A Diplomatic Debacle
Did you hear of the Indian diplomat who got arrested for…
Of course you did! Of the many shocking facets surrounding the arrest of India’s Deputy Consul-General Devyani Khobragade in New York, on charges of visa fraud and labor law violations, the most remarkable one has been the sheer magnitude of response it has evoked, especially in India. It’s hogging headlines everywhere—in broadcast, print, electronic and social media.
Who would have thought that the diplomatic ties between the U.S. and India could suffer a major setback, not by issues surrounding nuclear disarmament or Indo-Pak squabbles, but by the arrest of a relatively low ranking consular officer?
It’s hard to imagine that so many issues have cropped up surrounding this incident. Here’s a small list of questions that have been raised in various areas:
- Outside the scope of the diplomatic immunity afforded by the Vienna Convention, should diplomats be extended any special treatment compared to other citizens, in matters of law enforcement?
- What could the law enforcement officials have done differently in this case? Are strip searches—including a cavity search—standard procedure in such arrests? What precedents do we have to fall on?
- Is Khobragade the “rogue” element here, violating the maid’s human rights, or was it the maid who was trying to blackmail her in an attempt to settle here?
- Why are Indian diplomats in the U.S. (like some from other countries) gaining notoriety for abusing domestic help? (Khobragade is the third in recent years to be charged.)
- Why do they feel entitled to domestic help if they can’t afford to pay the minimum wage required by the law of the land?
Those who have followed this issue know that many more questions have been raised. Is it any wonder that opinions and accusations are flying around like a tornado? In the midst of this storm it may be good to look at what appear to be the facts of the case:
- There is documentary evidence that Khobragade lied on the visa application regarding the wages paid to her maid, Sangeeta Richards. The form claimed she was paying her $9.75 per hour, which meets the minimum wage requirement in New York; but through a secondary, underhanded written agreement with the maid, she committed to paying only $3.31 per hour. (It has been pointed out that her lodging and boarding were provided by Khobragade)
- Besides lying in an official form, this was also in violation of the labor law of New York.
- Yet, by all accounts, this does not necessarily mean there was human rights violation of the maid, considering there are no allegations of explicit or implicit force or subjugation (as has been the case in many such disputes surrounding domestic help). This seemed to be more of an arrangement of mutual convenience.
- Once Richards, the maid, fled and decided to make this a legal issue against Khobragade, it appears that Khobragade, aided by officials in India, abused her position of power to intimidate the maid as well as her family in India to drop the case. Legal proceedings were brought against Richards’s husband in New Delhi.
- From initial reports, it appears the U.S. State Department overzealously accommodated the “evacuation” of Richards’s husband and children to the U.S.—on the presumption that there would be a retaliation against them. (Given that some of that had already allegedly happened, the concern was valid. However, it is debatable whether it was for the U.S. State Department to take it upon itself to ensure the safety of Sangeeta Richards’s family, if it meant circumventing the legal proceedings against them in India.)
- On the U.S. law enforcement front, the consistency and degree of a strip search vary even in the case of civilians. Why then were the law enforcement officials not more considerate in the arrest proceedings of Khobragade—not because she deserved special treatment as an individual—but because she was a diplomat whose improper treatment had the potential to affect bilateral relations of the two nations?
As one can see, the facts point to the murky nature of the whole deal. There doesn't seem to be a singular villain here. Blame, to some degree or other, can be hung on the various individuals and agencies involved.
And yet, the grossly overblown outcries from Indian politicians, press, and pundits seem to make the U.S. government the sole villain here.They seem to have needlessly hitched national pride onto the incident. While taking nothing away from Khobragade as an individual, it seems to be lost on these protesters that she was a deputy consular officer, not a high-profile consul general or ambassador who could legitimately be seen as the face of India. Add to it the fact that there was indeed a legal basis for proceedings against her, and it makes this gang of Indian pundits and politicians look like a lynch mob ready to roast Uncle Sam in a fit of blind vengeance.
But the gold medal for shortsightedness, in my opinion, goes to the official Indian response to this sordid affair. How they took an individual issue, no matter how egregious, and escalated it to make it look far graver than, for example, territorial disputes with Pakistan or China, or even global warfare, is beyond belief. All because they felt our national pride was at stake? If national pride is so dear to us, shouldn't we be more concerned about the fundamentals that have a real sway on it? Fundamentals like building a functional infrastructure or eliminating corruption? Is it because we have failed in doing that that we are looking towards America to give or take it away from us?
I am not suggesting that nations must first perfect themselves to assert themselves in the global village. By all means, let’s find our spine, let’s assert ourselves. But let's not make asses of ourselves in doing that. Let's not reduce the world's largest democracy into a banana republic that removes security barriers protecting foreign diplomats in its juvenile spite. Taking such liberties with the security of those in our charge by staking the national pride on one freak incident is precisely the way to loose respect and credibility. All across the totem pole of the Indian government, officials seem to be trampling over each other to scold America and to paint Khobragade singularly as a victim, forgetting that none of this would be happening if not for her insistence on domestic help, affordable or not.Yashwant Sinha, a former foreign minister and presently leader of the BJP party, went so far as to say that India should arrest and prosecute U.S.diplomats in India who are openly gay, now that the Supreme Court of India has made sex between same sex partners illegal. First, despite one’s personal feelings about the natural phenomenon of homosexuality, we should be ashamed of such an archaic law, not be advertising it. We should certainly not be using it as a tragicomic threat of blackmail in a bid to salvage our national pride.
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