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Saving Face/Climbing Down
Solving The Simmering India-US Diplomat Disagreement

The dispute between India and the United States over the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York is still on a low boil:

India’s diplomatic corps, still seething over the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York, continued its tit-for-tat campaign against American diplomats this week, revoking privileges, beginning tax investigations and issuing new consular identity cards that say the card holder can be arrested for serious offenses.

Although top Indian politicians are no longer denouncing the United States daily for the arrest and strip search of the diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, 39, foreign service officials are not letting the matter drop. The continued hard feelings suggest that the dispute could have a long-term impact on a relationship both sides say is crucial.

The tiny Indian Foreign Service (just 1,750 people) is an elite body of carefully selected, extremely well-trained and very intelligent career civil servants. The IFS faces some problems, though. First, it is so small that it has a hard time managing India’s growing international portfolio. Second, as Indian politics becomes more populist, life gets harder for the elite bureaucracies, including the foreign ministry, who ruled the roost in India’s post-independence era. In an age of assertive state and regional identity politics, it is much harder for New Delhi bureaucracies to manage India by administrative fiat. Bureaucrats, including those in the foreign ministry, are operating in a much more challenging political environment.

A case like this one, which gives the foreign ministry street cred among nationalists, is welcome under the circumstances. By fighting with the US, the foreign ministry is reaping huge rewards in Indian public opinion and gaining legitimacy for its role as a vigilant defender of India’s interests worldwide—even as it acts to protect one of its own. It would be unrealistic to expect the foreign ministry not to want to milk this issue for what it can get, both at home and vis-a-vis the US, so US diplomats may find it hard to bring the incident to a rapid close with a few face-saving remarks.

Meanwhile, the whole question of India’s ever-closer relationship with the United States still raises some hackles on the subcontinent. There are many people in India—often linked to the old powerful bureaucracies built back in the day when a hegemonic Congress Party, steeped in left wing anti-colonialist thinking, ruled the roost. For them, this is a heaven-sent issue—a way to cool relations with the US while waving the flag of Indian patriotism. Again, these people have no interest in letting this issue fade away.

Fortunately, there are plenty of people in India who understand the strategic importance of US-India relations, and they will be working to minimize the long term damage of this incident. For American diplomats and others who want to help them, the key is to recognize the legitimate concerns that drive a lot of the emotion on the Indian side of this issue. India wants recognition of its status as a first rank power in the world. It fears that it doesn’t yet get this and it sees cases like this one as examples of Indians being treated with contempt.

That’s not how it looks to many Americans in this case, where from the American view it is all about the defense of the rights of an Indian citizen (the maid), but many in India perceive the treatment of the diplomat as an expression of contempt for the Indian state.

Coming to some kind of mutually face-saving compromise on the current case would be a good idea, and if nothing else it is useful to remember that President Obama has the power to pardon any offenses under US law. More important, the US needs to sit down with the Indian government and work out a mutually acceptable understanding that will govern the status of diplomats and consular officials in both countries on the basis of reciprocity.

America’s goal here is not to win an argument about the merits of this case. It is to deepen our relationship with India without doing violence to our own principles and laws.

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  • TommyTwo

    “America’s goal here is not to win an argument about the merits of this
    case. It is to deepen our relationship with India without doing violence
    to our own principles and laws.”

    Assuming, arguendo, that Ms. Khobragade is guilty of everything that is alleged, the way she was treated seems to do violence to our own principles, as many of us would understand them. That we would behave this way with a consular official of a country such as India seems deeply unwise.

    • free_agent

      You write, “seems deeply unwise”, and it’s clear that is true. But I haven’t seen it shown clearly that a US citizen in a similar situation would be treated any better. And my understanding is that a *consular* official does not have diplomatic immunity.

      • TommyTwo

        “I haven’t seen it shown clearly that a US citizen in a similar situation would be treated any better”

        Nor am I claiming otherwise. I consider this treatment in general (as reported in the media) as doing violence to our founding principles.

        (In brief: Was this legal, wise, “right”? Yes, no, no. Apparently.)

