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Diplomat’s arrest sparks clash of political cultures

by Ramesh Thakur

There is an escalating diplomatic spat between India and the United States that highlights a clash of pathologies of two political cultures.

India’s deputy consul-general in New York, 39-year old Devyani Khobragade, a career diplomat, was arrested Dec. 12 for alleged fraudulent statements on the visa application for her Indian maid.

The arrest took place in public as she dropped her child off at school. She was then strip-searched before being placed in a holding cell. According to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, consular officials may enjoy diplomatic immunity solely when performing official duties.

That the New York Times, supposedly the most influential liberal daily, failed to cover the news until it created an all-party furor in India (itself a rare occurrence) speaks graphically to the cultural and political insensitivity of Americans to others.

The persisting U.S. belief in being uniquely virtuous and therefore exceptional means they believe that laws, rules and norms apply to and can be enforced on everyone else, but not themselves. One can only imagine the outrage and threats if a U.S. diplomats were subjected to such treatment. If all diplomats must scrupulously follow the law of the land in which they are posted, some U.S. diplomats and their partners could find themselves in prison under an antiquated Indian law that criminalizes homosexual acts, as Indian lawmakers pointed out on Tuesday.

A second U.S. pathology is the attitude problem of some — mercifully not most — border officials handling customs and immigration. It would appear this extends to law enforcement officers. Arresting and publicly handcuffing, while she is dropping off her daughter at school, an accredited diplomat from a friendly country, strip-searching and putting her in prison alongside drug addicts and traffickers.

Really, is this the mark of a civilized country? Was she a suspected people trafficker, with papers concealed on or in her body, to be so traumatized? This is superpower arrogance and petty power mentality gone mad. National Security Adviser (NSA) Shivshankar Menon rightly described it as “despicable” and “barbaric.”

A third is the tendency to subject alleged offenders to public humiliation before they have been convicted of a crime. We saw this with former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Straus-Kahn when he was arrested (and ultimately released without being formally charged) for allegedly molesting a hotel maid. The notion of innocent until proven guilty seems to be alien to justice department practices in some U.S. jurisdictions.

Part of the explanation for this may be that the office of district attorney is the path to higher political office for many ambitious U.S. prosecutors. So the politicization of justice is the fourth U.S. pathology.

Finally, some domestic staff in foreign embassies and consulates have discovered one possible route to seeking permanent residence is alleging mistreatment and claiming damages and asylum.

According to the Indian embassy in Washington, the maid “absconded” from her employer in June and was the subject of an injunction issued by the High Court in Delhi, which U.S. officials ignored.

India has its own set of pathologies. The first is the practice of maids brought from India, paid lower than prevailing wages and employed under tougher work conditions. The Indian foreign ministry response is twofold. Free housing and food top up the wages; and under Indian social practices, generally both employers and domestic staff prefer lifelong employment in one family’s service as they move back and forth between Delhi and overseas postings. The few cases of abuse and exploitation have to be weighed against the many more of long-term mutual loyalty.

Second, Indians are not as scrupulous in filling out official forms with total veracity, in part because the forms can be unduly intrusive, sometimes contradictory, and often confusing and pointless. It can be tempting to write down whatever will produce the desired result with least fuss and trouble.

The intention is not to commit fraud but to avoid red tape. The consequences of false statements in most developed Western countries can be quite serious.

Third, officers in the elite Indian services (especially the foreign, administrative and police services) are often lordly and overbearing in their dealings with “ordinary” citizens. This is the old colonial mentality of rulers and subjects. That sense of superiority translates into one of entitlement in being protected from the application of rules that govern the everyday behavior of resentful citizens.

During a recent domestic flight in India, I was astonished to see displayed in public the full list of 31(!) categories of people exempted from security checks. This often creates problems for Indian “VIPs” when traveling abroad. Recently India’s Supreme Court stepped in to restrict the expanding categories of officials entitled to flashing red beacon lights in traffic.

Fourth, the Indian government must be the most easily pushed around for a country of its size and status. The government is meek and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is meekness personified, reduced to pleading helplessness on anything and everything. A joke doing the rounds during a recent visit to India was that his dentist has to remind Singh that if he refuses to open his mouth, the dentist cannot do his job. Why has Singh not spoken out on this issue? Has he called the U.S. president directly to convey the country’s wrath?

It is hard to imagine a Chinese diplomat being subjected to such humiliating and degrading treatment. It is not hard to imagine how the Chinese government would react if it did happen.

Much of the initial online comment focussed on the second and third Indian pathologies to heap blame and abuse on Khobragade. While understandable this is wrong. Her individual identity is irrelevant. Her treatment is an unacceptable public insult to the state and nation of India. An apology would be too little. The individuals responsible should be punished — just a rebuke will not be enough.

On Monday the speaker of Parliament, Meira Kumar, and the NSA canceled their meetings with a visiting U.S. congressional delegation. Where was Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid’s sense of national pride and shame in meeting them?

Fortunately,on Tuesday Congress Party Vice President and heir-apparent Rahul Gandhi, Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde, and opposition BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi all declined to meet the delegation.

By the end of Tuesday, an incensed foreign ministry had instituted a series of retaliatory measures: cancelation of airport passes for U.S. diplomatic officials; salary and bank details of all Indian staff employed at all U.S. missions, households and schools; return of all diplomatic ID cards by U.S. consular officials; a halt to all import duty waivers, including for alcohol; and removal of all security barriers on public lands around the U.S. embassy in New Delhi. As one headline put it, “Strip search finds India’s spine.”

Ramesh Thakur, a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University, is coeditor of “The Oxford Handbook of Diplomacy.”