Amid the furore caused by the arrest of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade in the United States, the release on Thursday of Indian sailors Sunil James and Vijayan by the authorities in Togo could easily have gone unnoticed. Both sailors were arrested in July this year — by all accounts, they had simply disembarked in Togo to report a pirate attack on their oil tanker. In an apparent instance of confusion, the Togo police charged them with the grave offence of aiding piracy. Criminal proceedings were initiated against both, and their families reliably informed that the trial would go on for an extended period of time. They were released after the Indian High Commissioner in neighbouring Ghana met the President of Togo to present their case. Given that the health of Mr. James and Mr. Vijayan had deteriorated, this diplomatic intervention by Indian and Togolese officials came not a moment too soon. Meanwhile, Mr. James’s son, all of 11 months old, died of illness earlier this month. By securing his release, the Indian government has ensured that the sailor gets to attend his son’s funeral. But it needs mention that the plight of the jailed men was taken up in earnest only after the death of Mr. James’s son came to the attention of the media and public.
In this respect, a common thread runs through the arrests of Ms. Khobragade and the two sailors. Both cases indicate that Indian diplomacy has been too slow to respond to crises that were long in the making. Ms. Khobragade’s harsh treatment at the hands of U.S. authorities is a by-product of India’s inability to tackle a serious legal and humanitarian issue through diplomatic channels. If there was a chance to negotiate a mutually accepted understanding of how U.S. visa rules and minimum wage laws would apply to domestic help employed by Indian diplomats in the country, New Delhi did not exercise it. Similarly, Mr. James and Mr. Vijayan were languishing in a Togo jail for six months before South Block took up their cases. The alacrity with which the Ministry of External Affairs has intervened in Ms. Khobragade’s case sits uncomfortably with its lax attempts to resolve the open-and-shut case involving the sailors. India’s diplomatic establishment needs to formulate a policy that deals with the concerns of Indians abroad — not just of diplomats but of sailors, businesspersons, fishermen and others. As the global and business profile of India increases, it is only natural that more Indians find themselves in legal and diplomatic crosshairs around the world. Resolving their concerns effectively while deferring to the national laws of other states should be accorded a higher priority than has been in evidence.