The extraordinary mistreatment of the Indian Deputy Consul-General (DCG) in New York City, now transferred to the Indian Mission at the United Nations to get full-immunity cover, Devyani Khobragade, is at once more and less than it has been made out to be. More, because if a diplomat of a friendly country can be handled so roughly, what does it say about the “strategic partnership” India and the United States are supposed to have? And, less because the DCG’s underpayment of wages to Indian domestic help is part of the larger unresolved issue of Indian servants accompanying Indian diplomats on postings in the US but is covered by an informal understanding the US State Department has with a whole bunch of Third World and even European countries, including India. It is an acknowledgement that along with the free room and board and medical expenses, the salary the Indian domestic help earns is virtually pocket money or savings which are not insubstantial, amounting to a windfall in rupees and a tidy monthly sum in US$. So, the enslavement talk is silly. But it is a welcome development that things have come to a boil. Now New Delhi and Washington can negotiate and formalize an agreement on reciprocal treatment of envoys. For reasons unknown, American diplomats posted to India have privileges their Indian counterparts do not enjoy — like unlimited import of liquor, foodstuffs, and consumer items stacked in embassy commissary. The Indian government has been a little too attentive to US demands for spatial security — an exclusive no-parking secure zone around the embassy, etc when the Indian Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, DC — despite requesting an exclusive parking zone — has had the mortification of seeing such a car park it had previously sole access to now turned over for public use. And teachers in the American School don’t pay income tax for working here to the Indian exchequer. And most, ironically in the context of the Khobragade incident,Indian hired-help in the embassy and in the three consulates in Mumbai, Kolkatta and Hyderabad are paid meager salaries with few benefits. All this has come to an end and may be restored, hopefully, but only on a reciprocal basis. This equity was longtime coming.
The more significant thing is whether the Manmohan Singh regime will be satisfied with Secretary of State John Kerry expressing “regret” and Under-Secretary Wendy Sherman “remorse”. India should not accept anything less than an unconditional and open-ended apology from Washington. But going by the ambiguous response so far of Salman Khurshid, Minister for External Affairs, a closure on the basis of US regrets may happen. But it is unacceptable and the BJP will no doubt raise a ruckus should the Congress govt be satisfied with so little when the provocation has been so egregious and grave. May be an arrest of an American DCG — male or female — on the valid charge of underpaying Indian members of the consular staff, with attendant thorough “cavity searches” would be a better way to telegraph India’s intent and seriousness.