India’s Crocodile Tears over a Diplomatic Slight

The nationalist uproar in India over the arrest and search of a female member of its consular staff in New York shows India in a worse light than the US. Indeed it hints at the widespread abuse of poor South Asians at the hands of their own nationals, an issue familiar to those concerned with the welfare of migrant domestic servants.

The outcry over the arrest and search of fashionably dressed consular official Devyani Khobragade, which has elicited condemnation from none other than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, forced an apology from Secretary of State John Kerry, and caused the outraged Indians to reduce security around the US embassy in Delhi. But it also suggests that Indian officials expect to be above the law when they are in the US.

India’s outraged officials have yet to address the issue of the visa fraud of which Khobragade has been accused. Khobragade is a consular official and thus only entitled to diplomatic immunity when carrying out consular duties. Hiring of domestic employees clearly does not come under this immunity. Yet almost the whole Indian media and political class, the same media which ignore the gross abuses of power which take place under their very noses every day,are up in arms against supposed US infringement of a diplomat’s supposed rights.

They are silent on the rights of the maid alleged to have been exploited by Khobragade. Who cares about a lower-caste, little-educated Indian maid? Certainly not the Delhi elite.

Khobragade’s rights are, we are told, superior to those of ordinary American citizens. The procedures followed by New York police may be viewed as rough and insulting to those arrested. But they are standard procedure – as former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn found when he was arrested on suspicion of rape in 2011.

The fact is that they are normal and Khobragade was body searched by a female officer. The initiator of the charges, Preetinder Singh (Preet) Bharara, US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, is himself of Indian origin, born in Firozpur, Punjab.

Whether or not Khobragade is guilty of lying by pretending to have paid the maid she sponsored the minimum legal wage, instead of less than US$3 an hour, which is claimed by the NY authorities, or the $4,500 a month that Khobragade is said to have claimed, remains to be seen.

But abuse of diplomatic privileges is widespread and diplomats from South Asia are notorious almost the world over for their eager exploitation of the system. What was supposed to be a means to protect diplomats has become a license to profit from the likes of duty-free liquor import, as well as more specifically illegal activities involving drug and people smuggling.

India in fact has developed a vast caste of VVIPs – “Very Very Important Persons” who are exempted from all of the normal procedures that the average suffering businessman or tourist must endure, not only abroad but in India itself. In July 2009, when officials of the US Continental Airlines frisked former President APJ Abdul Kalam, requiring him to remove his shoes and belt, as millions of people at that point had to do, it kicked off a huge international fuss. Politicians demanded that that Continental be barred from flying into the country and that then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton be put through security checks as well.

In the succeeding years, the list of VVIPs has continued to expand. In the 1980s, only five officials -- president, vice president, prime minister, Supreme Court chief justice, speaker of the Lok Sabha (the Lower House of Parliament) and state governors were exempted from security procedures. Today, however, the list has been expanded to include cabinet ministers, ministers of state, bureaucrats and sundry others with access to the powers-that-be. A private businessman, Robert Vadra, the son-in-law of Congress party president Sonia Gandhi and husband of Priyanka Gandhi, was exempt, as were senior bureaucrats outranked by the service chiefs, who were required to go through the procedures.

The way the Indian foreign policy establishment has leapt not just to Khobragade’s defense but to protect the immunity system is disturbing. Surely law-abiding officials should let the law take its course. The gross underpayment of imported domestic servants by diplomats, and sometimes too by businessmen and others temporarily residing in developed countries, is a very real issue. At home, whether in India or countries with a similar abundance of low wage labor, as middle class households they are used to having one or more servants to clean and cook.

Posted to the US – or Japan, Hong Kong Malaysia or UK etc – they expect to continue to have help in the house. But their salaries are simply insufficient to pay the locally prescribed minimums. Hence they bring in maids from their own countries and pay them what sounds a huge wage in India but is a fraction of that to which the law entitles them in, for example, New York.

Justice in New York may be rough but mostly honest – which is why a self-serving Indian elite is so disturbed by it.