People protest against the arrest of Devyani Khobragade, an Indian consular officer in New York, outside the US consulate in Hyderabad.
The arrest and hand-cuffing of India’s deputy consul general (DCG) Devyani Khobragade in New York as if she is a criminal with all the intrusive personal indignities heaped on a “felon” by the US manuals raises serious questions about India-US bilateral equations and the unilateralist manner in which the US interprets the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (VCCR).
This humiliation has been consciously inflicted by the US authorities ignoring its political implications. It could have been avoided since there is nothing in the case that could have compelled them to take this drastic step. If the US authorities felt that denying the maid the US minimum wage was intolerable, they could have sought the DCG’s expulsion. Instead, they have themselves — not the maid — filed the case against the DCG by contriving a legal cover for their extreme step by claiming that she had committed visa fraud by falsely declaring the maid’s wages.
There is much chicanery involved here. Indian diplomats taking domestic staff to the US accept the minimum wage requirement when all concerned, including the US visa services and the State Department, know this is done pro-forma to have the paper work in order. To imagine that the US authorities are duped into believing that our diplomats will pay their domestic staff more than what they earn is absurd. The US authorities have been clearing such visas for years to practically resolve the contradiction between reality and the letter of the law.
Any US concerns about this practical approach exposing our diplomats to potentially lethal legal consequences do not seem to have been amicably addressed at the official level despite the numerous dialogues that we boast of to underline our transformed bilateral ties. Absurdly, US authorities first recognise domestic staff as officials because visas are affixed on their official passports (without insisting on affixing them only on ordinary passports) and subsequently de-recognising their official status by subjecting them to local employment laws. The VCCR does not require that home-based domestic staff be treated as local American employees. The other ludicrous implication of the DCG’s case is that any Indian national giving wrong information on a US visa form can be hauled into a US prison at the whim of US authorities.
The US sees no moral wrong in our diplomats and our India-based service staff being paid far less than their US counterparts, but feels morally outraged if our domestic staff is not paid according to the US standards. Their moral sensibilities are not aroused when their own consular diplomats, paid extra in hardship postings like India, give slave wages to their Indian staff, disregarding their own laws on what is technically sovereign US territory.
The Americans adhere to or ignore international law as it suits them. Their abusive interpretation of the VCCR cannot be challenged before any international adjudicatory body. Powerful countries can insist on their own interpretation and weaker countries have to adjust. While the US is cavalier about diplomatic immunity applicable to other countries, it seeks total immunity for its own personnel stationed in foreign countries as an entitlement. The case of Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor attached to its consulate in Lahore who murdered two Pakistani citizens in a street shoot-out, is an egregious example.
Would the US authorities have treated the DCG of Russia or China in the same way it treated our DCG? Tellingly, they have recently expelled, not arrested, several Russian diplomats for defrauding the US healthcare system, a crime that cost the US exchequer. Our DCG not paying her maid the minimum wage did not cost the US exchequer a penny. The US is more careful with countries where their stakes are higher or where the threat of retaliation is more real.
This unfortunate episode reveals a lack of respect for India and a belief that we will not react forcefully. The State Department, instead of expressing regrets, can, therefore, be flippant in observing that this incident should not affect bilateral ties.
Unfortunately, because of numerous cases of maltreatment of domestic staff in India and some cases abroad, the egregiousness of US action in humiliating a senior Indian diplomat is escaping proper public understanding. The lady DCG, whose diplomatic passport has been impounded, is in for a long torment. Whatever our unmerited prejudices against our career diplomats and grievances about the efficiency of our consular services in missions, we should not forget that our diplomats abroad represent the country’s sovereignty. Debasing them is demeaning India and its sovereign status.
The government has rightly called the US action unacceptable. Concrete reciprocal action should follow to signal that there is a price to pay for wilfully humiliating our diplomatic representatives. Some steps have already been taken. A systematic review of the privileges accorded to the US government personnel in India should be made and the principle of reciprocity strictly enforced in stages as the case in New York proceeds. The US has already self-inflicted a big price for its high-handedness as the Indian Foreign Service is seething with anger against it with a lasting fallout on the relationship at the diplomatic level.
Kanwal Sibal is a former foreign secretary, Government of India
The views expressed by the author are personal