Editorial. Dr. John Dayal. December XXII. XIII
Much Ado About Maid In USA
By Dr.John Dayal
There is a theatre of the absurd being played out in diplomatic relations between India and its 62 billion dollar civilian trade partner, the United States of America, over a complex issue of an Indian domestic maid’s complaint against the Indian Deputy Consular General in New York, Dr. Devyani Khobragade, and her arrest ordered by Mr. Preet Bahara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. It is a practice with Indian diplomats, used to servants at home, to take with them domestic assisstants, often relatives, to their places of postings so they are not dependent on local help, who they may not trust with their children, and who certainly may charge much more for work that routinely extends the entire stretch of a day.
In a piquant irony, Indians in the US and back home, had celebrated compatriot Mr. Bahara’s appointment as a measure of how high the community has risen in their new country. Many of the people Mr. Bahara’s office has indicted on various charges, including insider trading by investment bankers, have included prominent persons of Indian origin. But that is an aside.
Trouble broke out when Dr. Khobragade was arrested on 12 December 2013 in New York soon after she had dropped her daughter at her school, accused of not just under-paying her Indian domestic help, but also giving false information in violation of American norms for visa applications, charges that invite terms of several years in prison. The arrest shocked Dr. Khobragade, her family and the Indian government who had known about the case for several months but had presumed she had diplomatic immunity and would not be charged. It turned out that her diplomatic immunity as a consular officer is not in the same category as those enjoyed by ambassadors and other senior members of the Indian embassy. It is alleged by her attorney that she was taken to the police precinct offices, body and cavity searched, and then put in a cell with criminals including sex workers and drug addicts. This, people back in India thought, was adding insult to injury, not that she demanded treatment of some special sort in detention.
The prosecuting agencies are firm that the manner of her arrest, and her treatment in detention, are not the main issues. They insist the arrest procedures were according to American norms and those guilty of crimes under the law must be prosecuted irrespective of their rank. As an aside, American law officers have often commented that by comparison, Indian law and police procedures are remarkably soft and amenable to all sorts of pressures.
There is an additional factoid that has now entered the discourse. Turns out Dr. Khobragade is accused of giving false information while buying an apartment in a controversial Mumbai residential complex. Dr. Khobragade, daughter of a senior civil servant, and of Dalit origin, is patently well connected. That may have something to do with the sort of overreaction the government of India has shown, which is not normal when Indians are arrested in Pakistan or Sri Lanka, the Middle East or Africa. A silly season on news also encouraged India’s jingoist TV News channels giving it carpet coverage. In fact, it has remained the main headlines on all news channels for four days.
The government possibly has been forced into a position of demanding not just formal apology from the United States – and not just expressions of regret – but that the US drop the entire proceedings against the diplomat. The government in fact posted Dr. Khobragade to the United Nations presuming this would give her retroactive immunity from future arrest and persecution, but has met with resistance from the Department of State which has to keep its own norms, according to its spokesperson. Possibly, it would seem, the Indian government does not believe in rule of law.
India, with its trade, financial and defence linkages with the US, and with a very large Indian diaspora enjoying the American reputation of being a land of opportunity, cannot afford to annoy Washington beyond a point. This has been quite clear by a second stream of pronouncements by senior ministers who have highlighted the “strategic partnership between the world’s two biggest democracies,” and Commerce Minister Anand Sharma’s declaration that nothing will be allowed to put stress on these ties.
But the country’s political parties, specially the right wing Bharatiya Janata Party, and the Foreign office have gone overboard to a ridiculous extent. Political parties have held demonstrations in Delhi, Mumbai and other cities, where American flags have been burned. Commentators have suggested that same sex partners of American diplomatic staff be declared illegal and arrested under India’s draconian anti-gay laws. Protestors have demanded that India do a tit for tat to American personnel in India.
Whipped by angry TV News Anchors, the Ministry of External Affairs seems bent on doing just that. So far, special privileges including police courtesy cards have been withdrawn from US Diplomats, has have their privileges to import food items, alcohol and other goods, a benefit enjoyed by most embassies in New Delhi.
In a bizarre move, Delhi police removed traffic barriers that had been placed in the lanes around the US Embassy, and meant to prevent terrorist attacks. India’s Union Minister for External Affairs, Mr. Salman Khursheed, an eminent jurist, has gone to the extent of saying he will not return to Parliament unless the matter is resolved to India’s entire satisfaction.
Among the more controversial official demands is that the US disregard its legal processes, withdraw charges against the diplomat, arrest and repatriate the maid at the centre of this entire controversy and her family which was recently allowed to join her in New York.
But outside the noise, some sane voices are at last being heard in government circles and civil society, presenting an alternate route to solving this absolutely man-made controversy. Voices within the government are saying that a dialogue is initiated at the highest levels of government, an apology made for the strip search and cavity searches of the diplomat, and the law be allowed to take its course without further arrest. Pushed to a side in the first flush of nationalist rhetoric, civil society is also waking up to its duties as a voice of sanity.
And those who know the art are mediating between governments to give the unsavory incident a quiet burial. The commercial and security interest are all too important, for both India and the US, to be put into jeopardy. And, of course, there is a rising demand that the government of India chastise its diplomats not to violate laws of the lands where they have been posted, and if possible, learn to live with the retinue of servants they have at home in India.
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