Millennium Post

The mess named Khobragade and the US-India ties

In 2010, President Barack Obama had declared a ‘special role’ for India while unravelling the ‘US pivot to Asia’ carpet. The role – big or small if assigned, is still to be weighed. Meanwhile, a new word ‘Khobragade’ has come to haunt the diplomatic understanding between the two counties. A lot has been written about how the recent ‘mini crisis’ has cast a long shadow on how India and the US would conduct business in future. 

Notably, the bilateral agenda between the two countries straddles diverse fields ranging from securing access to markets, technology, investments, energy sources, civil nuclear industry, counterterrorism, cyber security, culture, defence, higher education, health, space and science and technology. To say that the strategic partnership between the two is so fragile that one predicament or situation can break it would be unreasonably pessimistic.  

Despite that there is no denying the fact that the episode has not exposed the gulf of understanding between the two countries. Devyani Khobragade was arrested in December last year on charges of visa fraud and making false statements regarding the employment of her live-in domestic worker. US chose to focus on Khobragade’s mistreatment of her ‘underpaid and over worked’ maid whose plight has been characterised as a form of human trafficking. Khobragade was asked to leave the United States and not return unless to face the charges in the American court. The Indian government, in a probable attempt to look more nationalist prior to the impending general elections,  gave marching orders to US diplomat Wayne May for ‘evacuating’ the domestic help’s family from India on ‘T’ visas associated with severe sex or labour trafficking. Other retaliatory actions included removing security barricades from outside the US embassy in New Delhi and barring US officials posted in India to use club facilities and access to duty-free liquor.As of now the Embassy school is under the radar, which is suspected to be employing some staff in violation of visa requirements. Experts are of the opinion that the issue could have been handled better by both the sides. ‘While the US cannot ignore laws that mandate how workers should be paid and that they be treated fairly, federal prosecutors have wide discretion. Before beginning the criminal investigation, the State Department could have urged India to reassign Khobragade to New Delhi and required her to make restitution,’ wrote New York Times. The Indian media cried hoarse over the damaged ‘national honour’ over the strip and cavity search of a high ranking ‘woman’ official. Parallels were drawn how a few years ago the US supported American consulate official Raymond Davis, who was charged with killing two persons allegedly in Pakistan. 
With Khobragade’s back in India, both sides have gone in a damage control mode. Yet damage has been done with long-term vicissitudes across language, law, diplomacy and cross-cultural relations. In international relations bumps from the past tend to resurface and have the power to act as roadblocks to better ties. Professor Chintamani Mahapatra of Jawaharlal Nehru University, in an article published in the Institute of Peace and Conflict Study, writes: ‘How long did it take for India to manage its psychological hurt over Washington dispatching USS Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal during the 1971 War? Not until President George Bush signed a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with India that strategic community in India could address the issue of US nuclear threat to India. Nor have Indians forgotten the Bhopal Gas tragedy that directly shaped the debate in the Indian parliament over the nuclear liability bill.’ 

The issues of American disregard for India’s sovereignty, as reflected in evacuation of the Richard’s family members, American disrespect for the Delhi High Court’s order against the maid and the US State Department’s unwillingness to share the information about impending arrest of Devyani with visiting foreign secretary of India have acted as dampeners in the Indo-US engagement. Sadanand Dhume, resident fellow and South Asia expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, has accorded the current row as the ‘most serious strain in the relationship since 1998, when India tested its nuclear weapons.’ Ronak Desai of Belfar’s Centre India and South Asia Programme, however, gives an alternate view stating that India and US have differed on a slew of issues including India’s close relationship with Iran, passage of nuclear liability bill to name a few. On Iran issue ‘American officials were chagrined to see India continue to import Iranian oil to meet its voracious energy demands.’ Experts predicted souring of US-India relations over Tehran. 

However, each of these tensions were mitigated through collaborations and dialogue. Even as differences continue to remain on a host of issues, including climate change, intellectual property protection for American pharmaceuticals sold in India along with global trade but the relationship as it stands has not been compromised. While the Khobragade controversy was at its peak, two high level visits of US officials, including one by energy secretary Ernest Moniz, were postponed. In an effort to put the ties back on track, Deputy secretary of state William Burns met Indian Ambassador S. Jaishankar after Khobragade’s return to discuss a range of upcoming bilateral meetings and exchanges. Burns has stated that ‘Washington took the concerns very seriously and will continue to address them via appropriate diplomatic channels.’ Whatever be the long term impact of the controversy, the incident however reveals the cultural gap between American and Indian notions of egalitarianism. It also points out the flawed diplomacy allowed the incident to become a blockbuster drama, starring a Dalit heroin of India! As for India it is important that India does some groundwork for itself, especially for future. If the US is going to be a nit-picker for rules, the MEA should think twice about allowing diplomats the privilege of taking domestic workers from India to America when they cannot afford to pay them US minimum wages. The incident has led to government waking from slumber and making attempts to bring domestic helps under government contract. This would ensure that diplomats are not personally culpable and with contracts in place, the issue of minimum wages will be addressed. 

The incident should be taken as an opportunity to begin a comprehensive dialogue on consular issues, work out a set of rules for diplomats, their immunity status or mission security, with the US and all decisions need to be put down on paper. Uma Purushottam of the Observer Research Foundation summarises that India on its part needs to pay more attention to the consequences of humanitarian activism abroad.

The lesson, if we want to learn, is, leave the sab chalta hai attitude.

The author is research scholar at JNU
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