Maid in USA : A distasteful recipe for diplomacy

Tuesday, 17 December 2013 - 8:50am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA

The US could not have chosen a worse time to treat an Indian diplomat like a common criminal when no charge against the young lady with two small children has been proved.

The arrest and handcuffing of India’s Deputy Consul General in New York, Devyani Khobragade, a day after Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh’s US visit, came as a shock, and not only to the government. Khobragade’s ill-treatment and Washington’s disregard of multilateral conventions relating to foreign diplomats comes just before India’s new ambassador, S Jaishankar is to take charge. The incident also comes at a time when Indian missions in Washington, New York, and to the UN have been hopelessly compromised as exposed by Snowden’s disclosures of US snooping on friends and allies alike.

Singh reportedly brought up the extradition of David Headley, the US intelligence operative who aided and abetted the 26/11 terrorist attack on Bombay. This long-pending request has been raised at various levels in the past, including by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in September.

Officials say there is no connection between the crackdown on Khobragade and the request for “further access” to Headley. In that case, said a retired diplomat on condition of anonymity, it is even more surprising that the US, which protects a terrorist mastermind like Headley and is so mindful of his rights, should have been so high-handed with Khobragade.

A retired official recalled that like Headley now, Union Carbide’s Warren Anderson, too, who was wanted in the 1984 Bhopal gas leak which killed over 20,000, was not extradited. “Where were Rottweilers like New York attorney Preet Bharara then?”, he asked. Regardless of whether the US State Department cleared Khobragade’s arrest because of the demand for Headley, this crisis is useful as a diversionary tactic, if it is that.

The diplomat’s arrest on dubious charges of visa fraud and underpaying her maid ignores the rule that no one can be presumed guilty (and treated as a criminal) on the basis of allegations alone. Therefore, the issue is not the merit of the case, but Khobragade’s right to be treated as befitting her official position.

More than conventions and codes of conduct that govern international relations, diplomacy is about reciprocity.  The Government of India may have many failings. But when it comes to diplomatic niceties it never fails. In fact, GoI bends backward to please foreign diplomats. One recent example is the ever-obliging Ministry of External Affairs granting a diplomatic visa to an American gay diplomat’s partner. 

The ugly incident also exposes US insensitivity to Indian women diplomats, who have been targeted in the past, too, and in New York. These working women without a “house spouse” are forced to leave their home and children to the care of help, who have a run of the place and then make contacts to find ways for permanent US residency.

Another unfortunate consequence of this ugly incident could be distrust of Indian origin officials in the US government. Instead of strengthening India-US relations, they might become the cause of a new prickliness.

The US has produced some handy books on human relations such as How to Win Friends and Influence People. It would be wonderful if some of the words translate into deeds.

The author is an independent political and foreign affairs commentator based in New Delhi

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