An Undiplomatic Affair: What Devyani Khobragade Affair Tells Us About New India

The arrest of Indian Diplomat Devyani Khobragade in New York and subsequent diplomatic spat between India and United States is fast becoming tabloid stuff, with supposed hoax videos of Ms Khobragade's strip search doing rounds on the Internet and Indian media changing their story on a daily basis. This affair, however, tells us a few things about new India which is worth taking note of.

First, a quick update on what happened. What we know so far is this: Ms Khobragade's housemaid, Ms Sangetha Richards, someone who was recruited from India and was brought to United States, complained of inhuman treatment against her, and also stated that she was never paid the promised salary, the one Ms Khobragade apparently declared in the visa application form that she signed. After Ms Richards formally complained, Ms Khobragade was formally charged by the prosecutors. This much we know, because no one seems to be disputing this.

Now, the claims: India claimed that Ms Khobragade was strip searched, a claim which was strongly denied by US Marshall's office and never substantiated from the Indian side: We now have a video doing rounds on the Internet, which is claimed to be a hoax. There is a claim by Ms Khobragade's attorney that this is all due to the mistake of an US Visa official, who took what Ms Khobragade got paid herself ($4500) as the amount she would pay the maid. There is also a claim, made by Ms Khobragade's family, that Ms Richards is trying to game the US System and to claim asylum as a victim of human trafficking (a related speculation that Ms Richards was a CIA mole in the Indian embassy surfaced in Indian media, but died down without substantiation).

For normal mortals found in a similar situation, these will be legal arguments played out in a courtroom, for which Ms Khobragade will have plenty of opportunity. If she was unfairly treated by the police, which is unlikely, she can indeed press charges against the officers involved. Given that Indian diplomats (and diplomats from other countries too, it must be said) find themselves regularly on the wrong side of US law with regard to domestic help, seems to give credence to the view that underpaying maids is possibly a common practice. For Indians living abroad, this is an all too familiar story - once in a while, you get to see similar stories played out between domestic help and their sponsors - except for the fact that this has now become a major world news and a source of geopolitical tension.

The escalation of this seemingly common issue to such a level rests of Indian government getting involved claiming that Ms Khobragade had 'diplomatic immunity'. However, since then, it has been clarified that Ms Khobragade had specific diplomatic immunity only related to her consular duties, and did not enjoy full diplomatic immunity that would have saved her from prosecution in an affair of this kind. Indian government has also accepted this view apparently, by moving her to a role in the UN team in New York which allowed her full diplomatic immunity.

So, legal details aside, everyone seems to accept that the maid was paid less than minimum wage, and there may have been a case of lying on the visa application form (whether it is a mistake is yet to be established), a criminal offence. Everyone seems to accept that Ms Khobragade did not have diplomatic immunity, and there is no substantial evidence that she was treated unusually after her arrest.

What we know for a fact, however, is that India has gone ahead and cancelled many diplomatic privileges of US diplomats in India, who had not been convicted of any wrongdoing in India, including their rights to import alcohol. There were speculative statements made by senior politicians about prosecuting gay partners of US diplomats, presumably using a colonial era law which many Indians see as out of date. And, they have also taken completely cavalier steps, like removing security barriers from US embassy in New Delhi, without regard to the considerable threat this embassy is under from Global terror networks (Indeed, if the hated ISI wants to embarrass India, they have been extended an open invitation).

As an overseas Indian, one is struck by this reaction, primarily considering the contrast between India's reaction to this and the French reaction to the arrest of Dominic Strauss Kahn, who at the time of his arrest, was the Head of IMF and a front-runner in the French Presidential race. DSK did something very french, and it was not conclusively proved that he was at fault (indeed, he was acquitted). The French was outraged and indeed, there was talk of conspiracy: However, the French government had the good sense to keep the rhetoric in its place.

In contrast, what India seems to demanding for Ms Khobragade is not diplomatic immunity (she did not have any), but the impunity the Indian elite usually operates with. It is proving the point that many Indians including Arundhati Roy makes, that the Indian elite and the Indian state have become one and the same, and that it does not believe in equality before law (and the privileged must be allowed to do whatever they wish). It is ready to put the country's geopolitical interests in line (the relationship with United States is important because the Indian government itself says so: Manmohan Singh could not think of any greater achievement in his 10 year premiership than the nuclear deal with the United States) for someone who seems to have a very well connected father. The affair also tells us something about Indian journalism: That even the mainstream media in India can not control its tabloid streak when one of their own is touched, and indeed, it has no respect for rule of law like rest of the elite. 

In a few months, Indian democracy will be trumpeted about and the world will be reminded that India is world's most populous democracy. In that sense, this affair is timely to remind everyone that democracy is not an end in itself, and divorced from rule of law and accountability of various institutions, it can indeed turn into a very ugly affair.


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