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24 December, 2013

Way out of Indo-US stand-off

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

India and the United States are engaged in a game of blinkmanship. The question is who will blink first. At the same time, away from public gaze, officials of the two sides are exploring ways to salvage their relationship, over which the humiliation of an Indian diplomat in New York has cast a shadow.

Devyani Khobragade, 39, a doctor-turned diplomat, posted as Deputy Consul General, was arrested on December 12 on charges of visa fraud and underpaying her Indian maid, Sangeeta Richard. She was reportedly handcuffed and subjected to strip-search and cavity-search. She was freed on bail on posting a bond of $250,000.

The State Department said as a consular official she did not enjoy immunity from arrest and standard arrest procedures had been followed. Prosecutor Preet Bharara claimed she was accorded courtesies most Americans would not get. He denied handcuffing but confirmed she was “fully searched”.

The case pits the plucky Devyani Khobragade against the equally plucky Bharara, an Indian American, who, since his appointment as prosecutor five years ago, has slapped cases against some top-ranking politicians for corruption and sent to jail 70 persons, including many fellow Indian Americans, for insider trading.

Bharara, known for aggressive prosecutorial methods and unprecedented tactics, used some of them to trap the diplomat. Sangeeta Richard, who went to US in November 2012 to work for Devyani Khobragade, left her last July. Police did not act on the diplomat’s complaint that she was missing and had stolen some money and a phone.

Bharara brought her husband and parents to the US from India, in the name of witness protection. The way they were spirited out of India bears the stamp of a CIA operation, and there is speculation that the US agency was using her to spy on Indian diplomats.

The charges against Devyani Khobragade stem from the statement in Sangeeta Richard’s visa application that she was employed on a wage of $9.75 an hour while she was paid only Rs30,000 a month under a contract made in India.

The police complaint filed in the court says the contracted salary amounts to just $3.31 an hour as against the minimum wage of $7.25 payable in New York. The US law does not take into account the cost of accommodation, food and other benefits the employer provides.

The Indian government, which quietly pocketed insults meted out at US airports to George Fernandes, when he was the Defence Minister, and to former President Abdul Kalam, and made only muted sounds when the extensive US snooping came to light, was ready to take the diplomat’s humiliation also in its stride.

The resentment of Foreign Service officials who realised how vulnerable they are while holding posts in high-wage cities and an open campaign by the diplomat’s father, Uttam Khobragarde, a former civil servant, which attracted media attention, forced the government to respond.

India asked the US to drop the charges against the diplomat and apologise for her mistreatment. It backed up the demand with a few calculated measures, which involved withdrawal of non-reciprocal privileges granted to US diplomats.

No Indian of consequence was ready to meet a visiting US Congressional delegation.  Former Bharatiya Janata Party Minister Yashwant Sinha asked the government to arrest US diplomats’ same-sex partners whom it had granted visas.

Secretary of State John Kerry tried to speak to External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid. Since Khurshid did not take the call he conveyed the State Department’s regret over the way the matter was handled to National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon. Not satisfied, the government reiterated the demands for apology and dropping of the case. In a bid to boost Devyani Khobragade’s diplomatic immunity, it transferred her to India’s UN mission.

Devyani Khobragade’s pay is about $6,500 a month and to be on the right side of the US law she was required to pay the maid $4,500 a month. The responsibility for her plight lies with the Indian government which allows officers posted abroad to take maids without making adequate financial provisions for them.

The State Department had prior knowledge of the case against Devyani Khobragade and informed India about it last September. However, there was no serious effort from either side to sort out the issue amicably.

Sangeeta Richard is no innocent victim, as overenthusiastic champions of the poor make out. She accepted the job knowing what she would be paid, and she was paid the contracted salary.

Indian opinion on the issue divided on lines of class and caste. Those nursing memories of bad treatment received at Indian missions abroad vent their spleen in cyberspace. Some dwelt on Devyani Khobragde’s Dalit identity and her involvement in a housing scam in Mumbai, as though these entitled the Americans to ill-treat her.

Some foreign commentators showed fair understanding of the issue.

Hussain Haqqani, who was Pakistan’s ambassador in the US when CIA contractor Raymond Davis killed two persons in Lahore, characterised Preet Bharara’s treatment of the diplomat without regard for her status as a representative of a friendly government, as over-exuberance straight out of an episode of the TV series “Law and Order”. He recalled that the US sought diplomatic status for Davis after the daylight murder.

Peter Van Buren, a former US foreign service employee, chronicled instances of abuse of servants by American diplomats. Citing court documents, he said a woman diplomat, on transfer to Japan, tricked an Ethiopian maid into accompanying her. She was paid less than $1 an hour and repeatedly raped by the diplomat’s husband.

No amount of legal and diplomatic brouhaha can raise Devyani Khobragade’s infraction to the level of the criminal acts of Americans whom the State Department has rescued invoking diplomatic immunity.

New York-based Reuters columnist Alison Frankel suggested that grant of retroactive immunity to Devyani Khobragade may be a way out of the impasse. If Khurshid sticks to his guns, Kerry will have to give in.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 24, 2013.

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