India and U.S.

Diplomatic storm

Print edition : January 24, 2014

Police removing a barricade outside the main entrance of the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi on December 17, 2013. Photo: PTI

Devyani Khobragade, India’s Deputy Consul General in New York. Photo: PTI

Sangeeta Richard, Devyani's maid. Photo: PTI

Members of the Communist Party of India demonstrate outside the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi on December 21. Photo: V. Sudershan

A group supporting domestic workers’ rights stage a protest outside the Indian Consulate General in New York on December 20. Photo: STAN HONDA/AFP

Although India has taken a tough stand against the U.S. over the arrest of its diplomat Devyani Khobragade in New York, the government’s muted response to other provocations such as spying shows that it is keen to remain America’s “global strategic partner”.

THE arrest and strip-search of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade by the New York Police on December 12 has expectedly evoked strong reactions in India. The political parties were united in defending the honour of Devyani, who is accused of committing a “visa fraud” and of making a false declaration in connection with the employment of her Indian housemaid, Sangeeta Richard. Under the United States’ law, the charges against the Deputy Consul General at the Indian Consulate in New York could lead to a jail term of more than 10 years.

The manner in which the middle-level diplomat was arrested came in for particular criticism. She was first detained and handcuffed outside her daughter’s school by U.S. Marshals and later strip-searched. The Indian government had to post a $250,000 bail bond to have her released. Devyani has since been reassigned to India’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations, where she will enjoy full diplomatic immunity. But there are no signs yet of the U.S. authorities contemplating a climbdown in the case. “Receiving diplomatic immunity does not nullify any previously existing criminal charges,” the U.S. State Department spokesperson said in the last week of December. “Those remain on the books.”

The maid’s version of the story was not given too much coverage in the Indian media initially. Besides raising the salary issue, she had also complained about being overworked and mistreated.

India continues to claim that the treatment accorded to the diplomat was in violation of the Vienna Convention, which has governed international diplomatic practice. The 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations states that diplomats are immune from prosecution in a host country if they break the law, but under the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, individuals are protected from the host country’s laws only when the offences are related to their consular duties. The U.S. law enforcement officials, led by Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara, are of the view that hiring a maid is not part of the Consul General’s job.

The case

According to documents filed in a New York court, Devyani’s visa application for the maid stated that she would be paid $4,500 a month. New York crime investigators found that she was actually paid $573 a month, or around $3 an hour, much lower than the New York State minimum wages of over $7 an hour.

However, it has been common practice for Indian diplomats to take domestic help with them on foreign assignments. A separate contract is signed in India where the wages are in accordance with the prevalent rates in the country. Sangeeta was being paid Rs.30,000 a month over and above the lodging, and health expenses she incurred in the U.S. She was also given an official white passport.

The U.S. authorities knew all the while about the peculiar arrangement of the Indian Foreign Service regarding household help imported from India but chose to ignore it until now. Many of the middle-level Indian diplomats posted in the U.S. make slightly more than the official minimum wages in the U.S.

The Indian government seems to have realised the gravity of the situation and has since provided documentary evidence of the diplomat having been concurrently accredited to the United Nations at the time of her arrest, thus making her eligible for diplomatic immunity.

In recent years, the New York Police have conducted some high-profile arrests that have ruffled the U.S.’ relations with other countries. One such case was the arrest of former International Monetary Fund (IMF) President Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was preparing to run for the French presidency. The case against him was eventually dropped.

Other governments choose to have different yardsticks when dealing with cases involving diplomats. In late December, the Indian government allowed a senior Bahraini diplomat heading the kingdom’s consulate in Mumbai to exercise his diplomatic immunity even after he was charged with two counts of violent assaults. American diplomats have escaped after committing far worse crimes, including killings, in third countries. The case of Raymond Allen Davis, an American contractor involved in the killing of two Pakistanis in cold blood, is an example. The U.S. administration gave him diplomatic cover and ensured his release from Pakistani state custody and safe passage back to America.

Writing on the wall

The Indian government never expected that its closest “strategic ally” would spring such an unpleasant Christmas surprise. But it should have seen the writing on the wall as the case had reached the courts in New York and Delhi in the middle of the year. The maid hired by the Indian diplomat had fled her employer’s house in June and the Khobragade family had filed a case against her in a Delhi court. The U.S. State Department had alerted the Indian authorities about the case in September.

American officials have said that they could very well have declared Devyani “persona non grata” and expelled her from the country. They claim that they did not take this extreme step because the Indian diplomat is married to an American citizen.

The Indian government should have also taken cognisance of the fact that the American authorities had facilitated the entry of the husband and two children of Sangeeta Richard to the U.S. just before the arrest of Devyani. This move was undertaken evidently to ensure that they do not come under retaliatory legal pressure from the Khobragades in India. The evacuation of the Richard family to New York was done without keeping the Indian government in the loop.

