Millennium Post

India’s face loss over Devyani

History may have witnessed several wars that have been fought over many small and even seemingly silly issues since civilization. But, there may not have been any recorded instance of war or a war like situation created over a domestic spat between a maid and her employer in a third country. In some respect, the recent war of words between India and the USA over the ill treatment by New York law enforcing agencies of  Indian foreign service officer Devyani Khobragade, involved in a personal trouble with her migrant Indian domestic aid, snowballing into an ugly diplomatic issue between the world’s two largest democracies which have come to become trusted friends over the last 25 years, is one such instance.

India’s diplomatic outburst and demand for an unconditional US apology and withdrawal of all criminal charges against the woman IFS officer may be recorded as the worst example of its diplomatic immaturity before the world. Leading the outburst were none other than India’s External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid himself and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath in the Manmohan Singh government. As things stand now, the US authorities have shown no inclination to accept either. India could do little if the US refuses to apologise and withdraw the case. Will India risk its diplomatic relations with the USA by indulging in something further funnier than withdrawal security barricades outside the US Embassy in Delhi? How long will India stop meeting visiting US delegations or share platforms with visiting American dignitaries and officials? What does India have up its sleeves to teach the US a lesson if the latter refuses to ‘behave’? India does not have China’s financial and military might to take on the wily US. Its naval frigate can’t be used to narrowly cut the path of a US aircraft carrier in the international waters. India could not even retain the two Italian marines arrested on charges of cold blooded murder of two poor Indian fishermen within its territorial water on the Kerala coast, leave alone sentencing them to death or imprisonment in Indian jail.

Why did India act the way it did to protect its IFS officer charged with visa fraud and cheating in the US under the US laws? Why wasn’t the concerned IFS officer recalled immediately after the US law enforcement authorities took cognizance of the complaints of her domestic help and served a notice on the officer in the Indian consulate in New York? It appears that India’s external affairs minister was wrongly briefed by a section of the powerful IFS lobby on the Devyani-maid episode to force the entire government see it as an extremely prestigious issue involving India’s national pride. Shockingly, the government chose not to apply its mind before acting in haste. The severity of its official reaction, raising an anti-US passion across the country, on the Devyani issue smacks at its diplomatic wisdom. India could have acted more subtly to strongly express its disapprovation of the US action in the unfortunate Devyani-maid row. Actually, the incident provided India an opportunity to try and exhibit its skill in subtle diplomacy, if it has any, and act in a manner that would have taught the US administration a great lesson in diplomatic demarche without using harsh words and ultimatum.

If reciprocity is regarded as an important tool in bilateral relations, what the Indian administration needed may be to quickly find a way to lodge an FIR and arrest a mid-career US foreign service staff working in any of the American consulates in India slapping some serious criminal charges of offence which are not easily bailable in the court of law. It is possible that such an action would have led to a counter action on the part of the US authorities to ensure no further insult or injustice is inflicted by the New York prosecutors on Indian Deputy Consul General Devyani Khobragade without risking a worse treatment of the arrested US officer in Indian police lock-up sharing the cell with some hardcore criminals. While tit-fot-tat actions in diplomacy are quite common, this is not to suggest even remotely that India should have faked a criminal case against a US consular official to engineer a  reciprocal ill treatment. Dug deep into the lifestyle of some of the US foreign service officers habitually enjoying full indulgence of Indian law enforcement agencies, probably it would not have been very difficult to locate one or more of these highly pampered US foreign office staff often carrying on activities which are not permitted under law by normal Indian citizens.

For instance, veteran BJP stalwart, himself a former IAS bureaucrat turned union minister, cited examples of homosexuals in the US diplomatic ranks in India, where it is a criminal offence under an unaltered 19th century British law for its subjects in India and recommended their arrest. There could be many instances where US foreign office staff in India are given more than equal treatment vis-a-vis local citizens when it comes to strict enforcement of domestic law. But, now it is too late to act willfully against a US foreign office staff with rather silly criminal charges even if occurs. That would be interpreted a deliberate move by India to escalate tension between the two countries.

The Devyani case should serve as an eye opener for India’s political executives and the government, which have long played in the hands of local and foreign office bureaucrats. Law offenders, no matter howsoever important and high-up persons they could be, domestic or foreign nationals, should be treated uniformly as crime accused as per law and not given any special treatment outside the provision of law.

If Devyani did not have a written approval from the government of her agreement with the concerned maid and her deposition in the visa application for the nanny, she should be left to defend herself before the US court of law. Let this be a lesson for all foreign service officers on overseas posting who want to bring servants from India to handle domestic chores or for baby-sitting.

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