Indo-U.S. Ten­sions Af­ter Devyani’s Ar­rest

Southasia - - THE LAST STOP - By Anees Jil­lani

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.

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