This needs diplomacy

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.

My op-ed in Outlook: The buck yes, but where’s the bang

Union Budget 2009 and what it means for foreign affairs and defence

In the July 20th issue of Outlook magazine I point out that the Budget has the good, the bad and the ugly for strategic affairs. An edited version of the following appeared in print.

First the good: the UPA government used the Union Budget to strengthen India’s leverage in Sri Lanka by setting aside Rs 500 crore for the rehabilitation of the Tamils displaced by war. It has increased the foreign aid outlay for Nepal to Rs 238 crore, set aside Rs 125 crores for Mongolia and increased outlays for African and Eurasian countries by various amounts. This is in addition to sustaining the massive assistance to Bhutan (Rs 961 crore) and Afghanistan (Rs 442 crore). The foreign ministry’s overall budget has been increase by 24%, which should help Indian missions raise the game in foreign capitals.

Similarly, the increased outlays in several areas under broad rubric of national security—including defence, police, paramilitary forces, space and atomic energy—should be useful in securing the nation in an increasingly volatile geopolitical environment. The allocation of between 2% to 3% of GDP (depending on how defence expenditure is defined) even while massively expanding social sector expenditure programmes assigns substantial resources for defence while sending a signal of the size and strength of the Indian economy.

India, in its own conservative way, appears to be strengthening its diplomatic and military capacity in line with its status as an emerging power.

But only partly, because there is the bad. Continue reading “My op-ed in Outlook: The buck yes, but where’s the bang”

John 8:7 does not apply to international relations

Perfection is not a pre-requisite for expressing concerns over China’s treatment of Tibetans

M K Bhadrakumar’s op-ed in The Hindu criticising India’s response to China’s handling of the Tibetan protests is bizarre. It is bizarre because despite being a former diplomat, he appears to argue that foreign policies ought to be free of double (or multiple) standards, and only perfect states can criticise others.

One does not have to be a practitioner of diplomacy to comprehend that the UPA government was advising China one or two things about how to set its house in order in Tibet. Evidently, our government is highly experienced in tackling political violence that regularly rocks our country and the Chinese government could learn a few useful things from the UPA. After all, in something like 150 districts in India, the writ of the Indian state no longer runs. Yet Beijing could see, our leadership calls the problem a mere “virus.” [The Hindu]

Mr Bhadrakumar’s implies that India has no right to criticise China’s handling of Tibetan protests because of its own failure to tackle Maoist political violence in the country. This argument is flawed at many levels. For one, India has never used violence against any political movement that is non-violent. It defies imagination that Mr Bhadrakumar should equate the Maoists (for whom armed struggle is an article of faith) with the Tibetans (for whom non-violence is the article of faith). It defies imagination that he should equate India, a democracy with universal suffrage with China, a dictatorship where Tibetans (and non-Tibetans) do not have political rights.

It defies imagination that he should equate India, which still accords special statuses and prevents demographic change in states suffering from separatist violence with China, where transmigration is official policy and a ground reality. And it defies imagination that he should equate India, whose constitution protects religious minorities and whose governments go out of the way to pander to them, with China, which sees them as ‘primitive’ and in need of ‘modernisation’. In a world of imperfect states and imperfect governments, if there is a country that has moral right to speak to China, it is India. Ask Pallavi Aiyar.

Matt. 7:1 doesn’t apply either

The problem is that such vacuity and double standards can easily boomerang. Curiously, just as South Block was pontificating on how China should govern Tibet, a cable was landing in our foreign policy establishment informing it that the 60-member Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) at its summit meeting in Dakar, Senegal, adopted a devastatingly critical resolution on Jammu & Kashmir. Of course, this is not the first time that the OIC has done this. But the latest condemnation calling for the right of self-determination for the Kashmiri people has been unusually strong. Among others, Foreign Ministers of friendly countries such as Turkey, Tajikistan, and Saudi Arabia expressed their anguish over the “plight” of Kashmiris in “Indian-occupied Kashmir.” [The Hindu]

Mr Bhadrakumar then points to the OIC’s recent escalation of rhetoric on Jammu & Kashmir and cites it as an example of such ‘double standards’ boomeranging. It defies imagination that Mr Bhadrakumar should think that the OIC’s criticism of India over Jammu & Kashmir was influenced by India’s position over Tibet. It defies imagination that Mr Bhadrakumar should believe that the OIC would pipe down its criticism if only India would remain silent on Tibet. It defies imagination that he should think that India should take the OIC more seriously merely because the Russia and the United States are doing so. It defies imagination the yardsticks he uses to define countries as ‘friendly’.

Now there is a reasonable argument—and one that The Acorn subscribes to—that India must refrain from going overboard in its support for the Tibetan protests lest this issue upset broader relations with China. But Mr Bhadrakumar defies imagination by holding the Indian government guilty of doing too much already. That’s really being holier than the Pope, for China itself has not registered even displeasure at India’s positions. Well, not through its official channels, at least.