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Issue No.: 560 | February 2014

Diplomatic Indignity

Ashok karnik
The humiliation of the Indian Dy. Consul General in New York threatened to spoil the cordial relations between India and the US. The US was adamant that the Indian diplomat had contravened US law in paying less than minimum wages to her maid. She had allegedly committed visa fraud too. The Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, had only limited diplomatic immunity and had to face legal action. She had an ongoing problem with her domestic help who had fled her employer’s house in June 2013 and wanted to stay put in the US under the guise of being a victim of human trafficking. The maid’s complaint was taken with great alacrity by the US authorities. India had a broader objection to the visa fraud allegation; it claimed that the affidavit obtained by the US Embassy in Delhi for the maid’s visa was itself uncalled for under the Vienna Convention. Not accepting any of these contentions, the US went ahead, got Devyani arrested and, worse, got her hand-cuffed and cavity searched like a hardened criminal. Human Rights groups argued that the US laws had to be observed by diplomats too. All very true, but that is only half the story. The US does not understand that in all probability it has been taken for a ride by a domestic help who had planned to settle in the US and used the Indian diplomat to this end. Obama administration’s desire to come down heavily on human trafficking is understandable but the State Department’s refusal to see this as a matter affecting relations between two countries created a problem. Its ham-handedness in converting India’s different socio-economic perception into a human trafficking offence was what led to an avoidable diplomatic row. It was not a matter of an individual delinquent diplomat but a clash between two cultural ethoses. Why deal with a delicate matter so crassly?

A possible wage dispute and a maid’s ambition were thus turned into a great diplomatic row. Low wages became a crime equated with murder and rape. It was forgotten that for an Indian domestic servant a job in the US is not only a handsome earning but an opportunity of a life time. Invisible benefits are what take the Indian help abroad. They are not forced into any kind of slave labour. Agreed that the US laws do not accept these calculations; but there was enough scope to resolve this issue amicably. Devyani Khobragade may not be a paragon of virtue in this episode and the right course would have been to get the Indian embassy to withdraw the offending diplomat and also send back the maid. However, the US acted bull-headedly and gave the go-by to normal courtesies and diplomatic protocol. It went to extraordinary lengths to evacuate the maid’s family from India. It was like an espionage drama akin to political victims being extricated from behind the iron curtain. In face of this, India retaliated (too strongly?) and threatened to withdraw all special privileges to the US diplomats in India. With our traditional hospitality, we extend unprecedented courtesies to our foreign guests. Departing from this, some suggested prosecution of the US Consular officials for the tiniest transgression of law now onwards. Ultimately, diplomacy prevailed and Devyani was granted full diplomatic immunity and asked to leave the US. India in turn asked an American diplomat to leave India. For the sake of appearances, her trial would continue in the US. Wish this diplomatic finesse had been worked out a month earlier. India should now learn to stick to diplomatic reciprocity and the US should learn to respect the sensitivities of its guest diplomatic missions.

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