New Delhi: On an August evening in 2021, a 63-year-old English professor at a Delhi University college, Sonya Ghosh, was following her daily routine of feeding stray dogs in Vasant Kunj.
She was unable to find one of the old dogs she regularly fed, so she rang the bell of the house the dog lived in the compound. The ensuing interaction led directly to the premature withdrawal of Guyana’s top diplomatic representative to India, Charrandas Persaud, 14 months later.
Uploaded on social media, a grainy dimly-lit video apparently shows the night-time confrontation. A man, speaking English with an accent, stands outside the gate of a residential compound and tells a mask-wearing woman, “You want the dog, take it, put it between your legs, you probably want the dog to f… you, that’s what you want.”
Startled, the woman also uses abuse against him and says he is drunk. “I don’t care who you are,” she said. “F… you,” replied the man, before turning to the person holding the camera – and the video ends.
Speaking to The Wire, Ghosh, an animal rights activist, said she had been feeding a blind, old dog living inside the compound for years. The new tenant of the house, Charrandas Persaud, had only arrived in India in March 2021.
Searching for the dog, she learnt its fate from a worker at the residence. “I came to know that his driver had told people that the dog had been taken away and dumped on the highway,” said Ghosh.
She claimed that more than the abuses, she was struck first by the “lack of repentance or guilt about the dog”.
A day later (on August 2, 2021), she filed a complaint with the local police “more for the recovery of the dog and also about the abusive conduct of this guy who is supposed to be representing his country”.
The complaint was sent by email to the deputy commissioner of police of the southwest district and the station house officer of Vasant Kunj (south) police station.
The video, which Ghosh said was taken by her driver, was also attached to the email. “I was talking to the guy, and my driver was taking the video. He didn’t realise that he was being taped, and when he saw that he was being taped, he got annoyed.”
Under the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (VCDR), Persaud enjoyed immunity from the criminal jurisdiction of the “receiving state”, which is India in this case. This means that he cannot be prosecuted, nor can he be “obliged to give evidence as a witness”.
According to Narinder Singh, who retired as the Ministry of External Affairs’s legal adviser, if the accused in a complaint claims to be a diplomat with immunity, “then the local police will get in touch with MEA, and then it depends on how the MEA considers the seriousness of the matter”.
Ghosh said that the investigating officer had called her once on the phone but focused more on reassuring her that the dog would be recovered.
However, with no progress discernible in her complaint, Ghosh filed a Right to Information application with Delhi Police in September 2021.
In the RTI reply, the IO named three ‘witnesses’ who reportedly denied the allegations. Further, the written report mentions that no one is allowed to enter the farmhouse without permission. “High commissioner came in and out of his car, which is also not allowed to stop on way by his driver. So, in these circumstances, allegations of sexual abusive words to complainant have not been substantiated.”
Since the allegation had “not been substantiated”, the IO suggested that the “present complaint may kindly be filed accordingly”.
“They closed the case without examining any witnesses… The IO spoke to me once on the phone and that was the end of that,” said Ghosh. She noted that her driver, who had shot the video, was not examined. Neither did the IO’s report mention the existence of a video, as per the excerpt seen by The Wire.
Convinced the police had closed the case, Ghosh, a former member of the Delhi state advisory board for animal welfare, decided that it was not worth pursuing. “(From the RTI reply) I knew what had happened… the dog must have obviously died on the highway. I thought, let it be. Let me get on with my life.”
Over a year later and 14,000 kilometres away, the video, taken on August 1, 2021, suddenly surfaced in Guyana last week, which led the political opposition to call for Persaud’s firing.
It snowballed into a major controversy, as Persaud, a political appointee, had long been in the cross-hairs of the opposition Alliance For Change (AFC). Persaud’s vote against his government as an AFC lawmaker in a 2018 non-confidence motion triggered the removal of the coalition known as ‘APNU+AFC’ from power.
After the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPPC) won in the 2020 elections, Persaud was eventually appointed as Guyana’s high commissioner to India.
The diplomatic posting is important, as over 40% of Guyana’s population trace their ancestry to indentured labourers transported during the colonial period. For India, Guyana is an important regional link, with the capital Georgetown hosting the headquarters of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).
After Guyanese media reported on the contents of the video on October 25, Guyana’s foreign ministry issued a statement admitting that an incident had occurred a year ago but that Persaud was exonerated after an Indian investigation.
“The matter, brought to the attention of the Ministry of External Affairs of India by High Commissioner Persaud, was fully investigated by the relevant authorities and a formal response to the High Commissioner dated September 3rd, 2022 indicates that ‘allegation of sexual abusive words to complainant has [sic] not been substantiated’,” said the statement.
It seemed that the matter was settled. But a day later, Guyana’s President Irfaan Ali said that he spoke with Persaud after watching the video sent to him by journalists. Ali stated that Persaud told him that the “video was not complete in demonstrating exactly what took place” and also that the Indian authorities gave him a clean chit.
“Notwithstanding all of this, Mr Charrandas has agreed with me that in keeping with the best interest of Guyana, and the image of Guyana, that he would return home from his posting in India,” President Ali said during a Facebook live video on October 26.
After the announcement, The Wire asked Ghosh whether she had any notion about how the video resurfaced a year later. “No… I have no idea. Maybe somebody may have discovered it,” she said.
Ghosh said that she only learnt about the recall after receiving a link to the Facebook post.
Welcoming the development, she observed, “It seems that the president of Guyana has got a conscience, unlike our police.”
A year after the incident, she remains concerned that the local police did not seem to have made efforts to conduct a thorough investigation or find the dog.
“You know, the whole argument came about when I was asking him where the dog is. It would have cost him nothing to say that it is at this place. But he still did not do it,” she said.
The DU professor stated that she had been contacted by women’s organisations in Guyana to express solidarity, but indicated that she would not take any more steps as Persaud had returned home.
In Guyana, President Ali was interrogated by the media as to why the Guyanese foreign ministry had initially cleared Persaud of any wrongdoing and closed the matter.
“They deemed it closed based on what Indian authorities said, that they have no evidence of anything. We have to rely on the Indian authorities. They said that there is no evidence. As soon this video came, which was a visual evidence, you saw the action we took,” he told reporters on October 29.
The Wire contacted Delhi Police with queries on the circumstances around the police claiming that the complaint was “unsubstantiated”, despite the video having been sent by Ghosh in her initial complaint. This report will be updated once a comment is received.
There has been no official response from the Ministry of External Affairs on the withdrawal of the Guyanese high commissioner.