India-US Relations: Khobragade Case Tests India's Resilence

13 Jan, 2014    ·   4257

Commodore C Uday Bhaskar recommends an objective review of what went wrong by both India and the US to ensure that such an exigency is not repeated

On 10 January, Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade, till recently the deputy consul general in New York returned to Delhi after being criminally indicted by a US court in a high-octane, hyper-visible visa fraud case related to her domestic maid that saw India-US relations reaching a new low. The Indian government had arranged for full diplomatic immunity to be accorded to Ms Khobragade and facilitated her return to Delhi so as to stall the criminal case being pursued in New York. This is a far from satisfactory resolution to the Devyani case and the fact that India retaliated by asking the US to 'recall’ one of their Delhi-based diplomats of similar rank has only served to further vitiate the already strained bilateral relationship.

Hopefully this reciprocal expulsion of diplomats will bring closure – in the public domain – to what has been a series of unfortunate developments that began with the high-handed arrest of Ms Khobragade in New York on 12 December 2013 and the ‘strip-search’ she was subjected to. The outrage in India over the manner in which a diplomat had been treated was predictable and this was compounded when it was revealed that US authorities had also  aided the family of the maid to fly out of India in a furtive manner. In the intervening period, US and Indian authorities  - both at the political and bureaucratic level – have allowed the matter to be debated in full media  glare and the net result alas, has been a hardening of respective positions.

The Khobragade case is multi-dimensional and hence complex and has more to it than what has become the dominant view both in India and the US. At a purely legal level, the manner in which the US investigative agencies indicted  Ms Khobragade for allegedly cheating and exploiting her maid – Ms Sangeeta - ought to have been taken to its logical conclusion through the judicial process. But the complexity of the case lies in the first layer,  wherein it has now been revealed that the maid in question was already  being investigated by an Indian court and she had gone ‘missing’ – while in the US. Why the US authorities facilitated the hasty exit of the maid’s family without keeping the Indian side informed is part of the breakdown in the trust index between the two countries. For its part, the US stand is that they were responding to an infringement of local labour laws that had been brought to their notice – and that the law is applied uniformly. The fact that the US enforces its laws selectively when it comes to sensitive bilateral relationships is well-known and the ‘wink and a nod’
practice is part of diplomacy globally.

Yet this accommodation was clearly absent in the Khobragade case. These developments were  on the radar of US and Indian diplomats both at embassy and Headquarters levels and this is where the ineptitude of the bureaucracy  on both sides comes into play. The US State department maintains that they had alerted their Indian counterparts about the potential damage that the Khobragade case could cause and suggested that a quiet recall would be the most prudent course of action. If this is indeed accurate then it begs the question as to why the Indian bureaucracy did not take pre-emptive action at an early stage.

This case has two sides to it – namely that of the employer and the  working conditions of Indian nationals working as domestic help  in a foreign country and to that extent is symptomatic of a larger issue that has been festering. Over the years some Indian diplomats have been indicted for unfair treatment of their domestic staff and both the working conditions and the manner of remuneration are in need of objective review and streamlining. However this is yet to happen and Delhi will have to address this sooner rather than later.

The lack of trust and confidence at the India-US bureaucratic level led to a totally unwarranted exigency when the Indian Foreign Secretary who was visiting  Washington DC in late 2013 was not apprised of the case. And to Delhi’s chagrin, soon after the conclusion of this visit, the Khobragade arrest took place. Bereft of swift, empathetic and effective political intervention, the  case acquired nationalist overtones and the
media focus pitted ‘victim’ India against ‘bully' US. Many of the complex nuances of the Devyani versus Sangeeta episode were drowned in this emotive fervour and the mood in India was to ‘reciprocate’ US high-handedness. Various diplomatic practices and protocols specific to US diplomats in India were reviewed and the one action that received the most attention was restoring for public use a road adjacent to the US Embassy that had been cordoned for security reasons after the September 2001 attack.

If the US was guilty of institutional indifference and bureaucratic petulance in the manner in which it handled the Devyani case from its unhappy inception, the Indian government did not cover itself in glory either and much of the posturing seemed to be pandering to a bruised national sentiment. For a while the India-US bilateral relationship was reduced to a single issue – Khobragade – and the much-acclaimed special relationship that India and the US professed for each other seemed a thing
of the past.

The political ownership of the bilateral was visibly absent over the last month and  the brittleness of the strategic underpinning is more than evident. While India is a relatively lesser priority in the hierarchy of  bilaterals from the US perspective, for Delhi the same is not applicable. Yet the relationship was allowed to flounder till the current reciprocal  ‘recall’ of each other’s diplomats.

An objective review of what went wrong apropos the Khobragade impasse needs to be undertaken by both India and the US to ensure that such a deplorable exigency is not repeated. One of the tenets of diplomatic relations between partners and friends is that no matter how complex or contentious the issue: ‘no surprises’. This has to be respected in both letter and spirit and the much needed malleability brought back into a critical bilateral relationship. The world’s oldest and largest democracies should not allow this single incident to become the basis for arid estrangement – which was the leit-motif of the India-US relationship till as recently as 2008.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Dainik Jagaran in Hindi.