Editorial. Satya Pal Singh. December XXIII. XIII
American 'Diplomatic Mania'
By Satya Pal Singh
It defies every conceivable strand of logic that American brinkmanship should wildly spread even to those areas which the super power presumably considers strategically important for its own interests.
Meandering through the Middle East, Latin America, parts of Indian subcontinent, Washington has now chosen to disturb New Delhi's peace, over a trifling matter that is being widely cited typically as a non-issue. What both India and US are not realizing, perhaps, is that it's not in the interest of either to freeze their ties so recklessly and on so flimsy a ground. In view of the strategic geo-political status that India enjoys from American point of view, and its deeply entrenched commercial and military interests in the region, Washington's hostile action on Devyani issue, markedly offensive to New Delhi, is difficult to understand. China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and a little away, the entire West Asia, must be watching with interest the disturbed bonhomie that essentially points to some kind of fragility in relations of the world's two major democracies.
An Indian consular officer, named Devyani Khobragade, posted in New York, decides to employ a female housekeeper to take care of her household and two kids. Devyani and her prospective Keralite maid gracefully settle on a monthly salary of Rs 25,000, plus an additional Rs 5,000 as remuneration towards overtime services. The officer, who has earlier been managing her household perhaps without a servant, finds the minimum American wage of $4,500 a month for a maid ‘un-payable’ from a monthly salary of $6,500 that she gets herself. Possibly unmindful of the repercussions of underpaying a servant in a country which considers it gravely criminal, amounting to willful exploitation of labour, she manages to obtain a visa for the maid on documents that obviously are not in order. But the maid, Sangeeta Richards, who is in dire need of a job, happily agrees to the wage and the working terms. She flies to New York and works for Devyani household for a couple of months.
At this point, possibly somebody in New Delhi or New York guides her that if she files a complaint to local authorities for ‘underpayment’, she would not only get big money as compensation, but US citizenship too. And she quietly leaves Devyani's apartment, whereupon the diplomat files a missing person's complaint. Devyani claims that Sangeeta tried to blackmail her, alleging that a woman cautioned her on phone that the maid would not file a complaint if she paid her more money and changed her visa status to allow her to work elsewhere in the US. Later, it turns out that the domestic help is cozily placed under the protection of US sleuths. Reports reveal that some of Sangeeta’s relatives work at the US embassy in Delhi now and some have worked earlier. Sangeeta’s father-in-law presently is in the US embassy's employment and her mother-in-law worked for a US diplomat earlier.
So, the conspiracy theory looks valid with the embassy being the possible source of a criminal plot conceived to simultaneously take on the officer and New Delhi. Devyani’s father, Uttam Khobragade, former IAS officer, meanwhile, alleges that her daughter's maid may be a “CIA agent” and that Devyani has been made a “scapegoat” in a conspiracy behind the visa fraud. The argument that Devyani maltreated her maid, however, holds no ground as the latter has been writing to her sister and others that she was “very happy” because she was being treated very well, and that she “doesn't feel like a servant.”
After a complaint was filed against Devyani, she was arrested in New York on December 12, 2013 by US Marshals as she dropped her daughter at school. She was handcuffed, strip-searched, DNA-swabbed, was subjected to cavity search. Not only this, she was pushed in to stay put with criminals, drug addicts and prostitutes. The officer was detained for six hours and let out on a $250,000 bond after pleading not guilty and surrendering her passport. She was charged with committing visa fraud willfully, under penalty of perjury.
It was further alleged that the officer submitted a job contract to the State Dept, in support of a visa application she filed for another individual, which she knew to contain materially false and fraudulent statements. The complaint also alleges that Devyani instructed the maid not to divulge anything to the embassy interviewer about being paid Rs 30,000 per month, but to say that she would be paid $9.75 an hour and work 40 hours a week, as provided for under the US law. She is also alleged to have asked the maid to sign another employment contract shortly before leaving India, which was not to be revealed to the US government. The second contract allegedly says she was to be paid a salary of Rs 30,000 per month with no mention of sick days or vacation time.
The maltreatment of the diplomat caused much furore in India and the Government retaliated very strongly, withdrawing privileges from American diplomats, removing barricades around the US embassy and seeking information on wages paid to Indians employed by the embassy and the American school. New Delhi accused Washington of conspiring to facilitate the illegal immigration to New York, of Devyani's maid, her husband and two children. The maid's family was quietly flown out on December 10, two days before Devyani was arrested.
This was despite India informing the US state department about the disappearance of the maid in June, her attempts to blackmail Khobragade, the revocation of the maid's passport, and an arrest warrant being issued against her by the Delhi high court. The maid's family is said to have been sent to US on a visa category that is reserved for victims of ‘human trafficking’, provided they assist the US authorities in nabbing the diplomat. Clearly, the US meticulously created the ground to embarrass India, even though Obama calls it a “strategic partner”.
