Several years into my tenure, in 2013, the State Department arrested a mid-level female Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, for visa fraud in connection with lies about what she would pay her domestic worker. She had agreed under penalty of perjury and other legal sanctions to pay her Indian domestic worker $9.75 per hour. The evidence showed that Khobragade paid Sangeeta Richard less than $1.00 an hour and violated a multitude of other fair labor practices in the United States. SDNY agreed to prosecute the case, at the State Department’s explicit request.
It was not the crime of the century but a serious offense nonetheless and a burgeoning problem among the diplomatic corps in the United States. That’s why the State Department opened the case; that’s why the State Department investigated it; that’s why the career agents in the State Department asked career prosecutors in my office to approve criminal charges.
Khobragade was afforded a number of courtesies during the course of her arrest, because of her diplomatic status, but she was strip-searched per regular procedure by the U.S. Marshals Service in the SDNY. That could have and should have been avoided, given that no one would have sought pretrial detention.
Because I was the U.S. Attorney and I happened to be Indian-born, an avalanche of vitriol and bile came my way."
The arrest caused an international incident. It was an election year in India, and the ruling Congress Party was in danger of an electoral bloodbath loss to the Indian nationalist BJP. The BJP, the party of the future prime minister Narendra Modi, shrewdly seized upon this supposed Western insult to Indian sovereignty and caused a crisis for the Congress Party. Khobragade’s father, who had his own political ambitions in India, announced a hunger strike, though there is no evidence that he ever sacrificed a single calorie after making his dramatic announcement. But the drama was joined. The then secretary of state, John Kerry, was pressured to make the case go away. The Indians threatened retaliation against our embassy in New Delhi and suggested taking privileges away from American diplomats. At one point, as the Indian government raged, our largest democratic ally in the world—in its most hostile action—removed security barriers from the outside of the U.S. embassy.
I am proud of the case and how we upheld the rule of law. I defended our work, loudly. Because I was the U.S. Attorney and I happened to be Indian-born, an avalanche of vitriol and bile came my way. Never mind that the case was initiated and investigated by career law enforcement officials, and I personally became aware of it only the day before the arrest. The Indian government and press decided that the case was brought by me—an Indian American—for all manner of nefarious reasons.
Talk show hosts in India took to calling me a self-loathing Indian who made it a point to go after people from the country of his birth. My colleagues and I found all of it a bit odd, because the alleged victim in the case was also Indian. An Indian official asked on television, “Who the hell is Preet Bharara?” I was identified on another program as the most hated man in that country.
Talk show hosts in India took to calling me a self-loathing Indian who made it a point to go after people from the country of his birth. My colleagues and I found all of it a bit odd, because the alleged victim in the case was also Indian.
The criticism grew more and more intense, which might not have bothered me so much had my parents not been reading every word of it. It upset them greatly. Then came the evening when my daughter overheard a conversation in the living room. She asked me, “Daddy, what is an Uncle Tom?” Because that’s what I was being called by journalists in South Asia. That was not pleasant.
As the accusations grew more and more absurd, they became downright comical. Indian critics were angry because even though I hailed from India, I appeared to be going out of my way to act “American” and serve the interests of America. The thing is, I am American and the words “United States” were
actually in my title.
Finally, I saw a peculiar line of attack in the foreign press, which was this: in a brazen betrayal of my roots, I had undertaken this case for only one reason—to serve my “white masters.” My white masters. These were, presumably, Eric Holder and Barack Obama.
Excerpted with permission from ‘Doing Justice: A Prosecutor’s Thoughts On Crime, Punishment And The Rule Of Law’, Preet Bharara, Bloomsbury.