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Finally concluded – the saga of Devyani Khobragade




How quickly items can vanish from the news and from consciousness. The controversy over the Devyani arrest in New York was literally front page news for a month, and during this time, it seemed that the United States and India are adversaries, what with the amount of analysis of various actions taken by the authorities in each country. I will not repeat the circumstances of her arrest, although there are a lot of controversies about the cavity search, whether it happened or not, and what was the exact process of a cavity search. This post instead focuses on some of the key points raised by people.
There is very little doubt that technically Devyani was guilty of visa fraud, and of signing a contract with her maid Sangeeta Richard which showed a much lower payment amount than the one promised as per the visa form. That is something that the Indian Government needs to handle quickly, since the apparent process followed by Devyani is what others also do, so these other Indian consular officers and diplomats are in as much danger as Devyani. The entire controversy is about not paying as per minimum wage and hiding that during the visa process. There are a number of creative solutions being posed by many people, but one wonders as to why a simple strategy cannot be used. Since the maids typically live with the consular officer or the diplomats, the Indian Government should either send them to the US with a official passport and visa, or charge them for boarding and lodging, living by the law of the land. If a US citizen or diplomat came to India, we would expect them to live as per the law of the land, and not live as per whatever law or practices they were following in the US.
The timeline of this case showcases problems both in the US side and in the Indian side. This case has been progressing since June-July when Devyani reported that her maid, Sangeeta Richards was missing; and ever since then, there have been many exchanges of information between the Indian embassy and the US state department; however, when the Indian embassy was aware that there have been issues in the past about maids alleging mistreatment by diplomats, and where these individuals have managed to prove in US courts that there was exploitation, they should have been more proactive about how to respond. In the end, after a back and forth between the state department and the embassy in September-October, there did not seem to have been any discussion about whether this was a run of the mill issue, or whether this issue could escalate. If the US state department did not bother to tell the Indian embassy that this kind of action was expected, that is also an indicator of how far apart these diplomatic wings of the 2 countries have gone.
When this entire process of arrest and being taken to jail before getting bailed out happened, there was a further issue. As per the letter of the law (and which is a bit vague about what a grave crime could be), a consular officer of a country can be arrested in the host country except when the matter relates to something to do with consular operations, and in the US, being arrested means that a person is searched (strip-searched) so that they cannot conceal anything with them when they get to the jail. This is what happened to Devyani, but at the same time, not everything happens as per the letter of the law, especially when it comes to international law. And this is where the outrage that happened her was about – what was the need for doing a strip-search of Devyani, could she not have been exempted ? There have been earlier problems when people have been searched in the US and the concerned Indian person raises a hue and cry. This is a fundamental problem in India, where there is a large list of people who are exempted from security checks, and that sounds crazy. Why should anybody be exempted from a security check ? Security demands that everybody be checked before getting into a plane, and India needs to move in that direction.
When this entire episode happened, there was a lot of discussion about an Indian response. The response has been uneasy, primarily increasing the uncomfortable living of Americans who are posted in Delhi. So, cut in duty-free, preventing a club from admitting non-diplomats, and so on. In almost all of these cases, these are services provided in the US embassy that are certainly not available to Indian diplomats in the US. However, right from the beginning, the media campaign was all about highlighting punishment steps, but actually, the correct response would have been to talk about these as privileges not being available to Indian diplomats and consular officers, and since the US believed in proper application of the law, the Indian Government would also like to apply the law of reciprocity in removing these privileges. The further correct response would be to ensure reciprocity is the name of the game going forward.
One lasting lesson from all this: International diplomacy is all about doing the best for one’s own country. The US is the most important country in the world and things should get back to as much normal as is possible, but at the same time, do not have any ridiculous romantic notions of the US fighting India’s battles. And for god’s sake, there was a maid involved, Sangeeta Richards. Before proceeding to blame her, it would be nice to find out whether her accusations are true and she was exploited.




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