When the news of the arrest of a New York based diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, first appeared in the media, no one really imagined the speed at which the relations between India and the United States would deteriorate. But as the details of how she was hand cuffed and strip and cavity searched by the US Marshals began to spill out in the public domain, it became clear that this incident was going to turn really nasty and also it may not go away soon.
The US prosecutor had alleged that the Indian diplomat had given her maid less salary against to what she had promised in the visa application. This maybe a usual practice amongst diplomats from different parts of the world, but the US law enforcement agencies chose to expose the diplomat.
The influential Indian Foreign Service demanded firm response from the government to save the honour of one of their own. And did they really act! In a slew of steps the government withdrew privileges that had been granted to the US embassy and its personnel in Delhi. Security barricades around the embassy were removed. Expectedly, this move got a loud cheer from the local residents including the diplomats from other countries. Liquor imports were pruned to the bone. Indian employees pay slips were to be submitted to the authorities to show how they were being treated by their American employers. Senior Indian ministers refused to meet a US Congressional delegation that was visiting India. As an Indian daily newspaper in a banner headline colourfully reflected the government’s belligerent mood, “Strip search shows that India has a spine”. The US government was quite taken aback by the tough Indian response. What really befuddled many was why did the US State Department allow this maid’s salary issue to imperil the ties between the two countries? Contrarily, why did the Indian government use this issue to rock their relationship with the USA?
There are no easy answers to these questions and there is a manifest resort to conspiracy theories. A section of the media traces the sequence of events to show that the arrest of Devyani took place immediately after the visit of India’s foreign secretary, Sujata Singh, to Washington. There are suggestions that during this trip Singh did plenty of plain speaking on many issues including beseeching Washington not to support radical Islamist elements in Bangladesh. It seems unlikely that US would try to make an example of an ally that does not agree with them on an issue, but many Indian officials would state categorically that the relationship between the two countries has probably the worst now than it has been in the last 10 years. Ask any US diplomat or an analyst and he would inform how the relationship has diminished in the last few years. Hill watchers in DC have claimed that India does not get the kind of traction that it got when President George W Bush was in power. Does that really mean that the transformed relationship would allow an over ambitious US Prosecutor of Indian descent to make an example of deputy Counsel General? No one would lend credence to this view, but take a look at how the Indian government reacted to what it called a “humiliation” of its diplomat? Unlike its careful and measured wont, the Indian government began to bare its knuckles and hit the US hard in ways the Washington had not experienced before. In many ways, it was a repetition of what the US had faced in Pakistan when their military contractor Raymond Davies had shot two innocent bystanders.
Like in Pakistan, in Delhi, too, public hostility towards the US was allowed to grow. New Delhi permitted the conduct of foreign policy to be influenced by hysterical TV anchors and jingoist columnists. Roared on by these anchors and hawkish talking heads, the government began to suggest that it would avenge this humiliation. India’s foreign minister went so far to say that he would not return to the parliament till he was able to restore dignity to the diplomat.
India government’s tough stance against Washington drew instant response from the middle class that had been pining for a muscular response from its rulers. Diplomats from other countries also applauded the Indian government and they could be heard quietly suggesting that “The US only listens to tough language. Dare they strip a diplomat from Russia or China?”
Arrest and subsequent release of Devyani also triggered off an intense debate within the country with people wondering whether it was right to take on the US government on an issue where an Indian diplomat could be at wrong. “What about snooping and surveillance that the National Security Agency had been doing of Indian ministers and diplomats? Isn’t it a bigger reason to question the US government than what constitutes a visa fraud”? Reports began to emerge that Devyani was quite wealthy and there was no reason why she could not have paid her maid “ US hourly rate” rather than what was being paid to her. She allegedly had 11 flats including one in an infamous housing complex in Mumbai that had been a subject of corruption investigation. Her wealth, though, is not germane to the issue. What is really being contested is whether Devyani should have been subjected to a strip and cavity search or not and whether her diplomatic status should have been respected by the US state department? After the incident, the US government was quick to point out that the Indian diplomat did not enjoy immunity as she was a consular. Also, it was stated that India did not belong to a hostile country and did not deserve this treatment. To prevent her from further harm, the Indian government posted her in India’s UN mission so that she may enjoy diplomatic immunity, but the Washington displayed its belligerence when it made it clear that immunity to a diplomat cannot come retrospectively. There is a strong possibility that Devyani may still get arrested.
The government of India wants diplomat’s honour to be restored and also wants an apology. The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, tried to restore sanity by expressing regret over what happened, but his response fell far short of general expectations. Indian foreign minister, Salman Khurshid, also made an attempt to prevent the relationship become a casualty of competitive finger pointing by stating how the relationship between the two countries was important, but the US government had made it clear that it would not withdraw its charges against the Indian diplomat.
Where does this eyeball to eyeball encounter lead to? The Indian authorities are convinced that if Washington wants to sort out the issue with India then it can always find ways rather than claiming autonomy for its prosecution agencies. India, per se, has little room to manoeuvre as it heads into a parliament elections next year. It would be difficult for the Congress led coalition government to look weak. They would be expected to measure up to some new norms that media and noisy public opinion have created in recent months and that means standing up to a big power and safeguarding national interest. If the Congress departs from what is perceived to be a tough stand then the BJP Prime Ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, who has projected himself to be a muscular leader in comparison to a weak and diffident Manmohan Singh, could bring more grief to the ruling party. It is a tricky situation, but the Indian government can ill afford the relations between two big democracies to sink due to differences over how a maid has to be treated. Last, though, has not been heard on this unsavoury saga, which has allowed India to rediscover its misplaced machismo. The worrying question for India could be — what will it do if the US agencies begin the process of arresting the lady diplomat?
Sanjay Kapoor is the Editor of Delhi based Hardnews Magazine (www.hardnewsmedia.com). Hardnews is also the South Asian partner of Paris based publication, Le Monde Diplomatique.