Diplo­matic row or a storm in a teacup?

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COMMENT - AZDAK The au­thor is a se­nior ed­i­tor with China Daily.

The In­dian es­tab­lish­ment sees it as an af­front to one of its diplo­mats in New York, and thus to the coun­try. The US ad­min­is­tra­tion in­sists it has played by the rules. The in­ci­dent, which has now snow­balled into a ma­jor diplo­matic row, started with the ar­rest of Devyani Kho­bra­gade, In­dia’s deputy con­sul gen­eral in New York on Dec 12.

Kho­bra­gade was ar­rested on charges of visa fraud and un­der­pay­ing her maid, Sangeeta Richard. Richard, an In­dian na­tional, started work­ing for Kho­bra­gade about a year ago. On June 23 this year, she sought refuge with a US at­tor­ney. In­dian of­fi­cials claim to have in­formed the US of the de­vel­op­ment, and a day later New Delhi can­celed Richard’s pass­port, mak­ing her an il­le­gal im­mi­grant in the US.

In early July, Richard and Kho­bra­gade, along with other con­sulate of­fi­cials, met at an at­tor­ney’s of­fice in New York, where Richard re­port­edly asked for $10,000 as com­pen­sa­tion plus an or­di­nary In­dian pass­port and a clean ref­er­ence, which Kho­bra­gade is said to have re­fused.

Things got re­ally messy from here, with Kho­bra­gade and her hus­band un­suc­cess­fully try­ing to file a case in a New York court ac­cus­ing Richard of ex­tor­tion. In Septem­ber, Delhi High Court passed an in­junc­tion bar­ring Richard from fil­ing any case against Kho­bra­gade out­side In­dia. A month later, Kho­bra­gade’s fam­ily filed an of­fi­cial com­plaint with po­lice, ac­cus­ing Richard of ex­tor­tion and nam­ing her hus­band, Philip, as co-con­spir­a­tor.

On Dec 10, two days be­fore Kho­bra­gade was ar­rested, Philip and their two chil­dren flew to the US. That the US granted a visa to a per­son against whom a case is pend­ing (which it rarely does) has prompted In­dian of­fi­cials to say that the In­dian diplo­mat has been “trapped” in a “con­spir­acy”.

The ar­rest of Kho­bra­gade has soured Indo-US re­la­tions to such an ex­tent that even Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry couldn’t as­suage In­dian feel­ings. Kerry called In­dia’s Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­vi­sor Shivshankar Menon over the phone on Wed­nes­day to ex­press his “re­gret” over the “events that unfolded”. In re­sponse, In­dian Par­lia­men­tary Af­fairs Min­is­ter Ka­mal Nath said on Thurs­day that noth­ing less than an “apol­ogy” from the US for its “mis­take” (of ar­rest­ing, strip- and cav­ity-search­ing Kho­bra­gade and swab­bing her for DNA) would sat­isfy In­dia. “Just re­gret­ting and com­plet­ing a for­mal­ity is not ac­cept­able ... The way they (the US) have han­dled this case, their be­hav­ior and at­ti­tude ... they will have to apol­o­gize,” Nath said.

The Amer­i­cans say there is no con­spir­acy in­volved in the case, and it is “stan­dard prac­tice for ev­ery de­fen­dant, rich or poor, Amer­i­can or not” to un­dergo a strip-search and DNA swab, but the In­di­ans are buy­ing none of it, claim­ing the US ad­min­is­tra­tion has hu­mil­i­ated an In­dian who en­joys diplo­matic im­mu­nity.

Kho­bra­gade, in the mean­while, has been re­leased on a $250,000 bond af­ter plead­ing not guilty in a New York court. And al­though In­dia has trans­ferred her to its mis­sion to the United Na­tions to grant her full diplo­matic im­mu­nity, the row over her ar­rest con­tin­ues to sim­mer.

New Delhi has pared down the priv­i­leges granted to US diplo­mats and their fam­i­lies in In­dia; it has with­drawn the diplo­matic ID cards given to US of­fi­cials, taken away their air­port passes, stopped their im­port clear­ances and with­drawn the ex­tra se­cu­rity bar­ri­cades and per­son­nel around the US em­bassy.

Per­haps the In­dian gov­ern­ment would not have re­acted to Kho­bra­gade’s ar­rest so vig­or­ously had the gen­eral elec­tion not been round the cor­ner. The rul­ing coali­tion led by the Congress Party does not want to be seen as weak be­fore the elec­tion and risk suf­fer­ing a drub­bing at the polls. The Congress Party has al­ready lost the elec­tions to four pro­vin­cial as­sem­blies, two of which it ran, and a slip-up on the diplo­matic front could give the op­po­si­tion, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, another ex­cuse to lash out at the coali­tion and gain peo­ple’s sup­port plus votes.

But then the US could have shown some diplo­matic ma­tu­rity in han­dling the af­fair. No one is ask­ing it to spare the guilty and con­demn the in­no­cent, though. In­dia, on its part, could have flown Kho­bra­gade back to In­dia (as it has done with other of­fi­cials pre­vi­ously) be­fore the in­ci­dent snow­balled into a se­ri­ous diplo­matic row.

As things stand now, se­nior US of­fi­cials must be caught in two minds — whether to press the law of the land or go soft on Kho­bra­gade in ex­change for In­dia’s sup­port to its “pivot to Asia” pol­icy. What­ever the de­ci­sion, the world is watch­ing.

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