission to leave the U.S., and the day ended with Khobragade on a flight back to New Delhi, where she has been reassigned to a new post.
"At the time of her departure to India, counselor Khobragade reiterated her innocence on the charges filed against her," India's foreign ministry said in a statement. Khobragade is "pleased to be returning to her country," added her U.S. lawyer, Daniel Arshack. "Her head is held high. She knows she has done no wrong and she looks forward to assuring that the truth is known."
So, all's well that ends well, right? Not exactly. Khobragade escaped the immediate threat of up to 15 years in a U.S. prison, but she left behind her husband (an American citizen) and their children. Khobragade's father, speaking on Indian television, said the husband and kids will join his daughter in the near future.
Still, any future visit to her in-laws in the States is bound to be awkward. In its note ordering Khobragade out of the U.S., the State Department said that "upon her departure a warrant may be issued for her arrest and should she seek to enter the United States she could be arrested."
Moreover, while the immediate irritant to U.S.-India relations has been removed, "there's still a lot of bad blood, and the dispute has exposed serious misunderstandings between the two countries," says the BBC's Andrew North. India has taken a series of reprisals against the U.S. Embassy, most recently ordering it Wednesday to close a popular embassy club. Maybe it was "the threat to close the U.S. Embassy bar that finally forced a solution to this increasingly nasty row," adds North, but "whatever the case, it seems the U.S. blinked first."
The Indians are upset because one of its female diplomats was publicly handcuffed and, more insultingly, strip-searched during her arrest. Also, the underlying crime Khobragade is accused of committing — paying domestic help a pittance to work really long hours — is at least tolerated if not culturally acceptable in India. Adding insult to injury, the hard-charging U.S. prosecutor who filed the charges, Preet Bharara, is Indian-American, and he's pursued this kind of case before.
Domestic politics is also fueling the outrage, with both major Indian parties lining up to condemn the U.S.; national elections are coming up in May and Khobragade's caste — Dalit (untouchable) — is an important constituency.
Khobragade is, of course, innocent until proven guilty under the U.S. legal system, but here's what she was indicted for on Thursday: Promising in a contract filed with her visa application that she would pay Indian maid-babysitter Sangeeta Richard $9.75 an hour, while a separate contract stipulated she would pay Richard $573 a month, or roughly $3.31 an hour for a 40-hour week. And Khobragade allegedly made Richard work 94 to 109 hours a week, and confiscated her passport.
When Richard told her employer she was unhappy and wanted to return to India, the indictment says, Khobragade tried to "silence and intimidate the victim and her family and lie to Indian authorities and courts." After Richard fled the household in June for Safe Horizon, an organization that helps human-trafficking victims, Khobragade and her accomplices allegedly tried to stop Richard from talking to lawyers, repeatedly tried to bully Richard's husband in India into disclosing his wife's whereabouts, and accused Richard in Indian court of extortion and cheating.
The intimidation allegations will be hard to prove in the unlikely event that the case ever goes to trial, but presumably Bharara has hard evidence to back up his charges.
So Khobragade lost her plum job and ability to visit her husband's home country. Bharara lost his chance to prosecute an alleged violation of U.S. immigration and labor laws. U.S. diplomats in India lost some privileges and security barriers around the embassy. The U.S. probably lost face. India ends up looking like a country willing to go to the mat for an accused maid abuser.
You could argue that diplomacy ultimately won, since nobody is going to jail and no literal shots were fired over the incident. And perhaps the maid, Richard — if she wants to remain in the U.S. — ultimately came out ahead, since she now has temporary U.S. residency and can apply for a special trafficking-victim T-1 visa, and her family was flown to the U.S. But that's pretty weak tea.
That best that you can say about this diplomatic imbroglio is that it is — hopefully — over.