Copyright © Shutterstock; All Rights Reserved

Washington’s Observation, Delhi’s Anxiety

We need to have a reasoned conversation about the Khobragade saga.

Since December 12, when Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul general in New York, was arrested over alleged visa fraud for her domestic help, diplomatic relations between India and the US have turned sour. While New Delhi has stressed upon the ungainly mode of Khobragade’s arrest and dismissed the allegations of fraud, the US has focused emphatically on visa fraud, misrepresentation of facts, exploitation of domestic help and human trafficking. New Delhi maintains that Sangeeta Richard, who was Khobragade’s domestic help, conspired to exploit US immigration laws and an over-sympathetic human rights lobby, and that this was orchestrated with assistance from the US Embassy in Delhi, the State Department and the Justice Department.

Consequently, India has asked for an unconditional apology from the US and demanded that all charges against Khobragade be dropped. The US has expressed regret over "standard procedures," but has not issued any apology, nor does it intend to drop the charges. The Indian government has withdrawn diplomatic identity cards provided to US consular officials and removed the protective barricades in front of the US Embassy in New Delhi.

Question Marks Over Reporting

Traditionally, the media in both countries are somewhat reluctant to swim against the mainstream narrative. They have, in this case, jumped to conclusions based on partial information, selective memory and lazy argumentation.

The media in India has stoked jingoistic fervor that seems almost bizarre in its public expression. A significant amount of reporting on the issue carries strong undertones of victimization of Khobragade, singling out of Indian diplomats over an issue that is perceivably more widespread, and taking India’s (lack of) response for granted.

Indian parliamentarians, cabinet ministers, opposition leaders, the foreign secretary, and even the prime minister have strongly condemned the arrest and allegations of fraud. Rarely does one see the entire Indian bureaucracy rally single-mindedly behind an issue. Indians have raged protests outside the US consulates in Hyderabad and Chennai and the US Embassy in New Delhi.

One wonders why such public passions and politicians’ attempts to reignite national pride are subdued when Indian soldiers get beheaded on the Line of Control, when the Chinese set up camps inside Indian territory, and when India is pushed away almost as a matter of ritual in Afghanistan.

The media in the US, on the other hand, has fallen for the convenient trap of caricaturing the episode as one that is about the oppressor (Khobragade) and the oppressed (Sangeeta Richard). Some have accused India of trying to protect and defend institutional abuse of disadvantaged domestic helpers. Some others have questioned why India is "siding with the wrong woman." Of note is a New York Times editorial that has called India’s reaction "overwrought," "unworthy of a democratic" nation, and "not calling for justice for the domestic worker." Some have also portrayed India as not acting like a great power.

Such reporting reeks of oversimplification, cultural mischaracterization, and awkward generalization. It fails to provide the publics with the right questions. To frame the issue simplistically in terms of "the oppressor against the oppressed," "powerful against the powerless," "pride versus justice," or the State Department’s egregious attitude against the innocence of Indian diplomats, is to miss the context. Neither the Indian reaction is irrational, nor is the US attitude conniving.

It is true that India’s recent history is littered with abuse of domestic helpers, but that does not naturally make Khobragade an exploiter. Similarly, her mistreatment by US Marshals does not make her innocent. The argument over whether India should support the helper over the diplomat is problematic because New Delhi seeks to contest a legal accusation, not a social practice, without normatively privileging one over another.

At its core, this case is a legal wrangle between India and the US. Neither the US, nor India is arguing over socially undesirable practices in their respective societies. And, contrary to what has been argued in US media, there is nothing fundamentally "unbecoming" about state behavior.

The arguments about India not behaving like a great power or its behavior as "unworthy" of a democratic state are thus inherently weak. Such arguments invariably assume that there is a normative understanding among the nation states over how a great power or a democratic state should behave on specific issues. Whether the US, being the only great power today and a beacon of democracy, behaves as one is another question. Edward Snowden and Raymond Allen Davis immediately come to mind.

Interpretation and Over-Interpretation

The media in both the countries have relied on seductive explanations and populist narratives that are self-serving at best. The opinion from the New York Times editorial board is especially troubling. The New York Times have rarely got it so wrong. As a leading newspaper known for exceptional reporting and writing, it is highly disappointing that their editorial board would completely miss the picture.

First of all, we are free to debate whether or not the domestic worker should be at the heart of the case, but the fact of the matter is that she is not at the heart of the case; an Indian diplomat named Devyani Khobragade is.

Second, Sangeeta Richard absolutely deserves justice, but so does Khobragade. The editorial specifically mentions that Khobragade was "accused" of submitting false documents. It also mentions towards the end that Khobragade will "have a full opportunity to defend herself against the charges." There is thus an implicit acceptance among The New York Times' editors of the fact that the case is still pending and that the verdict is not out. Yet the editorial takes a giant leap in logic and also mentions: "Instead of concerning themselves with that injustice, many in India seem incensed that Ms. Khobragade was arrested at all." But didn’t the paper's editors use the words "accused" and "opportunity to defend" in the same editorial?