The Americans had got one of its senior intelligence assets in the Indian establishment, Ravinder Singh, out of India in 2004 in a clandestine manner. The senior official in the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) was on the verge of being arrested at the time on charges of spying for a foreign power. India had not raised the issue seriously with the U.S. as it was involved in negotiating the civil nuclear deal with the Bush administration at the time. Devyani’s father, Uttam Khobragade, a retired Indian Administrative Service officer, has suggested that Sangeeta could have been a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) “spy” who chose to disappear at the opportune moment. Devyani’s arrest came soon after Indian Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh ended her official visit to the U.S.

India’s reaction

Senior Indian government officials, starting with the Prime Minister, have, after a long time, been openly critical of the U.S. government’s handling of the situation. Manmohan Singh said that the treatment accorded to Devyani “was deplorable” and duly authorised retaliatory measures. External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid even refused to receive a call from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Kerry did talk to India’s National Security Adviser and expressed his “regret” over the incident. Khurshid emotionally urged the Indian Parliament to “speak in one voice” against the violation of diplomatic norms by Washington and vowed to return to Parliament only after the diplomat’s “dignity” was restored. There were loud demands from politicians cutting across the political divide for an official apology from the U.S. government.

Feelings seem to have ebbed considerably since then. India now is quietly negotiating with Washington on the status of domestic helps working with 14 Indian diplomats stationed in the U.S. New Delhi wants household helps to be treated as Indian government employees.

The Indian government has, meanwhile, symbolically downgraded the privileges accorded to American diplomats. U.S. Ambassador to India Nancy Powell no longer has “special airport privileges”. Henceforth, Indian officials say, all privileges will be on basis of reciprocity. The concrete barricades around the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, which made it a virtual fortress, have been removed. This move was welcomed by pedestrians, motorists and the other embassies in the diplomatic enclave of Chanakyapuri, as the road had once more become accessible to the public. New Delhi, however, insists that the timing of removing the excessive security cover had nothing to do with the incident involving the Indian diplomat. Indian officials say there are no similar facilities accorded to the Indian Embassy in Washington.

The rift

Khurshid has claimed that the spat did not occur “out of the blue” and there is a “history” behind it. But he has refused to divulge any reasons for his assertions. There is some speculation that the U.S. was upset with India’s refusal to goad the government of Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh to rescind its ban on the Jamaat-e-Islami and put in place a caretaker government that would supervise the general elections to be held in early 2014. There were also reports that the Obama administration was not too happy with New Delhi’s tacit support to Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai’s refusal to sign the bilateral security pact, which is essential for the U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014.

The U.S. has been courting India assiduously for the last three decades. During the Bush presidency, bilateral relations were the warmest ever with the passage of the Nuclear Liability Bill and enhanced defence cooperation. India was designated as America’s “global strategic partner” and encouraged to project its force in the Indian Ocean. It was obvious that the U.S. viewed India, along with Japan, as an important counterweight to China, as the American military pivots to the East.

The Indian establishment has so far been basking in the importance that is being accorded by the U.S. and its allies like Japan. At the same time, India has been careful in ensuring that relations with China are not impacted adversely. Both sides have signed a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement and are moving ahead with the implementation of the BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India, and Myanmar) economic corridor.

Unlike the U.S.’ other allies such as Japan, India has been careful in taking a position that does not identify itself totally with U.S.’ pivot to the East. Manmohan Singh, in a recent address to the annual commanders’ conference in New Delhi, remarked that the U.S.’ “pivot” to Asia “is a development fraught with uncertainty”. India also has good relations with countries such as Venezuela and Iran that are not in the good books of the U.S. administration.

The deals

All the same, India has not been as vociferous against the Obama administration on more important issues such as the spying by the National Security Agency (NSA) on Indian missions and its use of New Delhi as a major hub for spying on China. Latin American and European governments have taken much stronger positions. Brazil cancelled a multibillion-dollar defence deal with the U.S. after the information was revealed that the U.S. was listening in on the private phone calls of the Brazilian President. Indian diplomats have admitted that the bugging by the NSA has caused “extensive damage” to the conduct of the country’s foreign policy. When Edward Snowden first revealed that India was among the key targets of the NSA, Khurshid had tried to play down the issue by claiming that only metadata was targeted and not individuals. He even credited U.S. intelligence agencies with providing information that helped the Indian government thwart domestic terrorist plots.

India, unlike Brazil, has decided to continue doing business as usual with the U.S. Even as the impasse over the diplomat’s case remains unsolved, India has signed another contract worth over a $1 billion for the purchase of six additional Super Hercules Transport planes from the U.S. In the last decade, the U.S. has already bagged defence deals worth more than $10 billion. India is in advanced stage of talks with the U.S. to buy another $4 billion worth of American defence hardware. A preliminary agreement has been signed for the supply of American nuclear reactors for nuclear plants in India. That deal alone would be worth more than $14 billion. India’s special relationship with the U.S. continues, notwithstanding the Devyani Khobragade affair.