Outrage and overreaction

December 19, 2013 01:58 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:37 pm IST

It is not surprising that the details of the treatment to which Devyani Khobragade, the Indian deputy-consul in New York, was subjected after her roadside arrest on charges of fudging her domestic help’s visa forms and underpaying her have caused an uproar. A strip search, examination of body cavities and the possible use of restraints other than handcuffs such as waist chains and shackles, are grossly over-the-top steps to use against any detained person. These are automatic, non-discriminatory and legal post-arrest procedures, but that does not make them any better. Ms. Khobragade, even under her limited consular immunity, was entitled to be treated with dignity. Angered, New Delhi has retaliated by withdrawing certain privileges for United States diplomats based in India. While some of this outrage is justified and rightly seeks to establish that the international diplomatic community lives and works in a world of reciprocal terms and conditions, in the current atmosphere of nationalist fury, it is all too easy to take it too far. The government should take no steps that compromise the security of the U.S. Embassy in Delhi. It must be remembered that under the same Vienna Convention, the host state is under “a special duty” to protect embassy and consular premises.

Never known for taking on the U.S on substantive policy issues, the government’s unusually aggressive reactions — and those of political parties too — on behalf of a diplomat, smell of political considerations ahead of an election. From the Prime Minister and Ministers of Home and External Affairs to the Bahujan Samaj Party leader, everyone has weighed in on her side. In the furore, it has been all but forgotten that there are serious charges against the diplomat, and that the domestic worker is also an Indian. It is certainly odd that the domestic worker’s family was able to obtain visas to travel to the U.S even while Ms. Khobragade’s request to have her traced remained pending. Despite Indian diplomats being embroiled in similar cases in the past, each time blaming the domestic worker’s motives — in all previous cases, the complainant got long-term residency in the U.S — the government has only now started giving serious thought to managing the practice of officials taking domestic staff along on postings abroad. Both sides could have found a mutually acceptable way to defuse the controversy — often in such cases, the issue is closed by withdrawing the diplomat. That the government chose instead to transfer Ms. Khobragade to India’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York, with a view to enhancing her immunity, is questionable and casts India’s claim of a nation ruled by law in poor light.

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