Saudi Rape Slur a Test of India’s Stance on Human Rights

Published: 13th September 2015 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 12th September 2015 10:42 PM   |  A+A-


The Delhi Police has started investigation of a Saudi diplomat accused of raping two Nepali maids at his house. The women, aged 30 and 50, were allegedly rescued from the house in Gurgaon earlier this week after a women’s rights organisation informed the authorities. The women say they were brought from Nepal with promises of employment and then sold to the Saudi diplomat, who held them captive for several months. The police have filed a report against the diplomat without naming him, arguing that the official has diplomatic immunity. The Saudi embassy has denied the charges and backed its diplomat booked on rape charges. The embassy has said the media reports are unwarranted, especially before the probe is over, and added that false allegations were made against its diplomat.

“The embassy strongly stresses that these allegations are false and have not been proven,” a statement said. It further said the embassy has also brought to the notice of the officials concerned in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) the “unwarranted media briefings before investigations are complete, and has protested the police intrusion into a diplomat’s house against all diplomatic conventions”. Meanwhile, the Nepalese embassy has also approached the Indian government. If prima facie a case is made out, the government usually asks the nation involved to withdraw diplomatic immunity of the diplomat or official concerned or declares the individual persona non grata.

After getting a report from the Delhi Police, the MEA has sought the cooperation of Saudi Arabia’s ambassador with investigations. But the Saudi embassy’s rejection of the allegations has put New Delhi in a difficult position. Nepal and Saudi Arabia are important partners of India, and tough diplomatic choices await New Delhi.

Saudi Arabia has emerged as a major partner for India on a whole range of issues. Just last month, in a sign of burgeoning bilateral defence ties, a contingent of Indian Air Force fighter aircraft landed in Saudi Arabia for the first time. Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia’s help was crucial when India sought to evacuate its 6,000 citizens from war-torn Yemen. In January 2006, Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud visited India on his first trip outside the Middle East since taking the throne in August 2005. The trip was viewed as extremely significant as it underscored a strategic shift in Saudi foreign policy and was reflective of ‘a new era’ for the kingdom. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reciprocated by visiting Riyadh in 2010, 28 years since the last Indian premier’s visit, and promptly elevated the Indo-Saudi relationship to a “strategic partnership”.

Riyadh is the chief supplier of oil to India’s booming economy, and India is now the fourth largest recipient of Saudi oil. India’s crude oil imports from the kingdom will likely double in the next 20 years. With around 2.4 million Indian living and working in Saudi Arabia, Indians form the largest expatriate community in the country. New Delhi has also cultivated Riyadh for strategic reasons. To Indian strategists, any ally that can act as a counterweight to Pakistan in the Islamic world is significant. The Saudi government has its own reasons for cultivating Indian ties. Saudi Arabia and Iran have long competed for power and influence in the Gulf. As the regional balance of power between Arabia and Persia threatens to unravel in Iran’s favour, New Delhi has repeatedly emphasised its desire to see the extant balance of power in the region stabilise. Given India’s growing stakes in the Gulf, it is not surprising that this should be the case.

The Saudi king’s 2006 visit to India was also a signal to the broader Gulf Cooperation Council community to build a stronger partnership with India. The security consequences of a rising Iran are as vital for other Arab Gulf states as they are for Saudi Arabia. Reaching out to emerging powers such as India is one way to preserve the balance of power in the region. So, the role of Saudi Arabia in Indian foreign policy matrix is only likely to grow, especially as the threat from the IS becomes ever more formidable. But India will also have to respect Nepal’s sensitivities. After all, Nepal has found an important place in the Modi government’s foreign policy.

For all these reasons, it won’t be easy for New Delhi to manage tensions that are likely to emanate out of this unfortunate saga in which not only India’s commitment to human rights is likely to be tested but New Delhi’s diplomatic acuity is also on the line.

Pant is a professor in international relations, King’s College, London

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