Back in 1967, Krishnan Raghunath, India’s second secretary in Beijing, who later went on to become the country’s foreign secretary, was brutally beaten up by Mao’s Red Guards and subjected to public humiliation on the charges of “photographing sensitive military establishment”. The incident had provoked much outrage in the country and India had protested vehemently. Incidentally, at the time, Beijing had no control over the Red Guards who continued to target diplomats from other countries and even comrades of the Long March.
Forty-six years later, a similar incident has provoked a public outcry. Going by the parallels drawn by many in India’s foreign policy establishment, the arrest and ill-treatment meted out to India’s deputy consul general in New York, Devyani Khobragade, charged with willful visa fraud and underpaying her nanny, equals what happened to Raghunath, who was posted in Beijing at the height of China’s Cultural Revolution.
In terms of humiliation handed out and public reaction evoked, the Khobragade incident definitely recalls the Raghunath incident and the external affairs ministry moved decisively in restoring reciprocity in privileges enjoyed by the US diplomats in India. The anger of the Indian foreign ministry stems from the fact that the State Department didn’t inform them about the impending arrest, and along with the US embassy in New Delhi, acted in bad faith.
Angering officials who drive foreign policy imperatives doesn’t augur well for Indo-US ties which, by many accounts, have lost the traction they had during the George Bush presidency and even during President Barack Obama’s first term.
Former foreign secretary Nirupama Rao, whose term as the country’s ambassador to the US ended recently, was giving voice to the general view when she tweeted: “The much vaunted defining partnership between the two countries is so inconsequential that the US decided to treat the whole case (of Khobragade) as routine?” The incident has snowballed into an issue in poll-bound India with Khobragade’s Dalit identity adding another political dimension to the case.
So why has the incident cast a shadow on India-US ties? Addressing a joint session of the Indian Parliament in December 2010, President Obama, the first US president to visit India in his first term in office, had said, “It is my firm belief that the relationship between the United States and India — bound by our shared interests and our shared values — will be one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century”.
However, differences over a host of issues has ensured that the relationship has begun to lose its sheen. Washington has found faults with India’s nuclear liability law, which it believes comes in the way of beginning nuclear commerce with India. Though defence deals are being signed periodically, the US complains that the defence ties do not measure up to the expectations of a strategic partnership. The country also nurses a grouse against India’s intellectual property regime. Indians find their strategic partner differing with them on key regional issues such as peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan and Washington’s over-enthusiastic role in Bangladesh.
Prime minister Manmohan Singh was the first state guest of President Obama after the latter took over as the US President. In a sign of how things have changed, when Indian Prime Minister was visiting US last September, the US suggested a brief meeting with the President of less than twenty minutes and Vice President Joe Biden hosting a working lunch for Singh. After pressure from New Delhi, President Obama hosted a working lunch for Singh.
“The attention may be on the episode involving the humiliation of the Indian diplomat, but the real issues bedeviling the US-India relations go beyond it”, says Brahma Chellany, strategic affairs expert. He adds, “The row will settle if the US stops taking India for granted and agrees to treat it as a strategic partner and not as a client.”
Whether the US can be realistically expected to treat India as an equal is another issue. “We should be realistic here. The US may be a declining power. But it is by far a dominant power,” warns MK Bhadrakumar, former career diplomat and commentator. He feels India should follow a divergent policy and pursue its own interests.
That, he feels, will make US realise that India cannot be taken for granted. With a trade figure nearing 100 billion US dollars, strong people-to-people ties and an influential diaspora, among other things, India and the US have enough in common to repair the relationship that has been affected by the Khobragade incident. “Both countries share common strategic interests and both sides should iron out the differences and work together,” says Shyam Saran, former foreign secretary and a key negotiator for the India-US nuclear deal.
Read: US agrees with PM's remarks; says working to get ties on track
On Friday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that diplomacy should be given a chance to address the impasse. He termed the stand-off as a temporary aberration. However, considering the rage it has sparked in his foreign ministry, solving the Devyani issue amicably at the earliest will be the only way to get policy planners and practitioners to move forward.
