India’s government is in a foul mood. And it’s not because of the shellacking the ruling Congress Party suffered in state elections earlier this month.
On December 12, according to Indian media reports and government officials, New Delhi’s deputy consul general in New York was arrested, strip-searched (including “repeated cavity searches”), and thrown in jail with “hardened criminals and sex workers.” She was released several hours later after pleading not guilty, surrendering her passport, and paying $250,000 bail.
Her crime? New York prosecutors say Devyani Khobragade gave false information on a work visa application about how she would pay her housekeeper. Khobragade said she would pay the housekeeper $9.75 per hour, but reportedly paid her at a $3.31 rate — significantly less than the U.S. minimum wage.
If these allegations are true, then Khobragade certainly has some explaining to do. But do they warrant such rough treatment from U.S. law enforcement? Not in New Delhi’s view.
India’s government has erupted with fury. One official lambasted her treatment as “despicable and barbaric.” Another declared: “No Indian diplomat has been treated this way for decades… This is major, major ill treatment.” Still another fumed that “we’re not a banana republic.” New Delhi has summoned the U.S. ambassador to New Delhi, refused to meet with a visiting U.S. Congressional delegation, and demanded an unconditional apology from Washington (so far it has received only an expression of regret).
Some aspects of India’s response, however, appear over the top — particularly in light of a recent statement by the U.S. attorney for Manhattan, which insists that Khobragade was “accorded courtesies well beyond what other defendants” would receive while in detention. India’s government has removed the security barricades in front of the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi; halted liquor import licenses, airport passes, and other perks for U.S. diplomats in the country; and even threatened to require all U.S. diplomats in India to reveal how much they pay their household help. Most troubling of all, just days after India’s Supreme Court reinstated a ban on gay sex, some Indian media are speculating that New Delhi could target gay American diplomats and their partners (a top leader of the BJP, India’s chief opposition party, called on India to “arrest all these companions, put them behind bars and do what you like with them”).
Such developments have prompted prominent Indian media personality Barkha Dutt to tweet: “India’s response to the US on the Devyani case has been swifter/sharper than our responses to Pakistan at worst times.”
So what gives?
Less sophisticated observers may resort to the “prickly Indian” stereotype, and dismiss India’s indignation as more evidence of a pampered political class that can’t stand to be mistreated. They’ll point to previous examples of India taking great umbrage at far less egregious cases of mistreatment. In 2010, India protested to the United States after its U.S. ambassador was patted down by security officials at a Mississippi airport. A former speaker of Parliament once chose not to travel to Australia for an international conference when told he may have to pass through security. The mere possibility, he declared, amounted to “an affront to India.” To be fair, I’ve seen high-level Indian diplomats become sullen when asked to walk through security machines inside government facilities in Washington — but I’ve seen plenty of diplomats from other nations react similarly.
Another, somewhat more reasonable, explanation is that New Delhi’s response is driven by political considerations. National elections are just months away, and the deeply unpopular Congress Party faces a formidable challenge from the opposition BJP party, which often accuses Congress of being too soft on all types of issues ranging from Pakistan to livestock smuggling. Additionally, anti-American sentiment often flares in India — including among its 175-million-strong Muslim population. New Delhi’s angry comments and countermeasures may mark an effort to better position itself for next year’s vote.
The Khobragade incident may have also brought to the surface some tensions simmering beneath the seemingly placid U.S.-India relationship. It may lack the drama and turmoil of Washington’s relationship with Islamabad or Kabul, but the partnership certainly has its share of problems — from India’s unhappiness with U.S. foreign visa legislation to American exasperation with strict liability laws governing its firms operating in India. To this laundry list can be added India’s growing concern over America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.
New Delhi’s angry reaction is also a reflection of its hostility — harbored by other countries as well — toward Washington’s diplomatic immunity policies. India believes its diplomats should receive immunity at all times, including when accused of crimes much more serious than Khobragade’s (in 2011, an Indian diplomat in London claimed immunity after being accused by British officials of assaulting his wife). The United States has demanded a similar policy for its own diplomats — even as it has declared that India’s diplomats in America, such as Khobragade, can only receive immunity for consular-related activities. As a result, Washington has insisted on immunity for the likes of Raymond Davis, a CIA spy who shot and killed two people in Pakistan, while denying it for a foreign diplomat who lied about how she paid her maid.
This isn’t to say New Delhi is blameless in this affair. According to one Indian media report, Khobragade’s housekeeper, Sangeeta Richard, stopped working for Khobragade last summer and promptly sought assistance from a Manhattan immigration attorney. Shortly thereafter, officials took Richard’s India-based husband and child into custody and revoked her passport, making her U.S. status illegal. In September, a New Delhi court issued an arrest order for Richard, who remains in the United States (American officials have revealed her family is now here as well). If she returns to India, she could face extortion charges. New Delhi, meanwhile, claims — without elaboration — that last summer, Khobragade accused Richard of trying to blackmail her.
Nonetheless, India has good reason to be infuriated about Khobragade’s treatment — just as Americans would be if one of their diplomats went through what she did abroad. At its core, the reason for India’s ferocious reaction is simple: An educated, middle-class Indian woman was subjected to invasive and humiliating treatment by law enforcement (U.S. officials have confirmed the strip search). In India, many women of all classes experience some form of discrimination and violence. Yet women who experience what Khobragade did tend to be poor. That Khobragade happens to be a top diplomat in the financial capital of the world’s sole superpower has caused even more shock and embarrassment — particularly for a nation as sensitive about its global image as India.
The timing couldn’t have been worse. On December 18, India’s Parliament passed the Lokpal bill, long-delayed anti-graft legislation demanded by anti-corruption protestors since 2011. It now requires only a presidential signature, meaning that it’s tantalizingly close to becoming law. Yet at a moment when Indians should be celebrating this landmark legislation, l’affaire Khobragade ensures that many will instead be feeling blue — and seeing red.
Michael Kugelman is the senior program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @michaelkugelman.