For nearly one month, India and the US were engaged in a diplomatic confrontation over the arrest of an Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, in New York over an issue of alleged visa fraud and ill treatment of her domestic help, another Indian national Sangeeta Richards. For the time being, the public confrontation has been ended with the Indian government recalling its diplomat back to India and, in a tit for tat measure, expelling a diplomat posted at the US embassy in New Delhi.
Certain issues have come to light through this whole affair.
Firstly, the Indian state sprang to the defence of its diplomat and refused to accept the treatment meted out to her by the authorities in New York. It demanded an apology from the US government for violating norms of diplomatic immunity, even though US officials were not willing to express anything more than ‘regret’. This was in marked contrast to its reaction in the recent past, when the Indian state had remained silent when top leaders like former President Abdul Kalam, former Defence Minister George Fernandes, and others were humiliated by US officials at US airports and made to undergo strip searches. It was also in contrast to its reaction in recent times, when revelations came out in the open about how the US has been spying on embassies and top leaders around the world, including those of its own allies like India. At that time, when even governments of close US allies like Germany had protested, and some like Brazil took retaliatory measures, the Indian government had played down the whole issue, with Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid even suggesting that this was the ‘normal’ practice of states around the world.
Secondly, the measures taken by the Indian state in retaliation to the US treatment of Khobragade included withdrawal of some of the special privileges extended to the US embassy and consulates in India and to their personnel. What has come out in the open is the extent of special privileges enjoyed by the US diplomatic establishment in India. These privileges are not enjoyed by other diplomatic establishments here, nor by Indian diplomatic establishments in the US. Besides extra security cover for the US embassy and consulates, these privileges included the running of commercial establishments inside the US embassy, as well as the Indian state turning a blind eye to all kinds of activities carried out by US diplomatic personnel. While it has now withdrawn some of these privileges, the question arises how these could have been allowed to go on for so long in the first place.
For the last few years, much has been made of the “Indo-US strategic partnership”. As part of this partnership, the Indian state has deepened its collaboration with the US in many spheres, including political, military and intelligence matters. It has also obliged its American ‘partner’ in many international forums, most notably by voting with the US against Iran’s right to pursue a nuclear energy program. At the same time, it has maintained its right to pursue other alliances and enter into other international groupings with countries like China, Russia and so on. It is possible that the unusually harsh and adamant treatment of an Indian diplomat by the US authorities was a signal of some strains in the “Indo-US strategic partnership”.
Finally, it is clear that the Indian state took absolutely no cognizance of or responsibility for the conditions faced by the concerned Indian domestic help Sangeeta Richards. The Indian state has always had a hostile unsympathetic attitude to the plight of Indian workers who go to other countries in search of livelihood. Far from defending their rights, its missions abroad have collaborated with reactionary states in other countries in attacking Indians. This has been the case in Canada, in the countries of West Asia, and other places. This was evident in the recent case of Singapore, where dozens of migrant Indian workers were deported in December, and where the government enacted a new fascist law directed specifically against the Indian community, merely because migrant workers from India had protested their absolute lack of dignity and rights. The Indian state has said nothing or done nothing to defend these workers.