The return of the ugly American

By Shashi Tharoor
January 7, 2014

(This piece comes from Project Syndicate. The opinions expressed are the author’s own)

Nearly a month after American authorities arrested India’s deputy consul general in New York, Devyani Khobragade, outside her children’s school and charged her with paying her Indian domestic worker a salary below the minimum wage, bilateral relations remain tense. India’s government has reacted with fury to the mistreatment of an official enjoying diplomatic immunity, and public indignation has been widespread and nearly unanimous. So, has an era of steadily improving ties between the two countries come to an end?

Judging from Indian leaders’ statements, it would certainly seem so. India’s mild-mannered Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared that Khobragade’s treatment was “deplorable.” National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon called her arrest “despicable” and “barbaric,” and Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid refused to take a conciliatory phone call from US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Emotions have run high in India’s Parliament and on television talk shows as well. Writing to her diplomatic colleagues after her arrest, Khobragade, who has denied the charges against her, noted that she “broke down many times,” owing to “the indignities of repeated handcuffing, stripping, and cavity searches, swabbing,” and to being held “with common criminals and drug addicts.” A former Indian foreign minister, Yashwant Sinha, has publicly called for retaliation against gay American diplomats in India, whose sexual orientation and domestic arrangements are now illegal after a recent Supreme Court ruling. The government has not taken him seriously, but his suggestion indicates how inflamed passions have become.

Some retaliation has occurred. The initial American rationale (that foreign consuls in the US enjoy a lower level of immunity than other diplomats) led India’s government to re-examine privileges enjoyed by US consular officials that are unavailable to their Indian counterparts in the US. These privileges — including full-fledged diplomatic ID cards, access to the restricted customs areas of airports, tax-free shipments of items for personal consumption, and no questions asked about the terms of their employment of local domestic staff — were swiftly withdrawn. The cardinal principle of diplomatic relations is reciprocity, and India realized that it had been naïve in extending courtesies to the US that it was not receiving in return.

Likewise, the police have removed bollards and barriers that the US Embassy had unilaterally placed on the street in front of its complex in New Delhi, creating an obstacle to free circulation on a public road that India had tolerated in a spirit of friendship. (The government has, however, reiterated its commitment to the US Embassy’s security, even reinforcing the police presence outside.)

Tempers remain inflamed, with US Ambassador Nancy Powell, in a New Year’s message to Indians, ruefully acknowledging that ties have been “jolted by very different reactions to issues involving one of your consular officers and her domestic worker.” Kerry has also expressed “regret” over the incident. But the US has shown no signs of moving to drop the charges to defuse the crisis.

Indians remain bewildered that the US State Department would so willfully jeopardize a relationship that American officials had been describing as “strategic” over a practice routinely followed by foreign diplomats for decades. Most developing-country diplomats take domestic staff with them on overseas assignments, paying them a good salary by their national standards, plus a cost differential for working aboard. In Khobragade’s case, perquisites included a fully furnished room in a pricey Manhattan apartment, a television set, a mobile phone, medical insurance, and tickets home.

The cash part of the salary may be low by US standards — Khobragade herself, as a mid-ranking Indian diplomat, earns less than what the US considers a fair wage — but, with the other benefits, the compensation is attractive for a domestic helper. More to the point, Khobragade did not find her maid in the US labor market and “exploit” her; she brought her from India to help her in her representational duties, on an official passport, with a US visa given for that purpose. In almost no other country are local labor laws applied in such a manner to a foreign diplomat’s personal staff.

Privately, US diplomats express frustration at their helplessness in the face of theatrical grandstanding by the ambitious federal prosecutor, Preet Bharara, an Indian-American who has launched a series of high-profile cases against Indians in America. For once, however, the zealous Bharara seems to have slipped up, because Khobragade was arrested at a time when she enjoyed full diplomatic (not just consular) immunity as an adviser to India’s United Nations mission during the General Assembly. The State Department’s handling of the matter — which included approval of Khobragade’s arrest — has been, to say the least, inept.

