Curious Case of Devyani Khobragade

It is interesting how, Indian deputy consul general to the US, Devyani Khobragade’s detention on visa fraud has opened a can of worms. It points fingers at both India and the US. What has surprised the world, including Indians, is that a country that has been reluctant about commenting or making a statement or taking a stand on any international issue, has reacted vociferously to the diplomat’s arrest.
While there have been reports that Ms Khobragade was strip-searched and ill-treated during the interrogation process by the US Marshals, there is no clarity whether this is true. These are automatic, non-discriminatory and legal post-arrest procedures, yet they violate a person’s dignity.
The interrogating officials, on the other hand, say Ms Khobragade was allowed to keep her cellphone to make calls and was treated “in the right manner”, in contrast to her claims of being arrested in front of her child.

According to the 1961 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, a foreign diplomat enjoys full diplomatic immunity which forbids arrest of consular officials except for grave crimes. They are immune from prosecution in a host country even if they break the law.
In a story BBC explains: “It does not matter if you are working or off-duty (though back home you can be prosecuted). If you are a consul, however, you are only shielded if you break the law while you are working.”
One has to understand that diplomatic immunity is different from consular immunity. “For that reason, Ms Khobragade, as deputy consul general, could be prosecuted for the crimes she has been accused of. If you are a consular general, you have consular immunity, rather than diplomatic immunity,” BBC adds.
Under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (1963), individuals are protected from a host country’s laws only when the offences are related to their consular duties.
There are different rules for ambassadors because of their responsibilities. A consul general helps people from their home country with visas, trade and other issues. Meanwhile, a diplomat works directly with people in the host country.

Hiring a maid isn’t a consular official’s duty
BBC further adds: “According to federal-court documents, Ms Khobragade claimed on a visa application that she would pay a maid, Sangeeta Richard, $4,500 (£2,746) a month. That is the minimum required by labour laws.”
“In fact, said US investigators, two contracts were drawn up. One paid Ms Richard $573 per month. Hiring a maid is not part of a deputy consul’s job. Therefore, a consular general could be prosecuted for offences relating to the hiring of domestic staff. Diplomats get immunity for everything – your maids, your murders. But if you’re a consular general and you’re off the clock…”
Even after Indian officials have moved Ms Khobragade to the United Nations, there is no guarantee that she would get full immunity as consular immunity doesn’t protect her completely. Also because, it has to be signed by the US state department officials.
Following this, an angered central government withdrew certain privileges for United States diplomats based in India. While some of it is justified, as The Hindu editorial points out, this attitude also shows how Indian(s) politicians have always seen the West as superiors. For instance: Any White person is given utmost importance as if we are a less civilised society. (Though part of it is true). The point I’m trying to make here is, Indians always go the extra mile to appease the whites, forgetting or compromising on their own dignity. May be, a result of the colonial mindset inherent in this country.
Interestingly, India seems to ignore serious fraud charges against the Indian consular official on accounts of inflating the domestic worker’s (Sangita Richards who went missing from Devyani’s residence in June this year) pay and underpaying her.
This also points to a common trend where most Indians do not treat their domestic workers with respect and that the concept of dignity of labour is almost non-existent for them. Given that domestic workers fall under the unorganised sector in the country, there is no set payscale for them. In Devyani’s case, the maid has alleged that she was compelled to overwork and yet was underpaid.

Some of the observations are:
1. Why is India spewing venom on the US only in this case? Known for shutting its mouth on a lot of internationally relevant issues including Edward Snowden’s case, Internet censorship and others, one understands that this is yet another stunt ahead of the 2014 general elections.
2. The West doesn’t take India seriously. Aware of the internally weak political system and the bickering between political parties, they know India is country of words and not actions.
3. Like a TOI editorial says stigmatisation of India in the West is still rampant. “Would the US react in same way so blithely if a Chinese or Brazilian rather than Indian diplomat had been involved. So what is it that differentiates China or Brazil from India? One, it’s well known they are no pushovers and will retaliate measure for measure. And two, they are perceived as growing economies in which the West has a stake, and therefore, worth listening to.”
4. If India can take stock of the situation soon and stop the short-sighted aggression and, the US mend its ways in dealing with the issue, both countries will mutually benefit.
Like the Hindu suggests: “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.”

At least now the country should realize that it has to match the West at its game and take its people seriously. That requires a relentless focus on the economy, instead of mucking around with identity politics which in the end impoverishes all religions and castes.

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2 thoughts on “Curious Case of Devyani Khobragade

  1. There is something fishy about the entire Devyani deal no matter which angle you look at it from. Given the surprisingly strong reaction from the government (hey, our people get flak everywhere, Pakistan, China, even New Zealand and Australia!) one cannot but help wonder why.

    On the other hand, US is not likely to take such a step without having adequate reason. This is the lady who claims says she wishes to contribute towards Dalit and gender equality in her country. Her actions surely do not match her words.

    Her family connections are also something that should be looked deeper into.

    Good piece of writing.

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