The US administration ostensibly acted in bad faith to conspire in the diplomat's arrest and her being treated like a vicious criminal. PM Manmohan Singh called the US action “deplorable”, while External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid told Parliament that India suspected an American conspiracy against the diplomat. Soon India moved Devyani out from the New York consulate to its permanent mission at the UN, so that she could get full diplomatic immunity from prosecution, with the charges being dropped. India demanded an unconditional apology and dropping of all charges against the diplomat. But the American recalcitrance seems to have touched the zenith; they refused both.
Under the UN’s 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, Devyani has limited diplomatic immunity for work in the official line of duty. Under these guidelines, consular officials can be arrested for a felony. If prosecutors pursue a full case, they may argue that the charges against Devyani are not related to her official duties. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 10 years and five years, respectively. Devyani's attorney, however, says she plans to challenge the arrest on the ground of diplomatic immunity. Under the clause of personal inviolability, Consular officers can't be arrested or detained, pending trial, except in the case of a grave crime. These officers can't be committed to prison or liable to any other form of restriction on their personal freedom, save in execution of a judicial decision of final effect. If criminal proceedings are instituted against an officer, he or she must appear before the competent authority. Nevertheless, the proceedings shall be conducted with due to him or her by reason of the official position.
The US Attorney Preet Bharara, an American of Indian origin, who has lately been gunning for Indians, made the US tough stance clear: “We go after crime with a vengeance in a fair and appropriate way...it doesn't matter what their religion, race, nationality, or name is.” Bharara, who justified the U S action in arresting Devyani, is known as the Sheriff of the Wall Street, and has prosecuted several Indians in the recent past. Top honchos like Rajat Gupta, Anil Kumar of McKinsey, Rajiv Goel of Intel Capital and Sandeep Aggarwal, an internet analyst, have grievously suffered due to his unrelenting initiatives. It's surprising to note that while we in India regale in our brethren scaling heights in foreign lands, these people ever remain callous to those hailing from their original homeland. Nothing explains this attitude.
It's intriguing to note that an America that happily puts up with all sorts of nonsense from foreign diplomats, picks up an Indian diplomat to flaunt its moral face. Here are samplers on how far Americans go looking the other way when diplomats criminally overtake their laws. Virginia police closes in on a middle-aged child predator, who drives hundreds of miles to meet a minor girl he contacts on the internet, promising to give her lessons on sex. But since the girl happens to be a cop in disguise, the man is promptly arrested. But the suspect turns out to be a diplomat from UAE, covered by diplomatic immunity, and the cops let him go unpunished.
In another case, New York police tracks down a suspect in a series of rapes. Although the suspect is identified by two victims, the police allows him to go after a few minutes because he is the son of a diplomat from Ghana. While leaving, the spoiled brat obliquely stares at the women present there and derisively laughs. When U S diplomats are caught overseas, bosses bail them out. A US diplomat kills a person in road mishap in Delhi, but is not arrested or sued. The privileged diplomat walks away unscathed after paying compensation. Thanks to international treaties, diplomats and embassy workers get protection and privileges in cities of their postings. They can’t be arrested, sued or even taxed by host countries, no matter what their crimes. America looks askance, but ultimately shuts eyes!
What, if the citizens of countries that get heavy taxpayer-funded US foreign-aid, behave in manners that would land anyone else behind bars, are allowed to go scot-free in America? Diplomatic immunity may invite abuse, sleazy or criminal behaviour, Washington cares not. Americans have some 100,000 diplomats to contend with, many of whom break laws every now and then, but they don't care. Diplomats get tax-exempt real estate for their official business, but some use the property to earn profits. According to New York officials, diplomats from the Philippines ran a bank, a restaurant and an airlines office from their Manhattan complex, for which they ignored paying over $1 million in taxes.
When New York sued Turkey for $70 million in back property taxes years back, the matter was settled for a measly $5 million, all under clauses of diplomatic immunity. Diplomats kill many on roads, smuggle weapons, chemicals and other destructive stuff, including drugs in special diplomatic pouches meant for official documents. The law protects the bags carrying such material from inspection. So, all this may be tolerable for America, but not an Indian diplomat who indulges in a little frivolous illegality, because her income doesn't allow her to pay the American wage to her maid!
As the spat goes benumbing for both India and the US, serious efforts are foot to resolve the tangle. Senior US official Wendy Sherman called foreign secretary Sujatha Singh yesterday and discussed specific steps to de-escalate the situation. What may be a life-time shock to an overzealous Preet Bharara, she distanced the US administration from his statement justifying Devyani's arrest. Perhaps realizing the sensitivity of the matter, India is also toning down its response.
The US now seems agreeable to shifting Devyani to its UN mission which will give her full immunity for the length of her assignment. But she risks prosecution, should she enter the US after that. Here, she has a veritable problem: her husband AK Rathore is a US citizen, and thus, America is her home..!
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