The dismissal of visa fraud charges against India’s former Deputy Consul-General in New York, Devyani Khobragade, does not mean she has been fully absolved of wrongdoing, but it does provide an opportunity for India and the United States to pursue the path of normalisation in their bilateral relations. The New York District Court did not go into the merits of the charges against her, but decided the matter on the technical ground that she enjoyed diplomatic immunity after she was accredited to India’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations. This immunity was acquired during the pendency of criminal proceedings for allegedly giving false information to procure a visa for her housekeeper and it was a status that India cloaked her with to avoid a felony trial. India’s refusal to waive her immunity led to the host country asking her to leave. A fresh indictment, however, is still possible. This means Ms. Khobragade will never be able to return to the U.S., unless she is prepared to face fresh prosecution. India’s guarded reaction — welcoming the outcome but noting that the verdict is silent on the merits of the case as well as the legality of her unseemly arrest and intrusive body search — indicates that it expects a little more from the United States. By saying “the government hopes to see further progress in this matter in a manner consistent with international norms and conventions,” India is seeking a permanent closure of the case. A remark by a State Department spokesman that the U.S. administration is “surprised” by the court ruling is intriguing, as it knew all along that diplomatic immunity created a jurisdictional bar on her prosecution.
The road ahead for both the countries lies in putting behind the frostiness created by the episode and restoring their high-level engagement. Both countries understand the need to restore trust and moderation in bilateral relations. The dismissal of her indictment paves the way for this, but there are issues that remain to be addressed. India has to strengthen the principle of reciprocity in dealings with other nations. It needs to devise a code of conduct under which its officials posted abroad will not violate domestic laws. It needs a policy on consular and diplomatic officials engaging domestic workers so that there is no room for suspicion of human trafficking. On a wider canvas, the country needs legislation to protect domestic workers from under-payment and exploitation. The U.S., on the other hand, will have to introspect on its overall approach: its failure to anticipate the fallout of the arrest, the manner of the arrest and its controversial decision to “evacuate” the family of the maid at the centre of the storm in an obviously pre-emptive move.