Flap Over Diplomat Complicates U.S.-India Relations
By Eric Auner, on 31 Dec 2013,
Earlier this month, U.S. Marshals arrested Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade, who was serving as the deputy consul general at the Indian Consulate in New York City. She was accused of committing visa fraud to bring a domestic worker into the United States and of paying the worker less than the minimum wage.
The arrest led to a strong rebuke from the Indian government, which disputed the charges and objected to the way in which the arrest was carried out. Commentators in the Indian media have also reacted harshly. In addition to cancelling certain privileges for U.S. diplomats, the Indian government removed concrete security barriers in front of the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi in a move widely seen as retaliation for the arrest.
The Indian government continues to demand an apology from the United States, and has alleged that the U.S. government acted in violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. The United States maintains that in her position Khobragade was entitled only to consular immunity, which is limited to action taken in the course of consular duties. India has moved to change her diplomatic status in an attempt to secure full immunity for her.
According to Bharat Karnad of the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, there are many reasons why this incident has generated such a strong reaction in India. These include the “extraordinarily harsh, outrageous and plainly over-the-top” public arrest as well as the “humiliation” of the body-cavity search she was reportedly subjected to, which “is the worst possible personal nightmare for a ‘respectable’ Hindu woman.” A spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service told the Washington Post that Khobragade was strip-searched but denied that a cavity search took place. Karnad says the “selective and arbitrary” decision to enforce U.S. labor rules is seen as violating a “tacit understanding” the United States has had with India and other countries regarding the compensation of domestic workers employed by foreign diplomats.
This “egregious treatment of one of its own” has, “for the first time, aligned the [Indian] foreign policy establishment against the United States,” Karnad adds.
U.S. officials seem to have been caught flat-footed by the harsh Indian response, and U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki downplayed the incident at a press briefing and stressed the importance of U.S.-India relations. She conceded that law enforcement officials from the U.S. and India “have somewhat different interpretations of the issues and allegations at play” but emphasized that the State Department had been “in close contact” with the government of India” and that “we want to move beyond this” given that “we all recognize the importance of our long-term relationship.”
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara pushed back against allegations of mistreatment in a statement on the U.S. Department of Justice website. Khobragade “clearly tried to evade U.S. law designed to protect from exploitation the domestic employees of diplomats and consular officers,” Bharara said. Furthermore, Khobragade “caused the victim and her spouse to attest to false documents and be a part of her scheme to lie to U.S. government officials.”
“Finally,” continued Bharara’s statement, the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s “sole motivation in this case, as in all cases, is to uphold the rule of law, protect victims and hold accountable anyone who breaks the law—no matter what their societal status and no matter how powerful, rich or connected they are.”
An Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman responded to Bharara’s statement with his own, which said: “There is only one victim in this case. That victim is Devyani Khobragade—a serving Indian diplomat on mission in the United States.”
He called Bharara’s remarks “a post facto rationalization for an action that should never have taken place in the first instance.”
Despite recent advances in U.S.-India relations, which raised hopes that the two countries would transcend tensions that go back to the Cold War period, building a new strategic partnership has proceeded more slowly than some U.S. officials had hoped. The 2008 nuclear cooperation agreement, for example, which stands as the most significant achievement in the new chapter of bilateral ties, barely passed through the Indian parliament.
Even now, U.S. nuclear trade with India is stalled because of an Indian law governing nuclear liability. U.S. nuclear suppliers have been seeking certain forms of legal immunity in case of an accident, which India is loath to grant due in part to political sensitivities about the conduct of U.S. corporations in India. These concerns go back at least to the 1984 Bhopal disaster, in which a facility owned primarily by a U.S. firm leaked chemicals that caused thousands of deaths and injuries to Indians.
Regardless of the outcome of this latest spat, the United States will continue to court India as a partner for its strategy in Asia and as a market for U.S. goods and military equipment. But Karnad warns that the incident will “definitely have some effect on the Indo-U.S. ‘strategic partnership.’” The magnitude of that effect will depend on “how deftly Washington extricates itself from a mess of its creation.”
Published in ‘Trend Lines’ at World Politics Review, accessible at http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/trend-lines/13466/flap-over-diplomat-complicates-u-s-india-relations