Clearly, one is entitled to reason that if justice is pending, so is injustice. We are thus indeed concerned with the accusation, but more so, we treat it as an accusation at this stage and not injustice, per se. We are trying to be absolutely certain that hard facts, not shoddy sensationalism, dictate to us who was on the wrong side of justice. And yes, our concern about our diplomat is legitimate. We are genuinely troubled by the callous approach taken by US law enforcement officers to arrest a dignified government official of a friendly country.

Third, Khobragade’s contract with Sangeeta Richard does not mention the monthly amount of $4,500, nor does the daily rate as per the US labor laws amount to a monthly figure of $4,500. This assertion has been challenged umpteen times by now.

We wish that the New York Times, true to its incomparable standards of journalism, resists the temptation to jump to conclusions and take sides in a case before facts unfold.

Dissecting State Behavior

The two narratives that have dominated media in the US and India are that of India’s response being immature and the US government lacking foresight.

Before questioning whether India’s response was "immature," we should define what would comprise of a "mature" response in this case. If a mature response means lack of any retaliation from India, then that’s wishful thinking — no ruling government in India or in any democratic nation would politically survive without showing mettle in a case like this. If, however, maturity entails designing laws to safeguard domestic help and developing a framework to hold Indian diplomats accountable for their actions, even when they are above prosecution, then that seems a reasonable and a worthy expectation of mature state behavior.

India’s retaliation appears understandable in the context of a young female diplomat being humiliated. The national elections in 2014 add a political dimension to the frenetic reaction across the country. Yet for what it is worth, the prevailing narrative in India lends itself to some serious criticism.

First, the assertion that Indian diplomats were being singled out seems unfounded. In May 2013, US authorities freed two domestics from a house owned by the Saudi Embassy in Virginia. Second, there is little evidence to suggest that Khobragade’s arrest was a deliberate attempt by US authorities to provoke New Delhi. At best, it seems a combination of sheer ineptitude of US law enforcement officers and a spate of poorly coordinated and puzzling decisions that led to her arrest.

From publicly available information, it does not seem obvious that New Delhi has focused its attention on addressing the social issues that plague the relationship between domestic helpers and their employers. New Delhi should indeed use this episode as an opportunity for introspection. It should seek to institutionalize a practice of investigating the misconduct of Indian diplomatic and consular officials abroad to make sure that they do not abuse their position and cause embarrassment to the country. The Indian government should also consider enforcing laws that aim to protect the domestic help.

As for whether there was a lack of foresight from the US in handling the case, four arguments are worth considering.

First, the US argues that Khobragade enjoys consular immunity, not diplomatic immunity, and that she is therefore subject to arrest and prosecution on criminal grounds. The US, however, fails to honor these laws when it comes to its own consular staff, or even private contractors abroad.

Second, US law enforcement accuses Khobragade of having committed visa fraud, but this is clearly not the first time that an Indian helper was brought to the US by an Indian official at the consulate. It seems unlikely that helpers in other cases within the Indian mission were paid local US wages. One should thus question whether there was some unwritten, implicit agreement between New Delhi and Washington on this matter. If there was such an agreement, what triggered its collapse now? Conversely, if there was no such agreement in place, why would the US government act on this case and not act on similar occurrences before? Was it simply a case of not having actionable information in other cases? And why would the US government evacuate the family of Sangeeta Richard on a T visa, and, in the process, ridicule the ability of the Indian judicial system to prosecute the guilty?

Third, once the US State Department had advanced notice of the arrest and it approved the same, its involvement signals blatant disrespect for bilateral diplomatic relations between the two countries. This is especially problematic because Indian Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh was in Washington DC a few days before the arrest and she was not notified of the developments.

Fourth, the manner of Khobragade’s arrest was, without any doubt, clumsy. Regardless of her diplomatic or consular immunity, nothing that she did warranted handcuffing and a strip search.

The United States should use this episode to realize that diplomatic relations are framed under shared norms of reciprocity. Practicing double-standards and applying laws selectively not only undermines the credibility of the laws, but also makes their enforcement contentious.

Wheels Within the Wheel

There are wheels within the wheel in this case, several intersecting issues within the same saga. There is the issue of legality of Khobragade’s actions; the status of her immunity; the question of justice for all (including Sangeeta Richard); the scope of involvement of the US State Department and the US Embassy in New Delhi in the case from the onset; reciprocity in diplomatic privileges; among several others.

The two countries may disagree on the relative salience of each of these issues, but they can still try to have a rational conversation about how to move forward. In India, under the veneer of nationalism, public attitude today towards the US is one of rebuke and disavowal. Yet this reaction is episodic. By and large, across the board, the US remains the normative ideal for millions of Indians. There is too much potential in this bilateral relationship to allow a single incident to scuttle it. We are likely to disagree more as this partnership matures further and our differences become apparent. Yet as long as those disagreements are principled, we should seek to resolve them in the better interest of the two nations.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.