Devyani Khobragade row: More to it than meets the eye
Devyani Khobragade, the diplomat who was publicly handcuffed, arrested and subjected to indecent body searches and locked up with lumpen drug addicts and other convicts prior to receiving bail last week, could have inadvertently compromised Indian security by harbouring a mole in her domestic establishment. A top strategic expert, who wished to remain unnamed, says it is important that India understand how Khobragade engaged Sangeeta Richards, the nanny-cum-housekeeper behind the trouble, and took her to America.
That there is a larger conspiracy behind the episode is evident from the fact that on December 10, two days before the diplomat’s arrest (December 12), Sangeeta Richards’s husband, Philip, and two children quietly flew to America by an Air India flight. Somebody in Washington had helped them procure visas, a highly unusual development, since the Indian Government had revoked Sangeeta Richards’s official passport in July and asked for her to be deported to India. Usually such a dramatic evacuation is done only to protect US spies; hence it is important to investigate the Richard family, its associations, and bank accounts.
The Richard family seems well networked with the diplomatic community. Sangeeta’s father-in-law reportedly works in the American embassy in Delhi; her mother-in-law is said to have worked for a senior US diplomat; her husband, Philip, was a driver with the Mozambique embassy. Philip was granted a T-visa, which allows victims of human trafficking and immediate family members to remain and work temporarily in the United States if they agree to assist law enforcement in testifying against the perpetrators. This suggests a larger conspiracy.
Sangeeta Richards arrived in the US in November 2012 to work as a domestic help for India’s deputy consul general in New York. She allegedly wanted to do extra work outside on her off days, but was told it was illegal under her visa status and because she had an official passport. But on June 23, she simply walked out, and two weeks later turned up at an immigration attorney’s firm in Manhattan, New York, alleging that she was overworked and underpaid. She had clearly rustled up some powerful support, or was known to the US authorities all along, given the employment profile of her marital family.
The MEA has since revealed that on July 1, Devyani Khobragade received a telephone call from an unidentified woman who said Richards would not go to court if her employment was terminated and she was paid for 19 hours of work per day. On July 2, the diplomat informed the Office of Foreign Missions and the New York Police Department about the call, in writing. But on July 8, she was called by the immigration lawyer’s office and asked to pay $10,000, convert Sangeeta Richards’s passport into an ordinary one and help her get a visa to stay on in America.
Alarmed at this development, the Indian Government revoked Richards’s official passport, which made her status illegal in the US, and asked the State Department to locate and send her back to India. The request was repeated in September; the same month, the Delhi High Court issued an interim injunction restraining Richards from instituting any action or proceeding against Khobragade outside India regarding her employment and to settle all disputes in India as both women worked for the Government of India. The Indian mission informed the US authorities that as the maid was seeking a US visa, she was violating laws in both countries. On November 21, the Saket district court issued a non-bailable warrant for Sangeeta Richards, and India asked the US to help serve the warrant and repatriate the maid.
The MEA clearly erred in not issuing an immigration alert for Richards’s husband and children once the State Department proved so uncooperative, and since Philip Richards initially filed a missing persons report about his wife but later withdrew it. The authorities took six days after Khobragade’s arrest to realise that the family had flown the coop.
With hindsight, it seems that Richards’s walkout was part of a plan in concert with American authorities; the luckless Indian diplomat seems collateral damage. New Delhi must figure out the US game plan and enlighten the nation. Sangeeta Richards has received US hospitality for six months and now her family has surreptitiously been taken to settle in America. This makes a mockery of the US claim that Khobragade was arrested because she was not paying her staff according to the hourly minimum wage in America.
The Sangeeta Richards episode brings to mind the 2004 affair of Army Major and CIA mole, Rabinder Singh, who was serving as a joint secretary in the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), when he escaped to the United States with his wife after causing untold damage to India’s national interests and security. Former R&AW special secretary and head of the counter-intelligence unit, Amar Bhushan, uncovered the scandal in his book, Escape to Nowhere. It seems Indian intelligence was aware of Singh’s betrayal and was monitoring him closely for three months when he suspected that he had been unmasked and escaped via Kathmandu with the help of the CIA station chief there.
