The mass outrage in India about the treatment of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade by a New York cop, reinforced by ill-informed media commentaries, is harming its national interests. At issue is Khobragade’s payment of low wages to her maid Sangeeta Richard in violation of a US law. To inject a balance of opinion, here are some counter narratives.
One, Indian writers argued that the 39-year-old diplomat enjoys immunity under the Vienna Convention. Recently, 39-year-old French diplomat Pascal Mazurier was stripped, searched and put in jail by Indian police on the allegation of raping his child. Diplomatic immunity cannot be morally blind to underpaid workers or victims of paedophilia. Therefore, US courts have ruled against diplomatic immunity in cases of misuse of labour, arguably an improvement in justice.
Two, columnists accused the US of double standards, contending that if the host country law were to prevail always, CIA agent Raymond Davis would have been executed by Pakistan for killing two people in 2011. However, the host country law did prevail in the Davis case as he was released after paying blood money, as permitted under Pakistan’s Islamic law.
Three, one writer asked if the return air fare and free housing traditionally enjoyed by the staff of Indian diplomats shouldn’t be counted as wages by the US. The argument is not whether diplomats pay their staff adequately; it concerns an employer’s culpability in violating a known US law designed to protect vulnerable workers, a noble cause.
Four, columnists worried that Khobragade was herself paid low and how could she meet salary requirements for her maid, who too is an Indian citizen. India indeed pays low salaries to its diplomats, which must be reviewed. However, as confirmed by India, Khobragade owns 11 properties including one in the infamous Adarsh apartments that make her a millionaire in dollar terms. Ethically, she could have paid her maid more, even though she was receiving a low salary.
Five, the US was accused of suspicious motive in buying air ticket to take Richard’s relatives out of India. Actually, Indian justice, too, works in a similar way, as prosecution routinely presents an accused as an approver in flesh trade, terrorism or other cases; it ensures there is a witness. In Richard’s case, the US acted to ensure her family is not harassed in India. Witness protection is well established in jurisprudence. One writer wondered how quickly the maid was given a lifelong US visa that is probably meant for destitutes in vulnerable circumstances like trafficking.
Six, India lambasted the US for mistreating Khobragade through strip-and-cavity search. Reports on cavity search are inaccurate, but under the established procedures she was searched by a policewoman. Indian police search individuals on mere suspicion, and pat-down searches at shopping malls and cinemas are common. Both in the US and India, cops are following the procedure laid down for them. Under developed jurisprudence, a person cannot be handcuffed without court order or denied bail if they won’t run away or tamper with evidence. See how Indian justice works for Tarun Tejpal, the editor subjected to potency test in violation of law and mistreated before trial.
Seven, Indian-born US prosecutor Preet Bharara was accused of malice towards India. Contrarily, overseas Indians who are brought up on the charm of Bollywood and desi food are arguably more pro-India and nationalist than Indians. Because of this reason, US journalists of Indian origin failed to clarify the complex issues of this case. The US was dismissed as a nation of hypocrites. Some Indian hypocrisies are here: gang rapes of our daughters in Indian cities, billions of dollars of corruption by ministers, political parties taunting people by blocking legislation to prevent criminals from entering parliament, et al. Bharara’s record in prosecuting millionaire financial criminals is irrefutably superb.
Eight, questions were asked at what point the US state department knew of the impending arrest and why did it not alert India, an ally, in advance. A reverse question: at what point Indian officials knew that Khobragade was under US legal investigation and why she wasn’t spirited out of the US jurisdiction. An answer lies in initiation of lawsuit against the maid in India. In justified revenge, India can take actions under its laws, but removing security barricades from the US embassy is an act of a thoughtless government. There are honourable things to do: asylum to Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, or a red passport to Shahrukh Khan to help him avoid search at US airports.
Nine, the argument is not that India sit silent. It must extricate Khobragade out of the legal trouble. External affairs minister Salman Khurshid demanded that the US withdraw the case against her, but both in India and the US, governments cannot withdraw certain criminal cases; usually, parties opt for an out-of-court settlement—a misnomer in law. But, under immunity available to UN diplomats, Khobragade can leave the US to escape trial.
Ten, there is a simple question of decency and adequacy of response in such cases, whether they be diplomats or others. Americans need to look into their soul, especially how they have turned into a legalistic society where insistence on legal solutions prevents moderation, reconciliation and forgiveness. Indians too, who feel outraged over their hurt national dignity, must look into their soul and see how the dignity of Indian women and politics is outraged everyday.
Recently, an Arab diplomat was allowed to leave India despite a molestation charge. The Italian ambassador was prevented from leaving India recently. India did not protest when the US navy killed an Indian fisherman, off Dubai’s shore last year, or its former president was searched at a US airport. Insanity must not take over diplomacy. India’s national interests cannot be subordinated to the diplomatic lobby of Delhi. “We the people”—the opening words of the Indian constitution—are borrowed from the US constitution, and despite the current slugfest, the two democracies will remain natural allies.
Tufail Ahmad is director of South Asia Studies Project at the Middle East Media Research Institute, Washington DC.