Going overboard on local law enforcement is not the way to go
There have been two broad sets of reactions in India and among Indians to the arrest of Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul general in New York, on underpaying the domestic helper.
First, there has been a fierce nationalistic response, supporting retaliatory measures against US diplomats in India. This has not only staunchly backed the Indian government’s surprisingly swift actions in suspending import clearances for the US embassy’s liquor supplies and removing traffic barriers that the embassy installed outside its premises. There is a clamour among such quarters for even more.
Now, while it is important that New Delhi send strong signals to the Washington that India will not tolerate its diplomats—albeit one accused of an offence—being treated as dangerous criminals, the reactionary perspective ignores the risks to the painstakingly built bilateral relationship between the two countries.
Second, there are those who argue that Ms Khobragade is in the wrong and her absconding domestic helper is the one who is truly wronged. Some have argued that the Indian bureaucracy is too used to privilege at home and should not expect such perquisites as domestic helpers abroad, that they should “do their own dishes, like everyone else.” Furthermore, they contend, would the foreign service act with such alacrity if an ordinary citizen had been arrested?
Going by media reports there are grounds to accept that the authorities have a case against Ms Khobragade. Whether or not she enjoys diplomatic immunity, if it is established she has committed an offence, it is right that consequences should follow. NRIs and Indians might reasonably resent what they see as privilege and less reasonably use stereotypes to pronounce judgement on Ms Khobragade, but these are peripheral to the issue. The Indian government is obliged to take care of its employees abroad—not least a consular officer charged with the responsibility of taking care of citizens’ interests abroad!—just like any other employer.
Between liberal democratic rule-of-law countries like India and the United States, such matters are best handled in courts of law (see an earlier post on the case of the Italian marines). This is complicated in Ms Khobragade’s case, as both Indian and US courts are involved. Even so, letting the legal process determine a solution would have been and is still probably the best course of action. What complicated matters is the manner in which Ms Khobragade was arrested and treated by US authorities. She is a diplomat, the nature of her alleged offence is more in the nature of a breach of contract than a violent crime, and despite what is popularly claimed, the US authorities do treat different people differently (ask Prince Bandar for details).
The bigger problem with the “US enforces its laws seriously” argument is that Indian authorities can do it too. That would make things ugly indeed because there are quite a few statutes in our books whose strict interpretation could place more than a few foreign diplomats in prison, and ordinary treatment in Indian prisons is not, to put it mildly, pleasant. For instance, a senior BJP leader has demanded that the government invoke Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code—that renders illegal many quotidian sexual acts between consenting adults—against US diplomats. Even if it sounds over the top, it demonstrates that riding the legalistic high-horse won’t help. [We strongly disagree with Section 377, just as many Americans disagree with minimum wage laws.]
Therefore, diplomacy needs to kick in to make the situation conducive to a legal solution. Unless this happens, legalistic processes can escalate the matter into a situation where it becomes difficult for either side to give in or back off. Foreign relations are too important to be left to district attorneys, traffic policemen and customs officers. We can say with some confidence that no serious person in Washington or New Delhi wants Ms Khobragade’s case to undermine bilateral relations. Now that both sides have made their points, it is time for the political leaders to intervene and arrest the process.
My colleague V Anantha Nageswaran noted that the speed and force with which New Delhi acted against the United States on a minor issue like this stands out against the reluctance the Indian government demonstrates while handling Chinese or Pakistani transgressions. Of course, grandstanding against the West comes naturally to New Delhi but could it also be that the bilateral relationship is on such a footing today that our foreign policy establishment presumes that this won’t affect the big picture?
Even so, the UPA government and the Obama administration will be jointly responsible if this incident is any more than a temporary irritant in the bilateral relationship.
Related Link: An ugly diplomatic exchange — My storified comments on Twitter.