History may have witnessed several wars that have been fought over many small and even seemingly silly issues since civilisation. But, there may not be any recorded instance of war or a war-like situation created over a domestic spat between a maid and her employer in a third country. In some respects, the recent war of words between India and the USA over the ill-treatment by New York law-enforcing agencies of an Indian Foreign Service officer, Devyani Khobragade, over a personal dispute with her Indian domestic maid snowballing into an ugly diplomatic issue between the world’s two largest democracies, is one such instance.

India’s diplomatic outburst and the demand for an unconditional US apology and the withdrawal of all criminal charges against the woman IFS officer may go down in history as the worst example of its diplomatic immaturity before the world. Leading the outburst were none other than India’s External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid himself and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath. As things stand now, the US authorities have shown no inclination to accept either demand.
India can do little if the US refuses to apologise and withdraw the case. Will India risk its diplomatic relations with the USA by indulging in something further funnier than withdrawal security barricades outside the US Embassy in Delhi? For how long will India aovid meeting visiting US delegations or share platforms with visiting American dignitaries and officials? What ace does India have up its sleeve to teach the US a lesson if the latter refuses to ‘behave?’ India does not have China’s financial and military might to take on the wily US. Its naval frigate can’t be used to narrowly cut the path of a US aircraft carrier in international waters. India was unable to even detain the two Italian marines arrested on charges of cold-blooded murder of two poor Indian fishermen within its territorial waters on the Kerala coast, leave alone sentencing them to death or imprisonment in Indian jail.
Why did India act the way it did to protect its IFS officer charged with visa fraud and cheating in the US under the US laws? Why wasn’t the concerned IFS officer recalled immediately after the US law enforcement authorities took cognisance of the complaints of her domestic help and served a notice on the officer in the Indian consulate in New York? It appears that India’s external affairs minister was wrongly briefed by a section of the powerful IFS lobby on the Devyani-maid episode to force the entire government to see it as an extremely prestigious issue, involving national pride. Shockingly, the government chose not to apply its mind before acting in haste. The severity of its official reaction, stirring up anti-US passions across the country on the Devyani issue speaks volumes about its diplomatic abilities.
There were other subtle ways in which India could have acted to strongly express its disapproval of the US action. Actually, the incident was an opportunity to showcase its subtlety in diplomacy, and act in a manner that would have taught the US administration a good lesson in diplomatic demarche, without using harsh words and issuing ultimatums. If reciprocity is regarded as an important tool in bilateral relations, what the Indian administration needed, perhaps, was to quickly find a way to lodge an FIR and arrest a mid-career US foreign service staffer working in any of the American consulates in India, slapping some serious criminal charges, which are not easily bailable in a court of law.
It is possible that such an action would have led to a counter-action on the part of the US authorities to ensure no further insult or injustice was inflicted by the New York prosecutors on Khobragade, without risking worse treatment of the arrested US officer in the Indian police lock-up, sharing a cell with hardcore criminals. While tit-for-tat in diplomacy is quite common, this is not to suggest even remotely that India should have lodged a fake criminal case against a US consular official to engineer reciprocal ill-treatment. Digging deep into the lifestyle of some of the US foreign service officers habitually enjoying the full indulgence of Indian law enforcement agencies, it would probably not have been very difficult to locate one or more of these highly-pampered US foreign office staff carrying out activities not permitted under Indian law.
For instance, a veteran BJP stalwart, himself a former IAS bureaucrat turned union minister, cited examples of homosexuals in the US diplomatic ranks in India, where it is a criminal offence under an unaltered 19th century British law for its subjects in India and recommended their arrest. There could be many instances where US foreign office staff in India are given more than equal treatment vis-a-vis local citizens, when it comes to strict enforcement of domestic law. But, now it is too late to act wilfully against a US foreign office staffer. It would be interpreted as a deliberate move by India to escalate tension between the two countries.
The Khobragade case should serve as an eye-opener for India’s political executives and the government, which have long played into the hands of local and foreign office bureaucrats. Law offenders, no matter howsoever important and high-up, domestic or foreign nationals, should be treated uniformly as crime accused as per the law and not be given any special treatment outside the provision of law. If Devyani did not have written approval from the government of her agreement with the concerned maid and her deposition in the visa application for the nanny, she should be left to defend herself before the US court of law. Let this be a lesson to all foreign service officers, who want to bring servants from India to handle domestic chores or for baby-sitting.

Nantoo Banerjee

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