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When individuals falter it is sad; when States falter it is serious!

By Parthiv N. Parekh Email By Parthiv N. Parekh
February 2014
When individuals falter it is sad; when States falter it is serious!

It is sad for Indian-Americans that both the countries that we call homes have dropped the ball in this diplomatic debacle.

As news cycles go, interest in the diplomatic debacle surrounding the arrest of Deputy Consul General Devyani Khobragade is now fading. Although the incident did damage bilateral relations between India and the United States, if all goes well, this too shall be forgotten soon. But many have also expressed concerns that the affair revealed underlying flaws and distrust in the diplomatic machineries of the two countries, which, if not addressed, have potential to do more harm in the future.

From that standpoint, it matters less whether it was Khobragade who was guilty or whether it was her maid, Sangeeta Richards. Or whether both were. And despite the innumerable proclamations in public forums supporting one or the other, or vilifying one or the other, the fact is no one really knows. All we have is hearsay and speculation to go by. Portraying Khobragade as the villain seems to be important to activists seeking to further their cause against the plight of domestic workers; while portraying Richards as the guilty party seems important to a sundry set of people, politicians, and pundits who fancy themselves as patriotic Indians with an axe to grind against the U.S. for arresting and mistreating an “innocent” diplomat.

Meanwhile, for the vast majority of the citizens of both countries, what is of far more significance is how the officials of both nations have conducted themselves throughout this affair. On this note, it is sad for Indian-Americans that both the countries that we call homes have dropped the ball.

While the blindness of justice is a critically important principle when it comes to its application to individuals, as soon as it comes to matters that have a potential to affect bilateral relations between two important nations, prudence and discretion should take priority over a robotic and dogmatic application of the rule of law. When it has served us, we as a nation, have done exactly that—in attacking Iraq to topple Saddam Hussain and in trespassing into Pakistan to eliminate Osama bin Laden. Sure, we may think of these as worthy and justified actions, but the naked fact is that these actions were unequivocally illegal in the realm of international law.

So if we have no qualms about circumventing the law in matters of geopolitics, how can we then turn around and become a stickler for the letter of the law in matters that can have consequences on the relationship between nations? The first critical error of judgment on the part of the State department was to see Khobragade’s alleged crime only through the prism of labor law violation, when it should have regarded it as an issue of bilateral relations. The accused was a diplomat, and that, too, of a country acknowledged across the political spectrum as an important American partner. And so, the proceedings against her had a direct potential to affect bilateral relations. That is precisely why the global community, through the Vienna Convention, saw the wisdom of conferring diplomatic immunity on such officials.

With this context, the State department could have handled the matter much more tactfully than it did—without tolerating the alleged violation of the law. It could have alerted Indian officials to see if they wanted to offer Khobragade the choice to be “reassigned” outside the U.S. or face the legal proceedings that would, in effect, also allow her a chance to prove her innocence.

Instead of choosing to see this as an issue of diplomatic significance, the State department got stuck on the letter of the law without considering the broader implications. Bad enough. But then came the second critical error—far worse than the first. A strip search, from what we know of arrest procedures and protocols, is optional even in the case of civilians. Shouldn’t the guard against strip-searching a diplomat be far greater? And more so because she wasn’t charged with any offense that would remotely warrant such a search!

Strip-searching Khobragade, a female diplomat from India charged with an offense that was It is sad for Indian-Americans that both the countries that we call homes have dropped the ball in this diplomatic debacle. barely criminal, was a cavalier and indefensible error of the State department. That, more than anything, was responsible for the massive groundswell of uproar in India against the U.S. It played into the hands of those who paint the U.S. as an arrogant power that plays by different rule books depending on which side of the law it finds itself on.

But it takes two for a fight to escalate. If American diplomacy was sleeping on the wheels, its Indian counterpart, as if on steroids, went on a mad binge of juvenile retaliation. The error on its part was to needlessly elevate a mishandled law-and-order situation of a low ranking diplomat into a case of national pride. Public officials and politicians across the spectrum who had the power and responsibility to influence the situation turned into a motley crew, who instead of defusing the situation, poured oil into the inferno. Those who were supposed to exhibit tact and states-manship ended up inciting the masses. Leaders of politica parties competed with each other to flaunt their patriotism by demonizing America.

Just about all of them treated Khobragade as a victim if not a hero. They completely sidestepped the charges for which she was indicted. She very well could be innocent; but she very well could also be guilty. But most leaders including Yashwant Sinha and Mulayam Singh Yadav publicly spoke as if she were explicitly innocent, thereby further fueling the denunciation of America as the country that strip-searched an “innocent” Indian diplomat.

Lost in all this hyperbole is the fact that the two countries are each one of the largest trading partners for the other. While a number of trade organizations, academic institutions, and businesses in both countries are investing money, manpower, and resources to improve the bilateral relations, their State machineries, which are supposed to be catalysts for such efforts, are undermining them. That is a matter of far greater concern and seriousness than the guilt or innocence of the individuals involved in this case.

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