The Devyani Khobragade affair is rapidly snowballing into a high-level confrontation that should never have been allowed to reach its present stage. Both the US and Indian authorities have stumbled into a situation neither could have truly wanted through a combination of needless obduracy and pointless chest thumping. On the one hand, authorities in New York and Washington have been high-handed and ridden roughshod over the protocols and norms that govern diplomatic interaction between nations. On the other, the Indian reaction, understandably dismayed to begin with, has conveniently overlooked the facts in their entirety and devolved into jingoistic balderdash. When BJP leader Yashwant Sinha suggests that India should arrest the same sex partners of American diplomats in light of the Supreme Court’s upholding Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code in a crass tit-for-tat — or, even more offensively, Rajiv Dogra, India’s former ambassador to Italy, compares the New York authorities to the rapists in the Nirbhaya case — the conversation has become singularly unhelpful. It is time to step back and take a deep breath.
The statements made by US State Department officials make it clear that Khobragade’s arrest was a considered move. It could hardly have been otherwise given that US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara’s announcement of visa fraud charges against Khobragade precipitated the entire affair. Such charges are not spur-of-the-moment; they imply that the entire process had been underway for a while. And the fact that Indian foreign secretary Sujatha Singh was not informed about the impending arrest despite being in the US immediately prior to it makes the US authorities appear mendacious. Their pointing out that the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (VCCR) grants diplomatic immunity to Khobragade only with respect to acts performed in the exercise of her consular functions is neither here nor there. The VCCR also clearly states that legal action against a consular officer shall be undertaken “with the respect due to him by reason of his official position” and that such an officer can be arrested only in the case of a “grave crime”. The arrest passes neither test.
That said, it is essential to keep one fact in mind. If the charges are true, Khobragade had violated the laws of her host country. Arguments and justifications that the minimum wage in New York was far too high for her to afford on an IFS officer’s salary are, ultimately, so much fluff. Part of being a professional diplomat is adapting to various environments and living and working conditions. Full-time domestic help is, by and large, not common in the US. If Khobragade could not afford the mandated minimum wage, she was better served doing without it She had no business entering false information in a visa form if she has indeed done so. Even if she had not been arrested, she ran the risk of being formally reprimanded and sent back to India; an embarrassment to the MEA.
This is, after all, not the first time Indian diplomats have fallen afoul of US law. In the last two years, two other Indian consular officers have been hauled up for fraud and mistreatment of employees. This is unacceptable for a corps of professional diplomats. When this particular imbroglio has been resolved, the MEA would do well to send out that message in no uncertain terms. As for Khobragade — by all means, let New Delhi flex and ramp up pressure to extricate her from her current situation. But shut down the professional outrage machinery, please.