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Devyani Khobragade row: Time we returned the insult to US liberally

The despicable treatment of Devyani Khobragade, Indian Deputy Consul general in New York, should be another wake up call for India and talk-circuit liberals. If you do not have the means to project power effectively, the world will walk all over you.

It is good that India is in a mood to retaliate, but it is important for us to persist with it long after this is over. Moreover, we should equip ourselves with more laws to target foreign countries that use their domestic laws to blackmail or humiliate us. We should not take such affronts lying down anymore.

In a limited sense, the transgressions of US minimum wages law by Khobragade will draw the usual Indian liberal nonsense: if we are in contravention of their law, we are the guilty party. Worse, some of us will also express sneaking admiration for the US's ability to enforce its own law, as opposed to our own inability - or systemic unwillingness - to enforce ours.

Not only is this a naïve view, but bull. Hear what Khobragade had to say about her arrest, and judge for yourself if this is the right way to deal with a brech of minimum wages law. The Indian Express, quoting from her email to colleagues, has this Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officer saying this about her horrifying experience. “I must admit that I broke down many times as the indignities of repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches, swabbing, hold up with common criminals and drug addicts were all being imposed upon me despite my incessant assertions of immunity.”

Devyani Khobdagade. IBN Live.

Devyani Khobdagade. IBN Live.

Our general assumption that the US law enforcers are merely doing their duty is rubbish. If alleged violation of US visa laws by Infosys can be settled with a fine, why couldn't the US have done so for Khobragade? Or is a woman diplomat fair game for US law enforcers?

Indians are the most gullible goops in the world when it comes to discerning the difference between an honest effort to implement the law and using laws to project power and blackmail other countries. The American government is the most sophisticated legally illegal enterprise in the world when it comes to dealing with people from other countries. And Americans are one of the most sophisticated bigots in the world.

There are two reasons why we are so bad at recognising this: one is because we are very poor readers of real intent as we have not studied the west on our terms. The second reason is even worse: we are the most compromised individuals when it comes to America. Every bureaucrat and politician and media hack sends his or her children to America or Europe to study, or is given high paying jobs in US multinationals. Thus, many of them would have received favours from the American establishment. So when it comes to standing up to America to defend our own interests, our worthies are unable to take a strong view on what is right for our country.

There is also a third reason: we are simply too self-absorbed and willing to forget and move on in the pursuit of narrow, short-term personal interest. The Americans will go to the ends of the earth to pursue Osama bin Laden or even their own Islamic terrorists for 10 years. We will forget Hafiz Saeed five years after 26/11. The Americans will not let us forget 2002 – not because they care about the Muslims they themselves ostracise in their own country, but because it is a useful stick to hold over someone who could be our next PM.

There is also another counter-intuitive reason why we are unable to see American bad faith: America does not use its laws to harass its own citizens, while we do the exact opposite. Thus we are willing to stretch the argument and believe that America must be using its laws fairly against the rest of the world.

What absolute rot. The truth is American agencies have sophisticated ways of using their laws against foreigners to defend their interests. Their laws may oppose torture, so they will use Guantanamo Bay to for torture and waterboarding against prisoners. President Obama vowed to shut it down, but Guantanamo is still around. Even if it is shut, they will ask allies in brutal Africa or Thailand to do their dirty work.

Americans are forbidden by their own laws to indulge is assassinations abroad, but Obama has converted the CIA into a killing machine. Two years ago, they killed one of their own nationals – Anwar al-Awlaki, for example - because of his alleged terror links (not proven in a court of law). The Americans regularly use drones against civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan and South Yemen on the plea that one among them may be a terrorist. To have plausible deniability, they even use private surveillance and security agencies as surrogate CIA agents. (Read Mark Mazzetti's eyeopening book, The Way of the Knife, to get a glimpse into this).

Their freedom of religion laws will be used against the one country which actually allows everyone to practice and propagate his religion (India), but top allies like Saudi Arabia will get a free pass on this law. America will swear by free markets to lobby for Wal-mart, but will not recognise freedom for labour movement. Is free enterprise only about the movement of capital and not other factors of production?

The Americans practice sophisticated racism. Thus they will use a Preet Bharara to target Khobragade (or Rajat Gupta or Raj Rajaratnam) so that it looks like Indian-Americans are implementing the law, and hence not racist, but the same laws will not be used to humiliate the Hispanics or Afro-Americans or the Saudis or American icons like the late Steve Jobs or to convict Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton. (Read the comments on a Washington Post story on Preet Bharara, where the commenter accuses Bharara of not following up on the alleged misdemeanours of some pillars of the American judicial establishment.)

Americans, despite paying very little of the UN bill, will not allow US soldiers to serve under generals of another nation, and Americans accused of war crimes cannot be tried anywhere else but in holier-than-thou US of A.

I can go on and on, but we must focus on the one issue I still left unaddressed: what do the Americans gain by targeting Khobragade? Or, for that matter, by denying Narendra Modi a visa, especially since Americans have always extolled business friendly politicians everywhere? Modi ought to have been their natural ally?

In the Khobragade case, my guess is that the US government and arrogant Preet Bharara miscalculated on how India will respond. They thought there will be the usual diplomatic muttering under the breath and then business as usual. Moreover, the US can always count on compromised bureaucrats and corrupt politicians to abandon their own diplomat.

But two things conspired to stiffen Indian spines. One, the IFS officers' body is not going to see one of their own humiliated thus. And two, Narendra Modi is another reason. The UPA has hanged Afzal Guru and Ajmal Kasab to undercut Modi’s hard appeal, and Modi is due in Mumbai on 22 December. Khobragade is Mumbai's child and her father was a city bureaucrat before retirement. One can imagine how Modi would have damned the UPA for cowardice when he addresses Mumbai crowds.

Which brings me to the last motive: why deny Modi a visa if you know he could well be the next PM? The US would never do this to a Saudi King, a Pakistani General or a Vladimir Putin or a Mossad agent, or a Chinese official, no matter what kind of atrocities they may have committed in their own countries.

The answer is simple: the earlier visa denial was driven by the need to pander to the domestic evangelical organisations which were baying for Modi’s blood. Evangelicals believe that Modi may act against their conversions agenda. The second reason is future leverage. The Americans want to use the visa as a bargaining chip in case Modi is the next PM, even though they hope he won’t become the PM. They fear that he will play hardball – exactly what the US does always. The US fears its own kind more than weak-kneed Indians politicians.

It is critical that India should not close the chapter on the Khobragade affair for a few conciliatory noises. We have to bare our fangs and show some muscle. The chances are the US will do a deal and extract concessions from the UPA government to let Khobragade off the hook. And the Indian side will bow to this blackmail and claim their hard stance has paid off and declare victory.

I hope this story does not play out. There are times when we have to show we are Indians, and this is one of those times. The only right response to the Khobragade insult is to treat Americans the same way they treat our kind: catch hold of a technical violator of Indian law, do some handcuffing and "cavity searches" on some of the men arrested, and then bargain about Khobragade. At the very least, we should target Preet Bharara for humiliating an Indian diplomat and make sure he never enters this country again.