India’s over-reaction on Khobragade’s arrest
Indians are notorious for their impulsiveness and impish behavior and are famous for shooting first and taking aim later. Till recent the wrath of India’s heavy-handed tactics fell upon its neighbors, particularly on its chief rival Pakistan. Assuming itself to be a potential world power, it seems India has started to show eyes to its chief mentor which has since 1991 gone out of the way to systematically build its political, economic, military and nuclear strengths. Arrest of India’s Deputy Consul General in New York Devyani Khobargade raised a storm in India and chilled Indo-US relations. This incident is the third of its kind in three years.
In an email published in Indian media, Khobragade wrote that said she was treated like a common criminal. “I broke down many times as the indignities of repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches, swabbing, in a holdup with common criminals and drug addicts were all being imposed upon me despite my incessant assertions of immunity”. Indian media portrayed her as a victim who had been insulted and humiliated and picked up cudgels to lambast the US authorities. For days, the entire electronic and print media of India remained glued with this so-called assault on the Indian Consular, referred to as a diplomat. Indians spat poison against USA on social websites. Some said it was a betrayal and a slap across the face of India.
In no time the incident was turned into an international incident. Indian officials claimed the consular official’s treatment was heavy-handed, immoral and degrading. External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid told reporters that Khobragade should never have been arrested, and that the housekeeper should have been arrested instead. He stated, “This is an extremely distressing and hurtful incident that needs to be addressed” and demanded that the U.S. drop federal charges against her. Dozens of people protested outside the U.S. Embassy, saying Khobragade’s treatment was an insult to Indian women.
Indians retaliated on several fronts, including dragging away security barriers from outside the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. U.S. diplomat privileges have been downgraded. Their diplomatic ID cards were revoked that brought certain privileges. They wanted to know the salaries paid to Indian staff in U.S. Embassy households and demanded withdrawing import licenses that allowed the commissary at the U.S. Embassy to import alcohol and food. As of now, many US diplomat spouses are in danger of being arrested for working without a work visa and evading taxes in India. Dozens of people protested outside the U.S. Embassy, saying Khobragade’s treatment was an insult to Indian women. Indian media then trained its guns on the U.S. prosecutor Preet Bharara, terming him over zealous and opportunist, and the maid Sangeeta Richards saying that rather than arresting and deporting her on charges of fraud, she was made to appear as the poor helpless victim by Preet. India is demanding Sangeeta’s repatriation for trial in India.
In an effort to contain the furor, the U.S. State Department officials scrambled to taper off the tension. Secretary of State John Kerry personally expressed “regret”. But Preet Bharara, who represents Manhattan, blasted the “misinformation and factual inaccuracy” surrounding the case. He claimed the “inflammatory atmosphere” that had developed was “unfounded,” while cataloguing the litany of alleged offenses committed by the Indian diplomat in question. Khobragade stands accused of lying on a visa application about how much she paid her housekeeper, an Indian national.
U.S. officials acknowledged Khobragade was strip-searched, but described it as standard procedure. The body search and the alleged cavity search is part of the procedures in the book after arrest. No one is to be spared. It was further clarified that this was done in a private setting by a female officer. Other claims of her mistreatment were also disputed, clarifying that Khobragade was, among other things, given coffee and offered food while detained. And that she was wasn’t handcuffed, restrained or arrested in front of her children as alleged. U.S. State Department disputes hers and Indian authorities claim that she enjoyed full diplomatic immunity against crimes. Officially, Khobargade had only limited immunity on work related to consular functions.
In the U.S. there are minimum-wage laws at the State and federal level. New York State’s minimum wage is $9 or so. Khobargade in her application for the maid’s A-2 visa submitted a copy of a contract with the maid showing a wage of $5,400 per month for a 40 hour per week. Interestingly, Khobragade’s own pay was $5,000 a month. Later, she unilaterally changed the terms of the contract with the maid and made her sign on a $3.00 per hour without mentioning the number of hours. Khobragade then got a court order from a Delhi Magistrate forcing the maid not to complain to an American authority. When the maid did, Khobragade got a warrant issued from the same Delhi Magistrate against contempt of court.
The maid fled the household and reported the matter to federal authorities in New York. Preet Bharara hailing from India is reputed to be upright and blunt. He has prosecuted a big number of Wall Street crooks for inside trading. For these reasons he is the most respected and most feared prosecutor in America. When he saw how the maid was being abused, he decided to arrest and prosecute the offender Khobragade for violating the American laws. He blasted the “misinformation and factual inaccuracy” surrounding the case. He claimed the “inflammatory atmosphere” that has developed is “unfounded,” while cataloguing the litany of alleged offenses committed by the Indian diplomat in question.
Khobragade stands accused of lying on a visa application about how much she paid her housekeeper, an Indian national. Prosecutors say the maid received $3 per hour for her work. Further, he said, she’s alleged to have treated the housekeeper “illegally in numerous ways,” paying her “far below” minimum wage and having her work far more than the amount of time contracted. Further, he said she was alleged to have created a second contract that was concealed from the U.S. government. Plus he said the victim’s family had to be brought to the U.S. amid an attempt in India to “silence her.” Khobragade would face a maximum sentence of 10 years for visa fraud and five years for making a false declaration if convicted.
Claiming to be champion of democracy and human rights, it is distressing to see that the majority of Indians and the Indian media ignored the rights of the poor maid and depicted her as a villain in the story. One wonders why there is so much outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian national accused of perpetrating these acts, but precious little outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian victim and her spouse. Is it for U.S. prosecutors to look the other way, ignore the law and the civil rights of victims, or is it the responsibility of the diplomats and consular officers and their government to make sure the law is observed?”
The dust has settled and Indian calculated pressure has worked and Devyani Khobragade has been exempted from personal court appearances. In all probability, her UN diplomatic credentials will be approved by the UN and US State department, thereby facilitating her return to India or staying in the US as long as the Indian government wishes to keep her as a UN diplomat. The incident has however created a bit of mistrust between the two honey-mooning partners for the first time in their partnership spread over 22 years. It is said that friendship with USA is more harmful than its enmity. Sooner than later, India will regret its decision to bed with USA but will be unable to free itself from the US magic charm.
The writer is a retired Brig and a defence analyst. email@example.com.