  • PKCasimir

    The United States stands for certain principles and the rule of law. Unfortunately, having dealt with US Foreign Service types for many decades, I have come to the conclusion that the US State Dept professionals have forgotten that and are always willing to sell out those principles in an attempt to “get along” with other nations. This article is so reflective of that State Dept. attitude that it could be taken for a parody of it.
    An Indian Diplomat stands charged, under the law, with submitting fraudulent visa documents to the US Government and of exploiting an Indian national in what could only be described as involuntary servitude. It is America’s goal to win the argument over the merits of a case. That’s why we have an adversarial criminal justice system. It’s called a trial.
    And I would ask the author to furnish the method as to just how the US “deepens our relationship with India without doing violence to our principles and laws.” It’s one of those typical platitudinous professional State Dept. utterances that attempts to make the author look so profound and noble but which, in the real world, is totally useless.

  • free_agent

    You write, “all about the defense of the rights of an Indian citizen (the maid)”.

    My suspicion is that classism is so ingrained in Indian culture that the majority of Indians don’t see the protection of such a low-class person to be worth offending a high-class person. Or alternatively, that the majority of Indians don’t expect the US to actually care about low-class people, and so assume that our explanations are a cover story.

  • C. P.

    Blaming this fiasco on India’s internal workings is merely a self-serving attempt to try to explain away that which cannot be explained: targeting India for contemptuous dealing.

    Mead and gang should start their analysis by first noting that when Russian diplomats engaged in huge Medicare frauds, Foggy Bottom told the US Attorney in NY to keep his law enforcement in his hip pocket till he could find a softer target; Mr. Mead can then mention the deals the Saudis got. Heard of the Equal Protection Clause, anyone?

    I suggest that they not talk about the indefensible, though: President Obama claiming full diplomatic immunity for a CIA contractor when he shot and killed a couple of Pakistani agents.

    • El Gringo

      I see your anecdote and raise you three more. From the Washington Post today:

      In June 2011, an Italian consular officer, Giuseppe Penzato, was arrested in San Francisco. Federal prosecutors charged Penzato and his wife with exploiting a domestic worker in their home. This year, both pleaded guilty to conspiring to possess an illegal identification document; they paid $13,000 in back wages to the domestic worker and quietly left the United States.

      In November 2011, a Taiwanese envoy based in Kansas City, Mo., pleaded guilty to fraud in foreign labor contracting. Federal prosecutors held Hsien-Hsien Liu in custody for 78 days after her arrest. She paid $80,044 in criminal restitution to two domestic workers from the Philippines who had accused her of human trafficking. A federal judge ordered her deported after she paid the restitution and an $11,040 fine.

      In November 2012, Mauritius’s ambassador to the United States, Somduth Soborun, pleaded guilty in federal district court in New Jersey to failing to pay the minimum-wage rate to his domestic worker. He paid a $5,000 fine as well as $24,153 in back wages to the worker.

      • C. P.

        Thank you for making my case: that there are different standards of justice, one for the rich and powerful, another for the rest.

        As for the Italians, they simply have been due for good paybacks for displeasing Dick Cheney by convicting all those CIA agents in absentia for kidnapping the Egyptian extremist.

  • R. Singh

    ” America’s goal here is not to win an argument about the merits of this
    case. It is to deepen our relationship with India without doing violence
    to our own principles and laws.”

    Neither is that the Intention or goal of the Indians.

    Could this matter not have been sorted out in a more mature manner?

  • redant2

    As an Indian it is depressing to see this downturn in Indo-US relations and I can say with certainty that a vast majority of Indians have nothing but goodwill for the US (the Pew poll reflects that). But mistreatment of a friendly country’s diplomat and spiriting away its citizens (the maid’s family) without informing India in the name of US justice is not the way to deepen a relationship. As this problem simmers, it has the real potential to deeply scar and antagonize Indians who read all the rubbish, sarcasm, and even hatred that many Americans are expressing in US media outlets while ignorantly commenting on everything from caste and class in India to H1 visa workers. The sooner this is settled the better it will be for both countries.

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