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A diplomatic row,a public spectacle

India and the US must act fast to stanch the damage that the Khobragade matter is wreaking on ties.

Written by PranabDhalSamanta | Updated: January 9, 2014 11:57:55 pm

India and the US must act fast to stanch the damage that the Khobragade matter is wreaking on ties.

Outrage and anger are usually the biggest distraction from sensible policy. And by that logic,the display of extremes by both India and the United States in the Devyani Khobragade case has led to an absolutely avoidable diplomatic incident — one that diplomats on both sides realise has damaged goodwill,so necessary to take this important strategic relationship forward.

It’s important to understand the issue at hand. The Khobragade episode has two levels to it — one,the case itself and the other,the larger issue of diplomatic courtesies and the handling of this particular case.

First,the case. Indian diplomats landing in trouble because of issues related to their domestic help is not new or unusual. There have been a few cases in the US itself,and the possibility of such problems becoming more frequent was quite imminent back in 2009,when US authorities started insisting that the calculation of minimum wages cannot include the help’s insurance cover,living,travelling or food costs. It was made clear that the wage would be the amount paid directly to the domestic help and so the declaration,in a sense,was a bit more qualified. This turned into a deterrent for Indian officials,many of whom simply stopped taking domestic help to the US.

But,in diplomacy,there are rules and there are understandings. The unwritten code in this instance was that these declarations were essentially necessary paperwork for getting visas,which need not be taken seriously beyond that. At least,that seemed to be the understanding on the Indian side,because seeking privileges beyond the entitlement is a negotiation

of quid pro quos for each other’s diplomats — a negotiation that happens almost on a daily basis between foreign offices and diplomatic missions everywhere over routine issues,like special access to the airport or increasing the limit on importing liquor.

However,it is now clear that the Indian side,in some ways,misjudged the problems this could create. And so,cases started emerging and,as a result,this became a proper topic of diplomatic conversation between both countries. When Khobragade’s domestic help went missing,red flags went up in South Block. That is why legal safeguards were taken and an injunction was obtained from a Delhi court,which was handed over to the US state department.

There are allegations that this could be part of an immigration racket,given that Khobragade received offers of a settlement from a lawyer on behalf of her domestic help after she went missing,again conveyed to the state department. While this may be investigated,as may any allegation from the help against her employer,what’s important to note here is that this was a case on which the Indian side was in touch with the US authorities right from the start.

There would have been no such brouhaha had the case been pursued using all available diplomatic means,given that South Block is no longer unprepared to handle such issues. It would only have added to the growing list of such cases,reinforcing the call for the ministry of external affairs to chart out a clear,negotiated policy on domestic help. The policy aim being that the diplomat must never become the story during her assignment and if this is a vulnerable area,it ought to be fixed.

That,however,takes us to the second level — the arrest and alleged humiliation of Khobragade,which has turned this incident into a diplomatic row. Technically,the Indian side will argue that the arrest of consular officers under the Vienna Convention on Consular Affairs can be done only in cases of “grave crimes”. So,does this fall in such a category?

But that’s just the detail. In diplomacy,a lot of what is done within domestic law reflects the nature,and at times the necessity,of the relationship. After all,the US eventually recognised the diplomatic immunity of former ISI chief Shuja Pasha to prevent his arrest in the ongoing 26/11 case in the US. And there have been no arrests so far in the recent healthcare fraud case against Russian diplomats in the US.

In this case,the law-enforcing authorities apparently did get in touch with the state department,which seems to have given its consent. This has further annoyed the Indian side,since the mission had been in touch with the state department on the issue. The question being asked is whether the arrest was necessary.

Here,the US side has a lot to explain. If the case was so serious,any compendium on diplomatic relations provides several options,ranging from the minimal to the expulsion of the diplomat. These alternatives were never explored. Nor were searching questions asked of the Indian mission in a bid to get to the bottom of the matter.

Once the arrest was made,India reacted with a range of measures that took the relationship to a new low,with every exemption or privilege being withdrawn. What’s disconcerting about all this is that there is still no negotiation on the horizon. For two countries that enjoy a strategic partnership,it’s time they came to the negotiating table to address each other’s concerns and ended this public spectacle,which cannot possibly be allowed to cause further deterioration or damage to ties.

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