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Khobragade and nationalist hysteria

by Praful Bidwai, 30 December 2013

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[26 December 2013]

It speaks poorly of India’s public discourse that the slightest perception or allegation of “hurt” to “national prestige” instantly produces a disproportionate, indeed hysterical, reaction. Take the arrest of India’s deputy consul-general Devyani Khobragade on charges of visa fraud and non-payment of statutory wages to her domestic help Sangeeta Richard. Public outrage over this was further inflamed by reports that she was hand-cuffed and strip-searched.

The very thought that a “friendly” government, with which India has a supposedly equal “strategic partnership”, could do this to a member of the hallowed Indian Foreign Service was declared an intolerable insult to national pride. Demonstrations, angry editorials and “the nation-wants-to-know” TV shows followed. As did condemnations from Right to Left.

The Ministry of External Affairs’ reaction was swift. It asked all US diplomats in India to surrender their identity cards for re-endorsement minus the privileges granted them, including airport passes, demanded details of payment to their domestic staff, suspended their super-generous liquor and food import permits, and removed security barriers around the American embassy in New Delhi, while accusing the US of violating Khobragade’s immunity under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.

True, the Convention says the host-country must treat consular officers with “respect” and “prevent” attacks on their “freedom or dignity”. But the Convention also enjoins it to protect diplomats/embassies/consulates “even” during armed conflict. Removing security barriers was clearly an overreaction. Under the Convention, a consular officer shouldn’t be arrested except for “grave crimes” and on a “competent judicial authority” decision. But it doesn’t define such crimes, and leaves that to host-states. The Convention’s original draft mentions crimes attracting punishment for five years or more.

Visa fraud is such a crime in the US. So the MEA overreacted to Khobragade’s arrest, although it may be justified in objecting to its manner, which the US claims, followed “standard procedure”. The MEA sat on the case for six months, and allowed the crisis to escalate. It could have recalled Khobragade or pre-empted her arrest by threatening identical action against a similarly culpable US diplomat. Instead, it defensively re-assigned Khobragade to India’s UN mission to give her artificial immunity. That’s not how confident states act.

The US, an imperial power, is quintessentially arrogant and seeks non-reciprocal privileges for its diplomats. The MEA was wrong to grant these and repeatedly show India as the subordinate partner. American security agents sanitise the Indian Prime Minister’s residence before a US secretary, leave alone President, visits it. Our agents aren’t allowed anywhere near the White House when the PM visits Obama. Nobody talks about this—leave alone correcting even more fundamental inequalities at the core of Indo-US relations.

Similarly, no word of sympathy was uttered for Richard, her labour rights, and their place in “nationhood”. Labour rights don’t figure in the imaginary of the upper-middle-class elite that dominates our coarsening public discourse, where domestic maids are seen as “greedy” exploiters—not their masters. In India, domestic workers are rapaciously exploited for a pittance, and have no rights. Why should they have any rights overseas?

Our IFS officers regard the US manual-worker minimum wage so extortionate that they have torpedoed an MEA proposal to raise their foreign allowance so they can pay the wage without being out-of-pocket. What could more unjust than the allowance exceeding their own salary! What would be left of class distinctions, rank, “discipline”, then? So much for national “self-respect” without respect for labour or equality between nations!

Bidwai is a writer, columnist, and a professor at the Council for Social Development, Delhi.