“This (the Devyani case) is not an ordinary incident. While an incident or a set of incidences shouldn’t hold a relationship to ransom, addressing this issue is very important, considering the public opinion it has generated,” says Hardeep Puri, India’s former permanent representative to the United Nations. Experts like Bhadrakumar feel that while the future of the relationship between the two countries does not hinge on this one incident, efforts should be made to ensure that “US actions, such as this one, which reminds one of the Cold War era, are not repeated”.
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Expert Speak - Mending relationships
Nancy Powell, US ambassador to India
I welcome Prime Minister Singh’s statement that the Government of India attaches the highest priority to strengthening the strategic partnership between our two countries.
I look forward to increasing trade and investment that creates jobs in both countries, including civilian nuclear cooperation; to continuing consultations on Afghanistan and other key international issues to protect both of our interests in the region; to expanding counter-terrorism and law enforcement cooperation; and to encouraging more travel in both directions by students, business representatives, and other citizens.
I’ve spent 34 years in or around India and enjoyed every moment of it. I look forward, in 2014, to celebrating the multiple ways our two great nations can continue to build both a stronger and broader partnership. Happy New Year.
Lalitman Singh, Former foreign secretary and former Indian ambassador to the US
If we focus too much on one single issue, it would appear that the entire relationship, which is a strategic partnership, is held hostage to that one problem. The Devyani Khobragade incident is a problem that needs to be addressed. In diplomacy, if you don’t attend to such issues, they can affect the entire relationship. But this one incident shouldn’t be made out to be an insurmountable issue.
The India-US relationship is multi-dimensional and it is broad-based. It is an enduring partnership. However, I must say there is a perception-crisis about the relationship. There was a lot of buzz about the relationship when George W Bush was the US President.
He was convinced that India was a very important partner for him. Unlike his predecessor, President Barack Obama thinks with his head. At the same time, both India and US were preoccupied by overwhelming domestic issues in recent times. But the relationship has definitely moved forward under Obama.
President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to the India-US relationship and it has been expanding consistently. Now, we in India are in election mode. All foreign countries will like to wait and watch to know who is going to come to power next. (As told to JJ)
From Khobragade's diary
August 2012: Devyani Khobragade (DK) hired Sangeeta Richard (SR) as her domestic assistant, with the idea of taking her to the USA as her India-based domestic assistant (IBDA). At that time, DK was Director (Consular, Passport and Visa) in the MEA. In Delhi, SR’s salary was a prorated monthly salary of Rs. 25,000, plus a Rs. 5,000 lumpsum to cover overtime work if required. This amount, Rs. 30,000, was referred to as “basic pay”.
September 2012: DK as designated Deputy Consul General, New York assisted SR in obtaining an official Indian government passport.
October 15: DK, as Director (CPV) and designated DCG-NY, was requested by SR, who claimed she could not operate a computer, to assist her in submitting an electronic form DS-160. In this form, DK & SR filled the amount $4,500 in a box asking for the salary details of the employer (that is, DCG-NY, insists DK).
November 11: DK, as DCG-NY designate, and SR signed the state-department mandated employment contract, which guaranteed SR an hourly wage of $9.75 and indicated certain benefits and stated that impermissible deductions would not be made. It projected an average of 40 working hours per week (= approximately a salary of $1560 per month) and stipulated off days, as required by the US Dept of State for receiving the A-3 visa.
November, 2012: SR requested DK to continue to pay her “basic pay” of `30,000 per month into her bank account in New Delhi
November 23: India-based contract was signed on DK paying SR `30,000 in India
November 24: SR commenced her official employment for DCG-NY in New York..
November 24 to June 22,2013: SR was paid as per the stipulations of the November 11 contract as per actual hours worked. SR’s average work hours would not usually total more than 40. She allegedly also received many more actual sick leaves, holidays, and off days than required in the contract. At $9.75 p/h for 40-hour work weeks, SR was owed approximately $1560 per month. Approximately $560 (`30,000) of this $1560 was being paid to her in India. The remaining $1000 was paid to her monthly in NY.
June 24, 2013: Office of the foreign missions in NY informed of SR’s disappearance.
July 3: Consulate General of India office seeks US help in tracing SR.
September 4: US state department wrote to Indian embassy, saying Devyani’s case is a matter of considerable concern to them.
October 8: Indian embassy writes to US state department, reiterates the request to repatriate SR and to forestall her efforts to “illegally emigrate” to the US
December 12: DK arrested and subjected to strip search and cavity search and later released on bail