The lesson which India never learnt is that the US compulsorily retired the Kathmandu station head to punish him for failing to evacuate Singh covertly and exposing CIA’s hand in the episode. But in India, the 57 employees of R&AW who regularly shared information with Singh remained in the organisation; 26 were not even asked for an explanation and 31 who had shared operational details with him were posted abroad.
After Dr Manmohan Singh became Prime Minister, the CIA tried to infiltrate the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS), which is part of the Prime Minister’s Office. Some NSCS staffers were suspected of having clandestine links with an unnamed lady CIA officer posted as a diplomat in the US embassy in Delhi. Her task was to liaise with concerned Government departments in connection with the Indo-US Cyber Security Forum set up when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was Prime Minister. She reportedly used this opportunity to allegedly recruit moles in the NSCS, which coordinates the work of the Indo-US Cyber Security Forum.
Previously also, the Indian intelligence community has been suborned by the CIA at middle and senior levels. Just eight months after Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister in 1984, India’s biggest and most serious spy scandal broke, resulting in the arrest of 15 officials, including TN Kher, personal assistant to Principal Secretary PC Alexander. The scandal involved thousands of top secret documents and code books being photocopied and faxed from the PMO itself. Alexander resigned on ‘moral grounds’.
Then, the head of the R&AW office in Chennai, an IPS officer in the rank of director, was found to have clandestine contacts with a CIA officer posted in the US consulate there. Tipped off by the Intelligence Bureau (IB), R&AW immediately detained and interrogated him for one year at New Delhi’s Tihar Jail, but he was not prosecuted.
In the 1990s, when PV Narasimha Rao was Prime Minister, a very senior IPS officer serving in the IB was suspected to be working for Heidi August, a CIA officer posted as a diplomat at the US embassy in Delhi. He was exposed when a junior IB officer accidentally discovered that Heidi August had a mobile phone registered in the senior officer’s name. The officer was sent on premature retirement after the IB and R&AW confirmed his treason.
This brings us back to Devyani Khobragade, who has been unjustly accused of underpaying an employee who is possibly an ‘asset’ of a foreign agency. The Indian Government, which failed to retaliate when former President APJ Abdul Kalam was double frisked at an American airport, former Defence Minister George Fernandes was strip searched, and attempts were made to humiliate diplomat Hardeep Puri, must ensure that Washington release the diplomat unconditionally and with full apology, and explain its inexplicable interest in the Richards family.
The initial Indian reaction to the arrest – snub to a visiting Congress delegation; revocation of diplomatic IDs to US consul staff and their families; withdrawal of airport passes and import clearances; removal of security barricades around the American Embassy on Shanti Path; and demand for information about wages paid to Indians employed by the US mission and by individual diplomats in India – is inadequate given the enormity of the provocation.
The Government of India, backed as it is by the entire nation, must respond in a more muscular fashion, commensurate to the offence in which the US Government has knowingly helped Sangeeta Richards commit an immigration fraud and evade Indian justice. In these circumstances, Secretary of State John Kerry’s telephonic apology to National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon is a meaningless diplomatic nicety since the US is standing by the arrest. Worse, the US marshal service seems to have flouted its own rules by subjecting the diplomat to intrusive strip and cavity searches, when these can be done only if there is “reasonable suspicion” that the person arrested is carrying contraband or weapons, is a repeat offender or is considered a security, escape or suicide risk. None of these conditions apply to Devyani Khobragade.
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Sandhya Jain is a political analyst and independent researcher. She is the author of ‘Adi Deo Arya Devata- A Panoramic View of Tribal-Hindu Cultural Interface’ (Rupa & Co., 2004) and ‘Evangelical Intrusions. Tripura: A Case Study’ (Rupa & Co., 2009).