L’Affaire Khobragade: A Tale of Two Bad Diplomatic Services

by bierstadt54

What a complete mess! I speak, of course, of the Devyani Khobragade Incident. For those unfamiliar with this debacle, it appears that Dr. Devyani Khobragade, Deputy Consul General for Political, Economic, Commercial and Women’s Affairs in New York, got caught doing something that many Indian diplomats do when assigned to the US. She hired a servant in India for a good (in India) salary and brought the servant over to clean her house and take care of her children. Unfortunately, this was not done in a legal manner and when this was discovered, mistakes were made by the Indian Foreign Service and the US State Department. Mistakes that have elevated a bureaucratic error into a major diplomatic incident.

The beginning of this incident was not when Dr. Khobragade brought her nanny to the US, nor did it start with the arrest of Dr. Khobragade in New York. It began when the diplomats of the Indian Foreign Service started bringing Indian servants to the US during their postings and paying them less than the minimum wage required by the work visas the diplomats required to bring these servants to the US. Dr. Khobragade did nothing unusual. She just was the one that got caught.

Why did she get caught? That rests with another Indian, Sangeeta Richard. This nanny came the work for Dr. Khobragade in November 2012 and abandoned her job in June 2013. It is suspected by many Indians that she came to the US with the intent of using US laws to establish herself in the US. Given that her family has apparently been flown to the US at US taxpayer expense in connection to this case, this seems a valid suspicion. Regardless of her intentions, Sangeeta Richard reported Dr. Khobragade to the police for underpaying. This led to a police investigation that in turn resulted in the next Indian Foreign Service mistake. When the Indians were informed that an investigation was taking place, they did nothing useful. Legal action was taken in India against Sangeeta Richard, but nothing was done to protect Dr. Khobragade, such as bringing her back to India. A diplomat posted in the US should understand the high degree of judicial independence present and the limitations of the limited diplomatic immunity enjoyed by Dr. Khobragade as a deputy consul. Under the circumstances, this failure to take any sort of action was unwise.

The arrest of Dr. Khobragade included a mistake by the US State Department. She was not treated in a disrespectful manner, and despite some reports, the US Marshal Service has confirmed that Dr. Khobragade was afforded courtesies, not handcuffed in front of her children, and not cavity-searched. She was arrested and strip-searched, however. That is where the State Department erred. They are responsible for America’s relations with the world, and when a foreign diplomat is arrested the State Department needs to be present throughout the process and avoid things like subjecting a female diplomat to a strip search, which occurred after she was turned over to the US Marshals. The failure to do that was a foolish mistake. Dr. Khobragade was treated respectfully like a normal American citizen, but she was not that; she was a diplomat, and that demands special consideration. Certainly more than was shown.

The rest is clearly on India. Retaliation against American diplomats in India has been taken, including the physical endangerment of American diplomats through the removal of a safety barrier in front of the American Embassy. The Indian-American relationship has clearly been damaged, and India’s response has not been a responsible one. If India wants to help its wayward diplomat, quiet diplomacy is the way to do it. The publicity will do nothing but force the US to double down on the case – a decision largely dependent on the prosecutor’s office in any case, who was, surprise, surprise, born in India. Mr. Preet Bharara has rebutted various accusations coming from India over the arrest, which does not suggest he is in any way inclined to drop the case. The fact of the matter is that the Indian Foreign Service in the US has been allowing its diplomats to violate US law and violate the human rights of domestic workers working in the US, and Dr. Khobragade had the bad luck to be the one caught. It is easy to understand that India wishes to protect Dr. Khobragade, but it does not change what she did.

Because of the nature of the case, hopefully some sort of accommodation can be reached with the prosecutor’s office. This case is more the Indian Foreign Service’s fault than Dr. Khobragade’s. It should pay for the wages that domestic servants of Indian diplomats in the US have been denied and reimburse the US for the trouble that has been caused by this case. The US State Department should apologize for its failure to more closely involve itself with the arrest of Dr. Khobragade which, had a skilled American diplomat involved his or herself in the case, could have avoided much of the fallout from the case from ever happening. Or an active Indian diplomat for that matter, who might have taken some action before the arrest even occurred.

But none of that happened. Instead Indians read about their lady diplomat getting arrested in front of her own children, strip searched, cavity searched, treated like a drug dealer, and generally humiliated. Americans learned about India’s treatment of domestic servants, highlighted with such incidents as when an Indian MP beat his servant to death because he took issue with her dusting. In other words, a great many people learned a great many things that range from being complete fabrications to stretching the truth to unflattering stereotypes. It will probably continue as the case against Dr. Khobragade proceeds. And it will benefit no one in an incident marked by the incompetence of two diplomatic services and much popular outrage. It also looks unlikely that anyone will suddenly turn sensible enough in this case to find a way out, though recent discussions between Indian and American diplomats may prove me happily wrong. In other words, what a mess.