Consider the following scenario: a diplomat in New York is found to have slaves in her home, an abject violation of U.S. laws. After investigation, U.S. authorities arrest and search the diplomat, who as a consular official has only limited diplomatic immunity. Would the diplomat’s home country be justified in vehemently castigating U.S. officials?
Replace the word “slave” with “underpaid domestic worker,” and we have precisely the situation confronting the U.S. and India. The diplomat in question, a consular official named Devyani Khobragade, allegedly falsified documents and lied on her visa application about the wages she would pay her housekeeper, Sangeeta Richard. If providing fraudulent information were not enough, Khobragade then surreptitiously paid Richard a paltry wage of $3.31 an hour, breaking U.S. labor laws. For a nanny, this wage would be considered lavish by Indian standards, but the nanny was employed in New York and thus her employment was subject to U.S. rather than Indian laws. The affidavit filed in the Southern District of New York clearly states that Khobragade filed the visa application herself.
While Khobragade has repeatedly insinuated that she was mistreated and underwent a cavity search, the U.S. attorney has called this “misinformation.” According to the attorney’s statement, Khobragade was given two hours to make phone calls, was placed in a cell with only female inmates, and was even brought coffee. Nevertheless, Indians have taken to the streets in droves to protest U.S. action, encouraged by jingoistic news reports that highlight the diplomat’s arrest but say nothing about the housekeeper. With barely 900 Indian Foreign Service officers, each Indian diplomat occupies one of the most elite positions in all of Indian society, while the millions of housekeepers in India toil in anonymity. Indeed, according to the Global Slavery Index, India has the highest number of slaves in the world at 14 million. Yet official India claims there is only “one victim” here.
There is nothing to suggest that Bharara — who is originally from India and has prosecuted Wall Street Bankers, terrorists and the Gambino crime family — was pursuing rogue justice. The Indian government was vitriolic in its response, dismantling security barriers protecting the U.S. embassy, stopping import clearances, and demanding the personal information of teachers at U.S. schools in India. A former Indian External Affairs Minister demanded the Indian government expel gay partners of U.S. diplomats. The current External Affairs minister called for an official apology, despite admitting that the “worst that could be said about [Khobragade] is that she did not comply with the amounts” that Richard should have been paid. In other words: she may have broken the law, but we want an apology.
Why the Anti-Americanism?
All this might normally be associated with the retaliation of one of America’s traditional enemies. But it is hard to reconcile with India, an English-speaking democracy led by an Oxford-educated economist. Beyond the immediate headlines, however, India’s almost pathologically angry response is steeped in two hundred years of history. The country’s colonial hemorrhaging and its post-colonial policies as actualized by Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first prime minister, help explain why New Delhi responded as it did.
Leaders of all political stripes in India have, since 1947, stood up to Western powers, a position that evolved from the traumatizing effects of colonial plunder. In only a few generations, India had gone from being a world leader to a British subject, from accounting with China for nearly half of global economic output to having a life expectancy of just 27 years in 1931. The amputation of Indian territory in the creation of Pakistan only reinforced its absolute insistence on sovereignty, while Mohandas Gandhi’s non-violent protest against the white viceroys ruling India came to inform the moralizing rhetoric and third worldism India would come to espouse. Satyagraha or “truth force” was Gandhi’s guiding light, and since his time, the didactic and the moral have been central to India’s foreign relations.
To combat the exploitation of developing nations, India’s post-independence leaders helped inaugurate the Non-Aligned Movement as a way of maintaining autonomy during the Cold War. In practice, however, India allied with China — a likeminded country wronged by colonialism — in the 1950s under the banner of Hindi-Chini-Bhai-Bhai or “Indians and Chinese are brothers.” In the 1970s, India tilted towards the Soviet Union, an ostensible socialist ally. Nehru’s government voted against the 1947 UN partition plan for Palestine and was the first government outside of the Arab world to recognize the PLO, prefiguring India’s recognition of a Palestinian state in 1988.
Only in 1991, when India’s currency reserves fell to six weeks worth of imports and the government had to ask the IMF for a bailout, did the pro-market shift begin. Even then, the country went ahead and tested nuclear weapons in 1998 and somehow managed to unite the U.S., UN, China, EU, and Pakistan in their condemnation of its bellicosity. Even after the issue was resolved and George W. Bush made India a central priority — in effect exempting the world’s largest democracy from international nonproliferation norms — India has maintained an uncompromising independence in its foreign relations. For example, eight years after the U.S.-India nuclear agreement, there has been little progress in actually starting nuclear cooperation, because Indian leftist parties see it as a sell out which turns India into a U.S. dependency.
Anything remotely affecting Indian sovereignty then, from global sanctions on Iran — for which India was granted an exemption — to the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan — over which even banal U.S. offers of mediation are firmly rebuffed — is a politically sensitive issue across the country. New Delhi calls it “strategic autonomy,” which is another way of telling Washington, Moscow, and Beijing that no external power can tell India what to do.
Pursue Justice, But Carefully
This brings us back to the arrested diplomat, who was recently moved to the UN where she has full diplomatic immunity. India perceived the U.S. attorney’s actions as encroaching upon its sovereignty — a sovereignty that, after decades of protest and millions of lives lost, is considered sacrosanct. To compound the perceived slight, India saw the treatment of its diplomat — who was strip-searched but not cavity searched as she alleged — as humiliating. In South Asia, women are seen as the “honor” of the family, caste and community and a strip search would be considered unconscionable to most Indians and Pakistanis. While this attitude towards women leads to patriarchy and misogyny in pockets of Indian society, it is a reality U.S. law enforcement officials should have factored into their approach before arresting Khobragade.
Even as the U.S. expresses “regret,” its justice system must not be compromised for the rich, even if India does feel aggrieved. In its colossal diversity and complex relations with world powers, India must remember that moral justice was a principle upon which it was founded and that beyond the nationalism and the hurt feelings, there just might be an inkling of satyagraha involved here as well.
Omer Aziz is a writer and journalist from Toronto. He was most recently a Commonwealth and Pitt Scholar of International Relations at Cambridge University. He tweets at @omeraziz12.