A bat­tle­field of morals

Southasia - - COMMENT - Syed Jawaid Iqbal

All the way from the diplo­matic spat be­tween the U.S. and In­dia in 1997, when New Delhi kicked out two US in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials and the U.S re­sponded in kind, to the Civil Nu­clear Co­op­er­a­tion Agree­ment of 2006, re­la­tions be­tween the United States and In­dia have tra­versed quite some miles – and up­hill too. In fact, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama has even gone on record to de­fine the cur­rent U.S.-In­dia re­la­tions as ‘the part­ner­ship’ of the 21st century. It was in the midst of all this ca­ma­raderie that the Devyani Kho­bra­gade af­fair raised its ugly head. Sadly enough, in­stead of both coun­tries treat­ing it on its own merit, the case turned out to be a bat­tle­field of morals though many among both the top U.S. and In­dian lead­er­ship later felt the row was the ‘most stupid thing to do’.

In­dian diplo­mat Devyani Kho­bra­gade re­turned home in Jan­uary af­ter her in­dict­ment for visa fraud and for mak­ing false state­ments about the treat­ment of her do­mes­tic ser­vant, Sangeeta Richard. Kho­bra­gade was re­port­edly open to plead­ing guilty in ex­change for re­duced charges, but In­dia’s for­eign min­istry wouldn’t ac­cept any deal that would frame Kho­bra­gade’s ac­tions as crim­i­nal of­fense. Once the plea bar­gain­ing broke down, a deal was struck: Devyani Kho­bra­gade would be granted the im­mu­nity she had claimed all along, but the charges would stay and she would have to leave the U.S. In re­turn, In­dia ex­pelled the head of se­cu­rity at the US Em­bassy in New Delhi. In a strange quirk of cir­cum­stances, it had turned out that the said U.S. em­bassy of­fi­cial had em­ployed Richard’s fam­ily in In­dia and had sub­se­quently helped to evac­u­ate them to the U.S.

The with­drawal of Devyani Kho­bra­gade from the In­dian con­sulate in New York un­for­tu­nately did con­sid­er­able dam­age to In­dian-Amer­i­can re­la­tions. While the whole af­fair was a cause for baf­fle­ment and anger for the Amer­i­cans, it called upon the In­di­ans too to give a good think to their ac­tions and counter-ac­tions and per­ceive how these could be mis­con­strued by a dis­tant people whose thought process was quite dif­fer­ent from theirs. Now that the af­fair has been put to bed as far as both the U.S. and In­dian gov­ern­ments are con­cerned, it would be ju­di­cious for them to re-fo­cus their at­ten­tion on their com­mon in­ter­ests. Per­haps they can now take a breather and re-think their strat­egy about their larger role in the South Asian re­gion. For all that it is worth, both have an abid­ing in­ter­est in the sta­bil­ity of Afghanistan, es­pe­cially af­ter the exit of the ma­jor por­tion of the US troops from the coun­try this year. Among other is­sues, both also aim to tone down China’s emer­gence in South Asia and then there is the loom­ing In­dian gen­eral elec­tion.

In view of the fact that the U.S. and In­dia have now so­lid­i­fied an abid­ing friend­ship, the Devyani Kho­bra­gade episode should not serve as a barom­e­ter of their one-off bi­lat­eral re­la­tions. There is no doubt that these ties were put to a tough test as a re­sult of the scan­dal and some very hard and un­com­pro­mis­ing ac­tions were wit­nessed on both sides. But it is com­mend­able that the chal­lenges have been over­come in a sane man­ner and both coun­tries, while be­ing wary of the pit­falls that could queer the pitch, will now tread more care­fully in the re­la­tion­ship and en­sure that wrong­do­ing is treated on its own merit, that the law is al­lowed to take its own course, that diplo­matic priv­i­leges are not curbed on ei­ther side by way of re­tal­i­a­tion, that vis­its of high-level func­tionar­ies are not post­poned and that such mat­ters are not al­lowed to spoil the big­ger pic­ture.

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