Worse, just before the arrest, the maid’s family was spirited out of India on US visas for victims of human trafficking. The implication that an Indian diplomat in a wage dispute with her maid is guilty of human trafficking understandably riles Indian diplomats as much as the treatment of Khobragade after she was detained. The American habit of imposing its worldview self-righteously on others is deeply unwelcome. To most Indians, common discourtesy cannot be repackaged as moral virtue.

Indian-American relations had been strengthening, owing to both sides’ shared commitment to democracy, common concerns about China, and increasing trade and investment. The Khobragade affair suggests, however, that all of this is not enough: sustaining a strategic partnership requires, above all, mutual respect.

India had handled American diplomats with a generosity of spirit that it felt the bilateral relationship deserved. Now, with the same spirit shown to be lacking from the other side, the friendship has suffered. Until the US displays appropriate deference to the sensitivities, pride, and honor of other peoples and cultures, it will continue to be resented around the world.

17 comments

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If US drops charges against the diplomat, is the Indian govt going to drop all the charges against the maid and her family?

Posted by irisgreen | Report as abusive

india deserve veto power , its the only eligible country who deserve it, every 6th person is indian , western country do mockery of veto power , they dont deserve it

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

india need veto power , its the only country who deserve veto power , every 6th person is indian , western country do mockery of veto power

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

khobragade affair shows diplomatic struggle between two biggest democracy,
a diplomatic struggle started by a veto power on a non veto power , world’s 6th citizen need to wake up and demand for it’s veto status, as its western countries do only mockery of it

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

“The American habit of imposing its worldview self-righteously on others is deeply unwelcome. To most Indians, common discourtesy cannot be repackaged as moral virtue.”… bweautifully said…This is the rux of the matter.

Posted by jeyvee | Report as abusive

The ‘Indian domestic worker’ has a name: Sangetta Richard. The fact that you refused to name her is consistent with the Indian Government’s attempt to make her invisible, insignificant, and therefore, unworthy of justice. Mrs. Richard is a human. As India’s Minister of State for Human Resource Development, I would think you would be concerned for her and know her name.

I understand from reports that the US State Department requested a detailed report of the investigation conducted by the Indian Government into Mrs. Richard’s allegations against Khobragade. Was there an investigation? Was a detailed report produced? If not, why? If there is a report, please release it so we can determine if Mrs. Richard was given a fair hearing.

Posted by TinderSpark | Report as abusive

No idea why I am even wasting my time replying to this article and the above comments

WHEN IN ROME, DO AS THE ROMANS DO!!!!

THAT MEANS IF THERE IS A MINIMUM WAGE AND YOU ARE PAYING PEOPLE TO WORK WITH OR FOR YOU IN THAT COUNTRY THEN YOU PAY THOSE PEOPLE THE MINIMUM WAGE.

END OF DISCUSSION.

PS; FRAUD IS THEFT WHICH ALSO ANOTHER CRIME;

Posted by WBuffet | Report as abusive

So now what? Will wealthy housewives in L.A., Dallas, Houston and Atlanta who pay under minimum wage to their household help be dragged out of their homes, cuffed in front of the children, hauled to jail, stripped naked and cavity searched, then thrown into the clink with heroin dealers and prostitutes? This is absolute b.s. and Indians have every right to, A) be livid, and B) aggressively retaliate. This is shameful. Oh…I almost forgot…at the same time we round up the wealthy wives, let’s get the husbands who hire illegal workers far below minimum wage to mow the lawn. “Book ‘em Danno”. Methinks this will end badly for the US in some way we haven’t imagined yet. Again, more stupidity at its finest…brought to you by the Big Zero’s Flying Circus.

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

I always find it amusing how governments point the finger without first cleaning up their own discriminatory acts up first. Both India and the U.S. conduct themselves with contempt for their own citizens on a continual basis. It’s time to do the right thing without being forced or manipulated.

Posted by jefftech | Report as abusive

JPMorgan Chase will pay $1.7 billion to settle U.S. charges it violated laws requiring banks to monitor customer activity for money laundering in its handling of accounts of convicted Ponzi-schemer Bernard Madoff, authorities said on Tuesday.

If only she had a couple of billion to throw at U.S. government she no doubt could have walked just like the banking thieves. If they did no wrong why are they settling the charges with a big donation/fine/hush money?

