Indian diplomat to the U.S. Devyani Khobragade was arrested last week in New York on charges of lying on the visa application of her housekeeper, Indian national Sangeeta Richard. Khobragade claimed diplomatic immunity but was nevertheless arrested, searched and detained by U.S. officials. After the diplomat’s claims of a “strip search” and “barbaric” treatment reached her homeland, Indian officials refused to meet with a visiting U.S. delegation, removed security barriers from the U.S. embassy in India, and launched harsh, public complaints against American treatment of women.
New York State Attorney Preet Bharara said that Khobragade was arrested “in the most discreet way possible, and unlike most defendants, she was not then handcuffed or restrained.” Secretary of State John Kerry did his part to smooth over the situation by expressing his "regret" during a phone call with Indian leaders shortly after the incident. However, India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the diplomat’s treatment as "deplorable,” according to CNN, and made no signs that Kerry’s apology will be accepted. Khobragade plead not guilty to a charge of fraud on Richard’s visa application, as well as to paying the housekeeper approximately $3 per hour.
When asked to define the extent to which Khobragade’s position grants her legal immunity, "There's a lot of subjectivity on this stuff," Jeffrey Toobin, CNN legal analyst said. Because the law is open to interpretation, whether or not the diplomat will be held liable must ultimately be decided by the courts.
In addition to the unnervingly arbitrary legal issues, the situation breeds a number of worrisome logical inconsistencies. Why is there outrage over the officials who followed the law, rather than over the individual who evaded it? Why is the argument about diplomatic immunity when human rights issues have plagued India for decades? Why does India shout louder over the jailing of a diplomat than Americans shout about the rape of an American tourist in India, for which three men were convicted this week?
Granted, American egalitarianism is part of what makes the U.S. exceptional; it is almost unheard of for an educated, middle class Indian woman to be arrested and searched as Khobragade was, while for an American woman the event would be begrudgingly accepted as a democratic reality. Legal prerequisites are a complicated yet necessary formality for two countries with very different cultural norms who desire to cooperate. As such, India cannot assume that the U.S.’ decision to uphold is own laws is a direct attack on India; the regular media lampooning of American politicians who hired illegal immigrants as housekeepers is proof that Khobregard’s treatment was not malicious or ill-conceived.
Days after the arrest and initial commotion, allegations of over-reaction on India’s part are starting to trickle in. Bharara said in a public statement Wednesday that not only did Ms. Khobragade deliberately evade the law, but “there can be no plausible claim that this case was somehow unexpected or an injustice.” Bharara asks whether U.S. officials are expected to “look the other way” and ignore the rights of the victimized Ms. Richard.
Moni Basu suggests in an article for CNN.com that India’s Cold War legacy is at fault for the patriotic fervor, especially since political campaigns for Spring parliamentary elections are well underway.
Salman Khurshid, Indian External Affairs Minister, agrees that there are larger issues at stake than diplomatic immunity or fair wages. "It is no longer about an individual,” he said. “It is about our sense of self as a nation and our place in the world.”
If India's leaders continue accepting political kudos for the exploitation of one of their own, a housekeeper who was wronged under the law, they will have to lay in the bed they made come election season. The United States should stop trying to clean up the mess.