The arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York City has triggered a diplomatic crisis between the United States and India, threatening to derail the carefully constructed rapprochement between the two countries. The cause of the row is relatively trivial, but it has assumed monstrous proportions as a result of the emotions invested in the dispute. There are important lessons to be learned from this incident.
On Dec. 12, Devyani Khobragade, an Indian diplomat who worked as a consular official in New York City, was arrested and charged with perjury and visa fraud. The offenses pertained to documentation that she had signed attesting to the terms of employment for a housekeeper whom she’d brought from India.
In short, she was accused of knowingly inflating the amount of money she would pay the domestic and understating the number of hours the housekeeper would work. The real terms of employment violated local laws.
Khobragade was arrested after dropping her children off at school. She was handcuffed, taken to a detention facility, strip-searched and subjected to a DNA swab. While she complained that the treatment was humiliating, U.S. officials countered that all procedures were carried out according to law and for her own safety. Moreover, they say that Khobragade was even afforded special treatment and allowed to make phone calls to sort out personal matters.
Nevertheless, the arrest triggered an uproar in India, where officialdom and the public alike complained that diplomatic immunity should have spared her the arrest and treatment and that the spectacle itself was a deliberate slight as it showed a disregard for India’s status.
In fact, her status did not afford her to full immunity. But the Delhi government responded by curtailing privileges afforded U.S. diplomats in India, removing security barricades in front of the U.S. embassy and snubbing a visiting U.S. Congressional delegation. Delhi is also checking the tax status of Americans working at schools in the country and has ordered the U.S. embassy to stop “commercial activities on its premises.” India’s media is also reporting that U.S. Embassy cars could be penalized for traffic violations, and there have been protests outside U.S. consulates across the country.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed “regret” over the incident but did not apologize for the arrest. Nor did he attempt to stop the legal proceedings — which he could not do in any case since they were pursued by the U.S. attorney in New York City.
India’s Foreign Ministry tried to end the controversy by transferring Khobragade to the United Nations, where she would enjoy full immunity, but the State Department noted that immunity would not be retroactive. As tensions mounted, the Indian government finally decided to withdraw Khobragade (who is married to a U.S. national), and she returned to a hero’s welcome in India. Delhi expelled a U.S. diplomat in turn, the standard diplomatic response to such incidents, regardless of cause.
The reactions to this episode are revealing. First, there is the rallying around Khobragade by all Indians. She has become a national icon, which is somewhat ironic since she is charged with exploiting another Indian national, a point that has been made quite forcefully by the chief nemesis in this drama, the U.S. attorney in New York City, Preet Bharara — who is, in another curious twist, an Indian-American.
India’s readiness to focus on the “injustice” done to its diplomat rather than that done to her domestic help, and dismiss the violation of U.S. law, is revealing of the super-sensitivity to perceived slights to national dignity as well as a certain indifference to the conditions under which a fellow Indian is forced to work.
The speed with which this contretemps escalated to become a full-blown diplomatic crisis reveals the weakness of ties between the U.S. and India despite the attention devoted to that relationship since a diplomatic breakthrough in 2005.
Suspicion and mistrust lie just below the surface of this bilateral relationship. Indians remain sensitive to all perceived slights; one of the more revealing responses came from Brahma Chellaney, a geostrategist who regularly appears on these pages, who charged that the U.S. would never act against a Chinese or Russian diplomat in such a fashion. Indian sensitivity could also reflect the perception that Delhi’s importance to the U.S. has slipped as Washington and Beijing consider “a new type of major power relations.”
This articulation of a special U.S.-China relationship is difficult to reconcile with the original articulation of the “rebalance” to Asia, which called for a renewed outreach to India as part of the creation of an Indo-Pacific theater.
Whatever the specific motivation, this reminder of Indian sensitivity is important for a Japanese government that has assiduously courted Delhi and sees a reinvigorated bilateral relationship as a core element of its foreign policy.
India should be a key partner of Japan: It is the world’s largest democracy, an emerging power and possessor of an economy with great potential. But any notion that a relationship with India can serve larger Japanese (or American) strategic interests must be disabused. Delhi will zealously guard its national prerogatives and sovereignty and avoid any indication that it is seen as the handmaiden of any other government.