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India says welcome back to jingoism

Reaction to diplomat's arrest in US is out of proportion

  • John Dayal, New Delhi
  • India
  • December 23, 2013
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There is an absurd drama being played out between India and the United States over an Indian domestic maid’s complaint against the Deputy Consular General in New York, Dr Devyani Khobragade.

More specifically it’s a row over her arrest ordered by Preet Bahara, US Attorney for the Southern District of New York and a fellow Indian.

It is quite normal for Indian diplomats, used to having servants back home, to take domestic assistants with them while on foreign postings. This is so they are not dependent on local help, which is likely to be more expensive.

It’s ironic that Indians in the US and back home had celebrated Bahara’s appointment as a measure of how high the Indian community has risen in their new country.

Trouble flared when Dr Khobragade was arrested on December 12 in New York, soon after dropping her daughter at school. She was accused of underpaying her Indian domestic help and giving false information for visa applications, charges that invite a prison term.

The arrest shocked Dr Khobragade, her family and the Indian government who presumed she had diplomatic immunity and would not be charged.

It turned out her diplomatic immunity as a consular officer is not in the same category as those enjoyed by ambassadors and other senior diplomats.

Her attorney alleges she was taken to a police station, body and cavity searched, and then put in a cell with criminals including sex workers and drug addicts. People back in India thought this was adding insult to injury.

US authorities are firm that the manner of her arrest, and her treatment in detention, are not the main issues. They insist the arrest procedures were according to American norms and those accused of crimes under the law must be prosecuted irrespective of their rank.

On top of all this, it also turns out Dr Khobragade is accused of giving false information while buying an apartment in a controversial Mumbai residential complex.

Dr Khobragade, daughter of a senior civil servant, and of Dalit origin, is patently well connected. That may have something to do with the overreaction by the government of India. This reaction is not normal when Indians are arrested in Pakistan or Sri Lanka, the Middle East or Africa. India’s jingoist TV news channels have jumped on the bandwagon, giving it blanket coverage. 

The government has been possibly forced into a position of demanding not just a formal apology from the United States – and not just expressions of regret – but that the US drop all charges against the diplomat.

The government in fact posted Dr Khobragade to the United Nations presuming this would give her retroactive immunity from future arrest and persecution, but this has met with resistance from the Department of State which has to keep its own norms, according to its spokesperson.

It would seem the Indian government does not believe in rule of law.

India, with its trade, financial and defense ties with the US, and with a very large Indian diaspora enjoying what the land of opportunity has to offer cannot afford to annoy Washington beyond a point.

This has been made quite clear by pronouncements from senior ministers who have highlighted the “strategic partnership between the world’s two biggest democracies,” and commerce minister Anand Sharma’s declaration that nothing will be allowed to strain these ties.

But India’s political parties, specially the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, have gone overboard to a ridiculous extent.

The parties have held protests in Delhi, Mumbai and other cities, where American flags have been burned.

Commentators have suggested that same sex partners of American diplomats be arrested under India’s draconian anti-gay laws. Protesters have demanded that India arrest and strip search American diplomats.

Whipped by an angry media, the Foreign Ministry seems bent on doing just that.

Special privileges including police courtesy cards have been withdrawn from US diplomats, as have their privileges to import food items, alcohol and other goods, a benefit enjoyed by most embassies.

In a bizarre move, Delhi police also removed traffic barriers meant to prevent terrorist attacks from around the US embassy.

Foreign minister, Salman Khursheed, has even said he will not return to parliament until the matter is resolved to India’s satisfaction.

Among the more controversial demands is that the US disregard its legal processes, withdraw charges against the diplomat and arrest and repatriate the maid at the centre of the controversy.

But some sane voices are at last being heard in government circles and civil society, presenting an alternate way of solving this row.

Voices within the government are saying that a high level dialogue be initiated, an apology given for the diplomat's strip and cavity searches, and that the law be allowed to take its course without further arrest.

Civil society is also waking up to its duties as a voice of reason.  And those who know the art are mediating between governments to give the unsavory incident a quiet burial.

Commercial and security interests are all too important, for both India and the US, to jeopardize them. And of course it would be wise that the Indian government warn its diplomats not to violate laws in countries where they have been posted, and if possible, to learn to live with the servants they brought from home in India.

John Dayal is the general secretary of the All India Christian Council and a member of the Indian government’s National Integration Council.

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