Fury of the meekest

After the U.S. indictment and de facto expulsion of the New York-based Indian woman diplomat who was arrested and strip searched, it is important to remember that India’s only tangible response to the entire episode has been to withdraw some unilateral privileges to U.S. diplomats and consular officials that it shouldn’t have extended in the first place.

Brahma Chellaney, India Today, January 13, 2014

America’s demeaning strip and cavity search of an Indian diplomat in breach of international norms has become a symbol of a once-flourishing bilateral relationship gone awry. The U.S. and India entered into a much-ballyhooed strategic partnership, not a patron-client relationship. With 27 military allies, the U.S., however, is used to a patron-client equation, not a partnership, which demands some degree of equivalence and mutual respect. It thus began to take India for granted, and appeared genuinely surprised that India reacted to Devyani Khobragade’s humiliation as if it were the proverbial straw threatening to break its back.

U.S.’s “problem” with India extends well beyond this episode. For example, almost one-third of all T visas it has issued worldwide to victims of extremely grave sex or labour trafficking have been to Indians, thus mocking the most-populous democracy’s judicial system. The manner in which it spirited out of India the family of Khobragade’s maid on T visas and with tax-exempt tickets improperly procured by its embassy, paradoxically, was tantamount to an act of state-sponsored trafficking. The action had an openly conspiratorial ring to it: No sooner had the U.S., playing global cop, “evacuated” the maid’s family from its home country than it arrested Khobragade.

Make no mistake: America would not have dared to arrest and strip search a Chinese or Russian diplomat for allegedly underpaying a maid because that would have invited swift and disproportionate retaliation. In fact, just one week before Khobragade’s arrest, Preetinder Singh Bharara—the rogue prosecutor in New York who likes to be addressed as “Preet” or “Pete” when in reality he is Mr. Pretender—charged a number of Russian diplomats and consular officials for defrauding Medicaid of $1.5 million. But before unveiling the charges, the defendants were allowed to leave the US.

What has been India’s response to the insults heaped on it, or what the incredible Manmohan Singh called “some hiccups”? Don’t let all the sound and fury spook you: India’s only response thus far has been to start withdrawing non-reciprocal privileges to US diplomatic and consular staff and their families.

In a classic case of impotent fury, India made no effort to try to penalize the U.S. Indeed, India did the exact opposite by rewarding America with a new mega-contract—a $1.01-billion deal for additional C-130J military aircraft. Its demand for a formal apology has dissipated. It did not even hold back its new ambassador from taking charge in Washington until the U.S. made some amends. Why blame the U.S. for taking liberties when India’s toadying foreign minister has hailed NSA’s notorious global surveillance as “only a computer study” and “not snooping”?

Indeed, no Indian is asking the key question: Why did India in the first place unilaterally extend the privileges to U.S. diplomatic and consular staff that it is now withdrawing? India’s servility went to the extent of granting family members of U.S. consular officials a degree of diplomatic immunity for which they were ineligible. Ignoring its own security protocol, India handed out identity-less airport passes usable by any diplomat or consular official.  India’s VVIPs, often seeking visas and other favours for their relatives, blocked New Delhi’s Nyaya Marg (the road behind the U.S. Embassy) to graciously allow U.S. Embassy personnel to visit the American Club without having to cross a public street.

New Delhi made no effort over the years to ensure that those working in American schools and other non-diplomatic U.S. government facilities in India were employed in compliance with Indian labour laws, which mandate, among other things, income tax and provident fund deductions. U.S. diplomats’ spouses worked in American schools and other U.S. facilities without seeking host-nation permission or paying taxes on their earnings. India turned a blind eye to such violations, which, if they occurred in the U.S., would land a violator in serious trouble, possibly even in jail.

India has now asked a reluctant U.S. Embassy to supply all the relevant details. Will the Embassy come clean? Who will crack the enforcement whip? India’s compromised governing elites?

There is yet another unanswered question: When there was a non-bailable Indian warrant against Khobragade’s absconding maid, how did Indian immigration allow her family to leave on “T” visas? True, a family cannot be liable for an absconding member. Yet Indian immigration and intelligence should have smelt a rat that the family was leaving on “trafficking” visas.

Clearly, Indian authorities have a lot to answer for. India—having absorbed no lesson from the case involving U.S. informant David Headley—must blame itself for inviting the latest outrage. Indeed, what was billed as India’s atypically tough response has ended in a whimper, reinforcing the country’s lamb-like image.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

(c) India Today, 2014.