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Indo-US ties need course correction

  By Vijay Darda | 13-01-2014

Now that the dust has settled and the Indian Foreign Service officer Devyani Khobragade has come back from New York with her ‘head held high’ as her lawyer claimed, it is time for a cooler reflection for the wise heads that supposedly decide the course of relationship between the two biggest democracies in the world. Perhaps, the diplomats who are charged with the responsibility of ensuring that President Obama’s vision of the Indo-US relationship as the ‘defining partnership of the 21st century’ would now remain sensitive to critical matters and would not do something they would later describe as ‘the most stupid thing to do.’

With his characteristic analytic precision, our external affairs minister Salman Khurshid has correctly diagnosed the misstep on the part of the American administration in this episode. It was their failure to inform the Indian side of their decision to arrest Devyani before they actually went ahead with the act. The rest as they say is history. If Khurshid’s prescription had been followed, and that would be the normal course between two mature countries, then Khobragade would have been withdrawn prior to the commencement of the legal action and the matter would have been diffused.

But then it would be childlike to believe that this course was not followed through some oversight. The course adopted by the Americans shows an element of premeditation. Then there are several other components of the month-long episode that show that long before the Obama administration made the final conciliatory gesture the American side was itching to teach India some kind of a lesson and that Devyani was chosen deliberately as the most effective symbol. They knew her “Dalit’ status, and also the fact that this is an election year in India. Or else why would the American establishment ‘conspire’ with a runaway maid and collaborate with her and take her family out of India? Some low level official would indulge in such acts only when he has the confidence that he would not come in harm’s way even if his actions antagonise India. It is this confidence given to the low level functionaries by the American establishment under the guise of the expression ‘rule of law’ that permits them to get away after insulting influential and important Indians that includes ministers, film stars and all well-known persons. If anything, this episode should teach the Americans that rule of the law is one thing, and the deliberate and pre-meditated humiliation of individuals is quite another thing.

The Americans have described the Indian reaction as ‘furious’ and one is glad that they did take note of the fury. Secretary of state John Kerry did make that corrective phone call expressing regret. Or else, the initial act of arresting Devyani and putting her through a ‘strip search’ and placing her in the company of drug traffickers showed that the Americans were not bothered about the Indian reaction. Their initial response was that as a mature democracy India should be bothered about the rule of law, and should not worry too much about the humiliation of a diplomat. On the other hand the Americans were expressing surprise that the Indian side did not care about the rights of the maid that had been ill-treated and paid poor wages. Such concern about the rights of the maid can only be described as touching, if the Americans were not doing the same thing here routinely, right here in India. It is not rocket science to appreciate that drivers in India, even if they are working for the American embassy that is technically US territory are paid wages that have a parity with the Indian conditions. They don’t expect that they would be paid New York wages in New Delhi. The point in this case is that when the Indian maid Sangeeta Richards went to New York to work with the Khobragades did she expect that her wages would be at par with the American workers and hence exceed the compensation paid to the IFS officer herself? 

One can understand her point about the working hours, but to have a realistic understanding of the situation, it would be fair to assume that she would have known about that aspect as well, because house maids have long hours. These facts are essential to understanding the nature of the Khobragade-Richards dispute, before blowing it up into something that lends it a criminal nature. This only makes the point that when someone wilfully enters into a situation that he or she recognises is ab initio not up to the mark in legal terms, then it is explicit that he or she does not enter a dispute with clean hands. It is this aspect that has agitated the collective Indian mindset, and it is this element that is resented by the public opinion when the question of rule of law is raised by the Americans. At the same time, no one wishes that any maid should be forced into doing something that she resents or finds exploitative. In the sense that if Richards wanted to quit the Khobragades’ employment then she would have been allowed to walk away with dignity.

The episode has shown that notwithstanding a trade that measures $ 100 billion, relationships between two countries that adhere to similar principles can be blown up by small minds if the principals charged with the responsibility do not do their jobs. Khurshid has described it as a mini-crisis and admittedly it would be sometime before the mending takes place. The positive fallout has been that the American diplomats in India too have been brought down from high perch to the normal levels that are demanded by reciprocity. One hopes that they would be staying at that level, although the steps such as closing down the commercial activities would not be taken.

The wise course for the Americans would be to drop Devyani’s indictment, and all the proceedings against her so as to extinguish the remnants of a bitter after taste of an unsavoury episode. Or else, the impression would linger that their attempts to mend the ties are half-hearted. The Indian-born American Attorney Preet Bharara may be a champion of the rule of law, but he would always do well remember that discretion is always the better part of valour.


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Indo-US ties need course correction


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