Wow this country needs some honest leadership!

Posted by Skepticelt | Report as abusive

Devyani K may or may not be guilty of any number of offences – this can only be determined by a court of law. On the other hand, her treatment at the hands of US marshals was uncalled for in view of her position. The argument is not about equality in the eyes of the law; it is OK to offend an individual by strip searching her, but when you do it to a representative of a sovereign state, you insult the state. For this reason, there are established diplomatic channels to quietly determine an individual’s guilt or otherwise, and have them sent back home if the charges are proven.

The behaviour of the prosecutor Preet Bharara on the the other hand is questionable to say the least. He has a track record of zealously going after Indians, and it looks like he has jumped the gun somewhat, and over-extended his authority by evacuating the maid’s family, particularly as there was a criminal charge pending against her husband. This clearly demonstrates his contempt for the Indian Judicial system. Such contempt for Indians and Indian Officials is not uncommon among people of Indian origin who have made it in the west. If as reported, he has ambitions of attaining high office, he has not done himself any favours by his ineptitude.

Posted by Chandu50 | Report as abusive

Totally agree. Democrats have totally ignored India and courted China since they came to power. Appeasing a bully like China is a dangerous mistake. You can see how China imposed the air defense zone and got away without any sanctions since China has the US by its balls. Obama is an immature fool who has messed up the US foreign policy in recent years. He has managed to alienate all the important allies. US reputation has also taken a beating since the snooping scandal.
India saw this coming for some time. The furore is mainly over the strip search. Let’s hope the next president is friendly towards India.

Posted by pappuTappu | Report as abusive

Half of America is run by Indians & Half by Chinese…….America always fail to understand that the world is no nore Unipolar….They will soon have to realise that the power balance keeps on shifting & it should stop policing around in World affairs….

Posted by kashish_2014 | Report as abusive

This a disappointing article which highlights the problem of India’s elite; it shows snobbery and a lack of respect for human dignity. Why does the author not consider the plight of the maid in this situation? Is it because she is not rich, educated or belong to the right background? It was only a few months ago in India where a state government minister wife allegedly murdered her maid due to not being pleased about her cleaning abilities. The author is a Congress politician (full of mainly very wealthy people who feel they are born to rule!) and have no appreciation of real human suffering and as such care only for their fellow elite types.

Posted by sanj111 | Report as abusive

If Preet Bharara continues to channel Chris Christie, he might do the impossible and facilitate a rapprochement between India and Pakistan, and perhaps even with China. Pakistani diplomats have already commiserated with India over this incident, and I am sure that China’s stock has risen since in India in proportion to America’s fall. American exceptionalism will soon beget America being exceptionally isolated.

Posted by zamo14 | Report as abusive

Mr. Tharoor conveniently claims that Ms. Khobragade was charged with paying Ms. Richards (she has a name, Mr. Tharoor, and is not merely “the maid”) less than the minimum wage. She was not.

She was charged with falsifying information on her visa form. Yes, in Mr. Tharoor’s wonderful world of diplomacy, where the moral code is replaced by reciprocity, a senior official of a consulate responsible for verifying and approving Indian visas committed visa fraud.

There are numerous proof points of American arrogance and lack of humility. One need not reach far to find them, and Mr. Tharoor himself calls out a few valid ones. This, however, is not one.

Mr. Tharoor understands this distinction, of course, with all his experience and wisdom. Yet he has chosen to misrepresent it to make a political point, as Union Minister of India. And that is, perhaps, a proof point in itself, of why he is Union Minister of India, and not the Secretary General of the United Nations.

Posted by ssn2013 | Report as abusive

India is without standing in the community of moral nations
and will remain so as long as she tramples and publicly defecates on the human rights of her citizens.

Western governments, of whom the first are Canada, Poland and Denmark, have issued travel advisories against travel in India, based on an increase in gang-rapes of foreign women following the Khobragade affair.

How despicable and hypocritical that by whipping up society the Indian government has intentionally incited revenge-rape against foreigners because of Khogragade. Only the morally bankrupt India among world nations could stoop so low.

Boycott the cesspool that is Indian society and government.

Posted by zafoo | Report as abusive