Khobragade Crisis - A blot on Indo-American relations

30 Dec 2013

Indo-American relations have gone downhill in the last couple of weeks, with the Indian Government public outraged at the United States for treating a diplomat of a “friendly” country in a “deplorable” way. The description of the exact actions that took place against Devyani Khobragade depend on the source – with USA claiming she was just handcuffed and strip searched, which, according to a statement by Manhattan US Attorney Preet Bharara, “is standard practice for every defendant, rich or poor, American or not”, while some Indian sources say she was even subject to cavity search.


Consider this against the Raymond Allen Davis incident of 2011. In ‘An Open Letter to President Barack Obama’, V. Raghunathan, rekindles this incident. Davis, who was a private security employee at the US Consulate in Pakistan, killed two men in Lahore on 27th January 2011. When captured by the Pakistani authorities, President Obama himself urged Pakistan to not prosecute Davis, emphasizing that he was protected under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and that “There’s a broader principle at stake that I think we have to uphold.

Unfortunately, before justice could take its course, the case was dropped after US authorities paid “blood money” to the families of the victims to drop the case, and Davis was pardoned and released.

The US assertion then that Davis should be covered by diplomatic immunity because he was an “administrative and technical official”, while not giving Devyani Khobragade, the Deputy Consul General at the Indian Consulate in New York (who was arrested by US Marshals on 12th December), diplomatic immunity, is an example of sheer hypocrisy. Not to mention the difference between the two crimes – one of double murder, and the other of ‘alleged’ visa fraud. 

The Government of India has since transferred Devyani Khobragade to the UN Mission in New York. Though subject to clearance by the United States Department of State, this transfer would mean that Khobragade would qualify for full diplomatic immunity. 

Though it is understood and well-known that her previous post as the Deputy Consul General entitled her to only consular immunity, it is worth debating how much of a price USA is willing to pay for this act, which has completely changed the attitude of Indians towards the supposed superpower. 

Even John B. Bellinger III, former Legal Advisor at the US Department of State and the National Security Council concurred when he said: "Whether it was wise policy to actually arrest and detain someone for a non-violent crime like this, even if technically permissible under the Vienna Convention, is questionable to me. It's really quite surprising.”

Regarding the steps taken by India in retaliation to America’s action against Khobragade, it is worthwhile to refer to Eileen Denza’s essay entitled ‘The Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic Relations’ published by the UN Audiovisual Library of International Law, in which she stated: 

“Because the establishment of diplomatic relations and of permanent missions takes place by mutual consent, every State is both a sending and receiving State. Its own representatives abroad are in a sense hostages who may on a basis of reciprocity suffer if it violates the rules of diplomatic immunity, or may be penalized even for minor restrictions regarding privileges or protocol”.

This says a lot about why India is doing what it is doing, in order to bring pressure on US officials. India has “ordered the withdrawal of all ID cards that are issued by the Ministry of External Affairs to the officials at the US consulates across India”. It has also removed security barricades from the US embassy in New Delhi, and top government officials have refused to meet American representatives (which included a US Congressional delegation). 

A further domestic influence which can be identified as a cause of the Indian uproar is that general elections are scheduled to take place next year, and most (if not all) the political parties have realized that this is a hot iron case – they have to strike it now to gather votes and build a sense of nationalism amongst their voters.

One thing America seems to have forgotten is that India is currently one of America’s closest allies in Asia and an “indispensible partner” – especially after the bleak relations America now has with Pakistan. This is the 21st Century – not the era of Nixon-Kissinger or even Eisenhower, for that matter. India’s influence is growing rapidly – economically, politically and geo-strategically. 

Insofar as its legitimacy is concerned, America is battling a solo war, with most of its European allies feeling betrayed after Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks. A loss of a strategic partner in the East would further deteriorate its standing. 

Whether Khobragade is actually guilty of her alleged crime or not, is a matter for India to decide, not America. 

The legal validity of the Khobragade case is not so much of a point as the political consequences of America’s action is. America needs to decide whether it wants to continue to follow a policy of hegemony and hypocrisy, or to actually do something about its falling reputation and legitimacy in the eyes of its own allies.

By Nishad Sanzagiri

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