Indo-U.S. Tensions After Devyani’s Arrest
Devyani Khobragade, 39, the former deputy consul general in New York, has finally returned to India on January 10, 2014, after becoming a cause for one of the worst crises in Indo-U.S. relations. She returned after being expelled by the Obama administration, following her arrest for visa fraud on December 12.
Devyani has also served in Islamabad as first secretary political in the Indian High Commission. She was accused of submitting false documents to obtain a work visa for her housekeeper, Sangeeta Richard. The New York Southern District prosecutor, Preet Bharara, himself of Indian origin, accused Devyani of trying to evade U.S. law designed to protect the domestic employees of diplomats and consular officers from exploitation. The offences involved a maximum sentence of 10 years for visa fraud and five years for making a false declaration.
There is little doubt that both sides mishandled the matter. To begin with, most of the diplomats using foreign domestic help probably are guilty of the offences that Devyani was charged with. It, however, goes without saying that it is not an excuse in law that others are doing it as well.
It was not so much the pressing of the charges that infuriated the Indian government and the public, as the way Devyani was arrested. She was handcuffed after she had left her daughter at school, and subsequently stripsearched and then held with drug addicts before being released on a $250,000 bail. Her body cavities were also searched and DNA swabs taken. This is definitely humiliating for anybody, particularly for a diplomat and the country she represents.
The Indian government instead of handling the matter discreetly went public with its protestations, partly due to the coming national elections. It started pressurizing the U.S. embassy in an undiplomatic manner by removing security barriers around the embassy, withdrawing certain diplomatic benefits of the U.S. diplomats, questioning the U.S. diplomats about the salaries paid to their Indian ser- vants and placing restrictions on the functioning of a club and an American school. This was finally followed by expelling an American diplomat at the time of expulsion of Devyani from New York.
The U.S. State Department must be credited with handling the whole matter with utmost restraint. It had no hand in Devyani’s arrest as this was dealt with by the police in New York. However, subsequent to the arrest, the U.S. Secretary of State called the Indian National Security Advisor, as the Foreign Minister refused to talk to him and apologized for the treatment. The American diplomats and politicians remained mum on the issue, although they could also have made a noise.
After all, the issue has another angle to it which the Indian authorities have so far refused to even mention, namely the rights of the domestic help. The latter, Sangeeta, was promised to be paid by Devyani $9.75 per hour, in compliance with United States labor rules, but instead was paid $3.31 per hour. The latter salary may be handsome from an Indian point of view but remains in contravention of the U.S. laws. The issue then is as to whether diplomats are exempted from this provision and the answer is in the negative. The poor hardly have rights in South Asia and are routinely exploited. It may thus not have been a big deal in India but became an issue for the Americans, so much so that they went out of their way to get Sangeeta’s family secretly repatriated to the United States. The American police treated Devyani in a harsh manner which was not just as she was a diplomat and had not committed an offence deserving such a harsh protocol but the truth is that India is party to an exploitative system that also needs to be scrutinized. Anees Jillani is an advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and a member of the Washington, DC Bar. He has been writing for various publications for more than 20 years and has authored several books.