Millennium Post

Judge Dread?

When Preet Bharara, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, made it to the cover of Time magazine’s 1 February 2012 edition, Indians in their own country were still blissfully unaware of the new face of law in America. At that time, the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan was investigating huge mortgage fraud charges in New York, and accusations were levelled at the high-profile Indian-American honchos of Credit Suisse Raj Rajaratnam and Rajat Gupta. The former managing director of McKinsey & Company, Gupta was the cynosure of the South Asian elite in New York, a hedge fund taskmaster coupled with a philanthropist in himself, and his fall from grace had taken both India and its NRI echelons by surprise in the unfolding scandal.

But Preet Bharara, who, of course, is not a judge, but the exacting attorney, the public prosecutor, who in Time’s own exaggerated parlance, was ‘bringing mob squad justice to Wall Street’, was still an unknown entity among the Indians here, although the South Asians in America gave a mixed response to his climbing stars. When in middle of 2012 Gupta was sentenced to two years in prison for sharing confidential information he learnt as a board member of both Goldman Sachs and Procter & Gamble with Rajaratnam, America hailed Bharara as a middle-class hero, the scourge of the toxic greed and binge culture of Wall Street.

By then, Bharara had already spent more than two years nailing some of the top sharks for insider trading, but as it turned out, a number of them were members of his own community, the Indian-Americans.

Until the Devyani Khobragade issue rocked the Indo-US diplomatic relations and Preet Bharara became the other eye in the storm, the resident Indians were only vaguely aware of this posterboy of American law.

His presence was felt amongst the chatterati of course, who didn’t exactly know how to approach this overzealous Indian-American, born in Firozpur in 1968 to Sikh and Hindu parents. At that time, a couple of articles in the country’s pink papers and few op-ed pieces, some lamenting, some celebrating his ‘mob squad justice’, appeared, but didn’t cause as much stir.

While it was deemed ‘clash of the two bigwigs’ in a PTI article, India still was watching from the sidelines as Bharara rose to being listed as one among the 100 hundred influential people in the world.

It’s unfair to not comment on how Bharara’s targeting of Rajat Gupta and Raj Rajaratnam had been also part and parcel of the Obama administration’s crackdown on insider trading in Wall Street.

But clearly, picking the names among a bevy of others is a careful choice, that both Obama and Bharara are not unaware of. Suffice to say that Gupta and Rajaratnam were easily apprehended and prosecuted because somehow they were the proverbial outsiders to the business of insider trading, which is dominated by White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant males, when we put it straight.

Obviously, the global Indian business community, of which Gupta was a lofty figure, felt a personal affront at the ignominious fall of a once glorious soldier. But in Bharara’s defence, there was also Dominique Strauss Kahn, the former IMF chief, who came in Bharara’s line of fire. As also there were a number of public officials who were charged of and prosecuted over corruption, including Senator Vincent Leibell, NYC Councilman Larry Seabrook, New York State Senator Carl Kruger, NYC Police Department officer Gilberto Valle as well as New York State Senator Malcolm A Smith, NYC Councilman Dan Halloran and a score of other Republican party officials.

Moreover, Bharara’s office, in January 2011, also took part in a cross-state crackdown on organised crime, arresting 26 members of the notorious Gambino family of crimes such as racketeering, narcotics, murder and selling, possessing illegal firearms. There were also Bharara’s vigilante eyes prosecuting persons linked to cyber frauds and online poker, money laundering, illegal gambling and other indiscretions. In effect, Bharara’s CV was already too impressive before the furore over Devyani debacle pitched him and his American nationals against his brethren in the US and India.

The arrest of Devyani Khobragade, the Deputy Consul General of India, in New York over visa fraud and underpaying her domestic help Sangeeta Richards has Bharara written all over it. While reams of newsprint have already been spent on how the consul was strip-searched and kept with drug peddlers in the US jail cell, the resulting diplomatic standoff between the two otherwise friendly countries has put the spotlight on a number of sore points in the relationship.

Firstly, the meaning and extent of consular and diplomatic immunity that must be extended to emissaries of other nations. Secondly, the problem of excessive bureaucratic red tape in obtaining simple visa permits, which often push otherwise perfectly law-abiding people into taking illegal shortcuts. Thirdly, the definite issue of underpaying domestic helps among South Asians and the trafficking of women to that end. Finally, assessing the fallout and brouhaha over the incident and whether India and America are right in their respective stances on the matter.

While commentators have elaborated on the interpretation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Rights, 1962, to understand the extent of the problem or the breach, Preet Bharara has maintained that America has acted within law in arresting Khobragade. That the consul is married to a US citizen has complicated the issue against her, since that eats into her rights as an emissary of a foreign country under suitably diplomatic immunity.

Whether it was a misunderstanding of the unnecessarily intricate visa form, or whether it was a deliberate circumvention of US law by Khobragade, the 39-year-old diplomat has, unwittingly perhaps, ended up on the wrong side of the law and come directly in the line of fire of the US Attorney for Southern District of New York.

Given that diplomatic immunity is routinely used by America to shield its agents from foreign governments’ ire, could the New York Attorney have acted any differently? Perhaps, not. However, when America ships off its representatives who end up killing people in broad daylight, either by shooting them, as Raymond Davis did in Lahore in 2011, or crushing them beneath their speeding luxury cars, as did a diplomat in Kenya very recently, the inequality of law comes into sharp relief.

Obviously, in Khobragade’s case, Bharara could not have possibly not withdrawn the case, but the manner  in which Khobragade was arrested, paraded and then treated in police custody, reeks of American arrogance and a deep-seated racist grudge against the affluent, more-American-than-thou Indians fleeting across the US streets. So, even though Bharara might just be delivering his duties as the public prosecutor, it was up to the higher authorities to treat the matter a tad more gently, so that not to arouse the grouse of the usually pusillanimous India, which even says nothing when the NSA snoops on its prized members, ministers and the topmost executives and figureheads.

Clearly, what represents is not just a distilled version of American overstatement, but also a sly, almost innocuous self-aggrandisement at the expense of other brown-skinned individuals, which keep the score-card even for these brown sahebs in the US.

Much like Barack Obama, Bharara, by deciding to go after South Asians per se kills two birds with one stone. He keeps his record squeaky clean of allegations of reverse racism and anti-White or anti-majoritarian sentiments. He also gets the adequate limelight because of course an Indian-American taking on another is great theatre for everyone.

That Bharara is a naturalised US citizen who is married to a Pakistani Muslim and has three children is another, softer, side to this scourge of indiscretion in America. That personal detail, however, might not be enough to prevent antagonisation of this Harvard alumnus from his brown brethren in India and America. That he has acquired the moniker ‘Judge Dread’ despite not being one,
says volumes.
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