The escalating confrontation between India and US over the latter’s utterly uncivilized treatment of Devyani Khobragade, 39, deputy consul general in New York is a study in incompetence, arrogance, insensitivity, and clumsy diplomacy.
The US has violated the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations in a flagrant manner. Article 40 states “The receiving State shall treat consular officers with due respect and shall take all appropriate steps to prevent any attack on their person, freedom or dignity.” The New York City Police has violated this article.
Article 43 says, “1. Consular officers shall not be liable to arrest or detention pending trial, except in the case of a grave crime and pursuant to a decision by the competent judicial authority.” The alleged offence of making a false declaration in visa application and not paying the legal minimum wage is not a “grave crime” by any reckoning. The atrocities of stripping, body cavity searches, and picking her up while she was dropping her children at school are absolutely unacceptable and despicable.
Why body cavity searches? Such searches are done only to detect hidden drugs, jewellery, money or weapon. Why strip her? Obviously, the intention was to humiliate and violate her human right to dignity. It is human to err, but it is equally human to ask for pardon. It is incomprehensible why president Barack Obama has not stepped in so far and do what is right.
The alleged offence needs some clarification. In the visa application made on behalf of the maid but filled in by Devyani the salary was shown as $ 4500 a month. The actual salary paid is $573 plus accommodation and food. But, US is at fault in proceeding against Devyani.
Article 47 (1) states consuls are “exempt from any obligations in regard to work permits imposed by the laws and regulations of the receiving State concerning the employment of foreign labour.”
Further, “Members of the private staff of consular officers and of consular employees shall, if they do not carry on any other gainful occupation in the receiving State, be exempt from the obligations referred to in paragraph 1 of this article.”
In plain English, the US has no locus standi in the matter. The US consular official who issued the visa would have known that the declared salary was not the real one. Will the US take action against that official for lack of diligence?
The performance of Indian government leaves much to be desired. The previous consul general in New York, Prabhu Dayal, was taken to court by his maid and the case was settled out of court by paying about $ 70,000. In September this year, the department of state had informed our embassy in Washington that there was a case against Devyani. Why was she not transferred immediately? It is reported that government is now going to have the maids included among the mission’s staff. Why was not this done earlier?
Question arises whether a senior diplomat of China would have been treated like this? The short answer is no. India, especially under the present government, has worked hard to earn a reputation as a “soft state” in the eyes of the US. The retaliatory measures taken by the government should have been done on day one and not under pressure from media and the opposition after the news of stripping came out.
The US should apologize, give an assurance that such incidents will not occur again, and last, but not the least, promise to take action against the violators of the Vienna Convention including US marshals of public affairs. It might be prudent to teach the law enforcement agencies in the US about the Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic Relations and Consular Relations.
This is a test case for president Obama to rise up above petty bureaucratic considerations and demonstrate that he is a statesman who understands that Indo-US relations should not be damaged by petty officialdom acting recklessly. It takes courage to say ‘sorry.’
KP Fabian, former ambassador to Italy, is also author of ‘Diplomacy: Indian Style’