A battlefield of morals
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.