The diplomatic row over the arrest and strip search of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade by U.S. law enforcement officers has built to a genuine crisis in bilateral relations. The dispute threatens to derail a decade of hard work at the foundation of the India-US “strategic partnership.”
The public arrest, handcuffing and strip-search of Khobragade, India’s deputy consul general in New York, on charges of “visa fraud” stemmed from her allegedly making false statements on a visa application for her Indian nanny. She was also allegedly paying her about $3 an hour, less than minimum wage.
The nanny, Sangeeta Richard, left Khobragade’s New York residence in June after the relationship between the women became strained over increasingly long hours with little pay. Richard returned in July with lawyers and NGOs to demand back pay. Richard may or may not have planned her moves but her husband and two kids were “evacuated” from New Delhi apparently with the help of U.S. Embassy officials. Many Indians see this as a conspiracy.
The State Department allowed the prosecutor in New York to push ahead on the matter, apparently without considering the full ramifications on bilateral relations. President Obama has called the U.S.-India relationship “defining partnership of the 21st century,” but it took Secretary of State John Kerry six days after the diplomat’s arrest to make a phone call to New Delhi.
Whether the diplomat is guilty or not, Washington must consider the implications of a long, drawn-out public trial. The U.S.-India relationship, which has blossomed over the last decade, is crucial not only for regional peace and security in South Asia but also for the stabilization of Afghanistan, for ebbing the forces of religious extremism and for ensuring a fair balance of power in Asia.
Against these important strategic goals, it would seem reckless to squander the India-U.S. partnership over a version of “nannygate.” President Obama surely wouldn’t want to lose India, a country for which there has been consistent bipartisan support in Washington. Similarly, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who staked his government on the successful conclusion of the 2008 civil nuclear deal with the United States, wouldn’t want the relationship to deteriorate as his term nears its end.
Prime Minister Singh was chagrined enough to call Khobragade’s treatment at the hands of U.S. marshals “deplorable,” and India’s National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon said it was “despicable” and “barbaric.” The forceful response came from within an Indian foreign service which saw Khobragade’s humiliation as unjustified and U.S. actions as premeditated.
Indian officials were further aggravated when the American legal system seemed to ignore Indian courts; there was an warrant for the nanny’s arrest after she disappeared. Richard was on an Indian passport, and her return to India without violating her visa status was New Delhi’s responsibility.
India’s reaction has surprised the Americans. But it really should not. Diplomatic relations are conducted on the basis of understandings, norms, courtesies and conventions.
India has retaliated by cancelling additional privileges granted to U.S. diplomats—in line with the curtailed diplomatic benefits now given to Indian diplomats in Washington. Airport access, liquor licenses and identity cards giving full diplomatic immunity to consular officers have been withdrawn. New cards will be issued giving consular staff in India limited immunity as in the United States. To cancel extra privileges accumulated over the years is not excessive. But, yes, the party is partly over.
It is simplistic to dismiss the Indian response as petulant or jingoistic. Editorial commentary in the U.S. media calling the Indian reaction “misplaced” is patronizing. The debate also has meandered to a misguided lecture on the state of Indian society, its inequalities, its caste and class system—not germane to the issue at hand.
The outrage in India stems from the public humiliation of a diplomat, who represents the country and its sovereignty abroad. Indians are shocked that this came from a friendly country for an alleged crime, which can’t be considered “grave” under the Vienna Convention. Many are perplexed at the severity of the treatment explained away as “standard procedure” without as much as a nod to diplomatic courtesies. Strip and cavity searches can’t be justified given the nature of the alleged crime.
It raises the question: if a U.S. diplomat, especially a woman, were strip-searched in an Indian lock-up, how would the U.S. establishment and the media react?
Indians are doubly shocked because they feel a natural affinity for America given the familial links with nearly three million Indian Americans. Even when U.S. popularity was at an all-time low around the world after the launch of the Iraq War, the stories of torture from Abu Ghraib and more recently the revelations about wholesale spying by the National Security Agency of foreign governments, America has remained a favorite with Indians. Surveys have consistently shown US approval ratings to be between 76 and 66 percent among Indians. India’s positive feelings for the United States should not be sacrificed for a zealous prosecutor on whom the bigger picture is lost.
In newspapers and on social media, Indians have raised the question of American double standards with regards to diplomats. U.S. administrations have gone to extraordinary lengths to defend their diplomats from local laws even when they are involved in egregious crimes.
In January 2011, the State Department used its considerable diplomatic muscle to bring back Raymond Davis, a CIA operative who had killed two people in “self-defense” in Pakistan. He was declared a “diplomat” after the crime while the two sides negotiated his return home. More recently, a U.S. diplomat and his family were rushed out of Nairobi, Kenya, after his speeding car rammed into a minibus, killing one person.
Americans expect and get special treatment from most countries. Considering the importance of ties between India and America when it comes to growing economic and strategic matters—surely there could have been another way to handle this situation.
Seema Sirohi is a columnist for Gateway House, the Times of India, and the Economic Times.