Devyani Khobragade returns from US but India's still the loser

India's decision to bring Devyani Khobragade back after the US granted her diplomatic immunity is actually a near defeat for us - assuming we are going to let it rest there. Khobragade's return merely removes the immediate threat of her facing charges in court, but the charges remain and Khobragade cannot obviously return to the US without diplomatic immunity. And there is little chance the US will ever gracefully give her that, even though her husband and children are American citizens.

Moreover, the US has not even apologised for failing to respect Khobragade's diplomatic immunity - which ultimately led to her arrest and strip and 'cavity search'. The US marshal service has denied any cavity search but there is no reason why we should believe them rather than our own diplomat.



The situation as it stands now is a mere stalemate - and totally unsatisfactory from an Indian point of view.There is clearly more we need to do to set Indo-US relations on a foundation of respect and reciprocity. We cannot let the matter rest here and there are lessons to learn from it.

First, we have to go after every US diplomat who breaks our laws with the same diligence the US does even after Khobragade is back. We have to get them booked and brought to court, though we can spare them the "cavity searches." It does not matter if the offences relate to traffic violations or underpayment of Indian staff. If we do not have a US citizen facing arrest here, we cannot have a bargaining chip to get the charges against Khobragade dropped.

Second, the measures taken against US embassy staff and others - withdrawal of liquor permits, removal of the road barriers outside the Delhi embassy, etc - should remain. These were unilateral benefits we gave without any need to do so. The US does not give us any such concessions on its territory. Nor should we. Unlike what US commentators have said, this is not about compromising security since the vigil has actually been enhanced after the removal of barriers.

Third, we have to now develop our own capabilities to track US spies operating in India under the guise of diplomacy. In Pakistan, the CIA and other US spies are tracked and checked at every point. They are watched all the time. While it is true that they (the Pakistanis) have much to hide (their terror outfits, etc), if we do not do the same it will give us no leverage. The reason why the US will not help us bring David Coleman Headley to justice for his role in 26/11 is because he was a double-agent - he spied for the US and helped the jihadis. This is the price we pay for harbouring a naïve belief that US spies operating in India have nothing but our best interests at heart. We cannot be so foolish.

Four, we have to ensure that the Richard family - which was spirited away from India under the plea that Khobragade was indulging in human trafficking and her family was under threat here - continue to face trial in Indian courts. If they can keep Khobragade away from her US husband, we should ensure that the Richards can never return here - unless it is to face justice.

Five, the special entry and freedom from frisking that we offer US officials should be withdrawn. And remain so, unless there is complete reciprocity.

Six, there is this business about maids. Perhaps we have to abandon the idea in future, or pay our diplomats more, so that they can afford creches and maids at US rates for their children. Or we may have to negotiate a deal with the US that dependent nannies need not be paid local wages - just as Indian employees of US consular staff need not be paid US wages.

However, we should continue to insist on US consulate staff giving us all the details of the staff they employ, the wages they pay, and the hours they work - to check if they are in contravention of our laws. We must rigorously pursue this even after the Khobragade affair is buried.

Seven, a complete eyeopener to us should be how the US media behaved with regards to Khobragade. Barring a few stray voices, almost all US newspapers had no sympathy for India's side of the story, even though there was huge criticism in our media - even bitter and insulting ones - on Khobragade. Many on our side actually stood with the US against our own diplomat. Almost no US journo did so on their side. What does this tell us about our fawning attitude to the US?

Eight, the diplomatic immunity and maid underpayment issues have been needlessly conflated in the Indian media. Quite apart from the fact that Sangeeta Richard was not ill-treated in any way by Khobragade, and that she was a willing partner in the visa misstatement (she went along with it as she wanted to emigrate to the US), we cannot use Khobragade's alleged local standing (she was apparently a beneficiary in the Adarsh Society flat allotments) to conclude that the US can violate her diplomatic status.

To give a more extreme analogy - should we condone a molestation just because the woman concerned may not be all that squeaky clean in her financial dealings? The two crimes have to be dealt with separately. She may be a victim in one crime and a perpetrator in another. But that does not give us the freedom to abandon her in the crime where she is the victim.

Nine, too much nonsense has been written on the subject of maids and their treatment in India just because Khobragade's case involves a maid and her underpayment. Richard was well looked after by Indian standards, and this case has nothing to do with the general issue of ill-treatment of maids in India. Khobragade's crime is underpayment by US standards - which is a legal lapse but not an ethical or moral one. The ethical or moral one relates to Richard, who used Khobragade to realise her dream of settling in the US.

So the key lesson for us Indians is this: we have to stand by our people when they are targeted abroad. It does not matter if those Indians may not be so well thought of here. The US stood by a man - Raymond Davis - who killed two people in Pakistan but the Americans bailed him out even though he was not a diplomat and had no immunity.

This is what we should learn from the US: stand by your own people when they are in trouble. And fight your local battles locally.

Updated Date: Jan 10, 2014 16:43 PM

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