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Indian Diplomat’s Arrest Highlights US-Indian Cultural Gap

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The Debate

Indian Diplomat’s Arrest Highlights US-Indian Cultural Gap

The Indian media’s response to Devyani Khobragade’s arrest highlights enduring differences between the US and Delhi.

America’s arrest of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade, and Delhi’s response to it, highlights the wide cultural gap that exists between the U.S. and India, which has and could continue to limit the extent or their relationship.

To be clear, the incident is first and foremost a diplomatic matter and one that, so far as I understand the facts of the case, America is clearly at fault under international law and common sense.

The facts of the case are this: Ms. Khobragade was arrested in New York City while dropping her children off to school because she allegedly lied on a visa application she filled out for an Indian national to come to the U.S. to work as a maid in her personal residence. Specifically, she claimed on the visa application that the maid would be paid $4,500 a month but instead was being paid less than $3 an hour. The U.S. is claiming that Ms. Khobragade isn’t protected under diplomatic immunity because the alleged crimes had nothing to do with her official responsibilities as an Indian diplomat.

Although diplomatic immunity is not as absolute as it once was, it seems ridiculous to me that the U.S. would invoke this “non-official business” principle for this alleged crime. That’s not to downplay the alleged crimes’ seriousness: lying on federal documents is quite serious and it is both unlawful and morally indefensible to pay a maid $3 an hour for their services. Especially in New York City, this salary would force someone to live a life bordering on inhumane given that, assuming a 40 hour work week, it wouldn’t even be enough to cover half the rent for an extremely small apartment in a modestly safe part of New York City (admittedly the maid could have lived with Ms. Khobragade). If someone cannot afford to pay a housekeeper a decent wage than they join the rest of humanity in going without one.

Still, to withhold diplomatic immunity for a non-violent crime like the one Ms. Khobragade is charged with is disrespectful not only to India but to diplomacy as an institution and every practitioner of it. It is particularly disrespectful to American diplomats who now face a greater chance of facing prosecution in a foreign country because of the State Department’s actions in this case. Already, India has removed security barriers around the U.S. embassy leaving the American diplomats there more vulnerable than they should have to be. The bottom line is that there was a clear-cut solution to this case, which was to declare Ms. Khobragade persona non-grata and order her to leave the country.

Still, one of the more fascinating parts of the case for me has been India’s response and how much this underscores just how different the cultural outlooks of the U.S. and India can be on certain issues. India’s general reaction to news of Ms. Khobragade’s arrest was one most Americans know quite well: namely, uncontrollable anger. For example, India’s National Security Adviser, Shivshankar Menon, called Ms. Khobragade’s treatment by U.S. authorities “despicable and barbaric.” Not only are Americans (especially New Yorkers) well acquainted with such rage, but they are particularly sensitive to perceived slights from foreign countries.

But when one probes a little deeper into the reasons for India anger the differences between American and Indian culture became quite striking. Specifically, much of the anger seems to be focused not on the fact that Ms. Khobragade’s diplomatic immunity is not being honored, but rather that she was arrested in public and stripped search before being jailed. Times of India explains nicely why these things are deemed “deplorable” in the words of Indian Prime Minister Singh:

“In India, the fear of public humiliation resonates strongly, and heavy-handed treatment by the police is normally reserved for the poor. For an educated, middle-class woman to face public arrest and a strip-search is almost unimaginable, except in the most brutal crimes.”

Ms. Khobragade herself said this about her experience: “I broke down many times as the indignities of repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches, swabbing, in a holdup with common criminals and drug addicts were all being imposed upon me despite my incessant assertions of immunity.”

A number of things immediately stick out to anyone reading these statements from an American perspective. Nothing more so than the suggestion that Ms. Khobragade’s treatment was only deplorable because she is a middle-class woman. The same treatment would have been perfectly acceptable if she was poor. Similarly, Ms. Khobragade’s statement similarly expressed particular outrage at the fact that she had been held inside the same cell as “common criminals” instead of being given sanctuary in one of the cells for high-class diplomats that don’t exist in America.

Such sentiments are completely at odds with everything America was founded on, particularly the notion that “every man was created equal” and that everyone should be treated equally under the law. To be sure, America has usually fallen well short of this standard throughout its history, and continues to do so today (just look at the demographics of our prison population.) But these failures are wholly different from the statements quoted above, which suggest that from a moral standpoint the legal system should have separate procedures for how it deals with the poor. This would strike most Americans as “despicable and barbaric.”

For me, this point may highlight a more enduring difference between how social class is viewed in the two countries. From an American perspective, one’s social class is a temporary condition that can be changed for better or worse based on one’s individual merit and work ethic. For some in India, on the other hand, social class may be a more enduring and defining characteristic, somewhat comparable to one’s height or ethnicity.

Although less apparent, the India media’s outrage over the fact that Ms. Khobragade was arrested in a public setting (but not in front of her children) would also strike many Americans as odd. While Americans worry about what others think of them as well, most Americans would find it much more concerning to learn that someone had been arrested and held in secrecy, as well as their crimes concealed from their peers.

Indeed, one of the oldest and more sacred principles of the American judicial system is that accused criminals have a right to have their case be decided by a jury of their peers. The rationale behind this is that peers from outside the criminal justice system will serve as a bulwark against government oppression. India, by contrast, abolished jury trials in 1960 deeming them to be too susceptible to media coverage and public opinion.

Finally, India’s media and Ms. Khobragade herself seemed outraged by the fact that she was subjected to a strip search before being jailed. American and I suspect most cultures likely view strip searches are a humiliating undertaking. Still, I’m not sure how these could be avoided in light of the need to prevent contraband and other items from being smuggled into jails and prisons. I’d be interested to know if people jailed or incarcerated in India are subjected to a strip search, and if not what methods are used to prevent violence and other illicit activities inside Indian prison systems.