U.S.-India dispute: A diplomat and a double-standard laid bare

January 8, 2014

(The following essay is commentary. The views of the author do not necessarily reflect those of Reuters)

Relations between the United States and India have crashed to their lowest ebb since the last millennium, something many Americans might have missed during the holiday buzz.  A spat over the treatment of a diplomat and her maid threatens the foundations of a key international partnership, and the implications extend far beyond foreign policy. This case could endanger American diplomats, businesspeople and tourists travelling abroad.

The fight began with the December arrest of Devyani Khobragade, India’s Deputy Consul in New York.  Khobragade, a young mother accused of under-paying her maid and making a false statement on a visa form, says she was hand-cuffed, strip-searched, and thrown in a holding facility with violent criminals.  India regards her arrest as a violation of diplomatic immunity.  The United States argues that such immunity does not extend to consular officials.

The incident provoked widespread protests in India, and the government withdrew many privileges accorded to American diplomats.  Some, such as a suspension of the right to import liquor, are inconveniences.  Others, like the removal of security barriers outside the embassy in New Delhi, and issuing officials with ID cards noting that their bearers are subject to arrest for many offenses, could put U.S. diplomats in physical danger.  Indian officials have demanded an apology, but the United States has offered only a statement of “regret.”  The federal prosecutor who launched the case, said, “Ms. Khobragade was accorded courtesies well beyond” those to which she was entitled.

Why are Indians more outraged by a diplomat stripped naked than by a maid (also Indian) allegedly stripped of her pay?  For starters, there is a deep strain in Indian society that sees the forcible disrobing of a woman as an unspeakable humiliation. One of the most famous episodes in the ancient epic Mahabharata describes the heroine Draupadi being hauled before a hostile mob, and saved only when her sari becomes infinitely long as her assailants try to rip it from her body.  Modern-day India is wrestling with a rash of vicious gang rapes, and trying to deal with sexual humiliation of women that had traditionally been kept secret.  In this context, many were shocked by the spectacle of a government official denuded in a foreign holding-cell.

But there is another reason, one that should be of even greater concern to Americans: The perception by many that this incident laid bare not merely a diplomat, but a double standard.  Many in India (and elsewhere) feel the United States has one set of rules for itself, and a different one for the rest of the world.  This perception poses a danger to U.S. policy, U.S. diplomats and to ordinary Americans wherever they may travel.

Less than three years ago, the United States was on the other side of a diplomatic dispute—only the official in question was no diplomat (he was a CIA contractor) and his offense was far more serious than visa fraud (he shot and killed two men on a crowded street in Pakistan).  When Raymond Davis was arrested, the United States claimed complete diplomatic immunity, and rejected the argument it is making now: that consular staff have far less immunity than their embassy colleagues.  From the perspective of India, not to mention Pakistan and many other nations, the United States expects privileges that it does not grant to others.

Every day, Americans abroad benefit from special treatment to which they are not entitled. When Americans make mistakes on a customs form or have a fender-bender while driving a rental car in a nation whose signage they can’t read, they are usually not hauled off to prison.  The letter of the law can be harsh: India’s former finance minister urged that American officials with same-sex partners be prosecuted under a controversial law recently upheld by the Supreme Court.  In Saudi Arabia, it is illegal to drink beer.  In Thailand, showing disrespect for the king is punishable by a prison term of up to 15 years.  If the United States subjects foreign visitors (particularly diplomats) to the strictest possible interpretation its own laws, it had better be prepared for other nations to do the same.

There is an easy way out of this: the Justice Department can exercise prosecutorial discretion and drop the case against Ms. Khobragade (she has been transferred to the Indian mission at the U.N., but this provides only temporary protection). If the charges against her stand up to scrutiny, the United States could withdraw her diplomatic credentials and send her home: That is how diplomats who commit crimes abroad, even those far more serious than visa fraud, are generally punished.  India should restore full protection to the U.S. embassy and diplomats.  This unnecessary conflict must be resolved quickly, or the real losers will be the citizens of the United States and India alike.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

this is a balanced article..but there’s not a word on the sub-plot, in terms of which the maidservants husband/children were “evacuated” under a T-Visa..and the reasons why US thought it could play fast and loose with the Indian judicial system probably lie at the root of all of this..a condescending attitude that has earned it so much dislike even from its close allies…a world leader that snaps its fingers at the rest of the world will get its fingers burnt..

Posted by cmp5151 | Report as abusive

What if I told you that a significant number of Indians are looking at this case as a deserving slap on the wrist of high profile Indian bureaucrats who avoid prosecution in India by virtue of their influence on Judiciary. If you see the comments section on the coverage of this story in Indian media, you will find that most people are actually looking forward to have Devyani prosecuted

Posted by Ghulab | Report as abusive

Well, significant numbers want to see Manmohan Singh and Obama prosecuted as well. Not that it counts for anything far as official actions go.

Posted by gimlize | Report as abusive

Nice article

Posted by prabhurraj | Report as abusive

good one

Posted by prabhurraj | Report as abusive

This is an excellent article.
I am not sure why Judge Sarah has denied extension of indictment date. They really seems to understand the seriousness of this case.

Mr Ghulab….do not behave like an educated idiot…the comments in Indian media are general mob mentality style..this is a simple wage dispute which should be handled in the same as Infosys wage dispute issue…you don’t strip search a doctor turned diplomat.
The comments you see are from the upper caste people. The moment they came to know that devyani is from weaker section…they started all these comments.

99 percent of crimes committed in usa by Indians are from upper caste people…and none of the weaker sections commented negatively on them.

I think the author has rightly mentioned the relevant points.
Devayani is not an ordinary citizen…like you or me…she represents the country and belong to the government and govt of India will take it very seriously irrespective of what party is ruling.

If the US don’t act in an appropriate manner…this will be dent in the relationship between countries forever.

After all no body is going to trust USA…
US is a great country built by the yester year generation and this generation especially those who work in department of state are spoiling its name across the world.
Imagine all countries losing trust on USA.

Posted by RajeshJohn | Report as abusive

I find the expert’s last line extremely intriguing.
He wants India restore all benefits to US Diplomats and Staff, but he doesnt say that he wants US to do the same for India. Why should India give something more to the US, than what the US gives them? He calls for equality of US Diplomats with others, yet want them to be treated with kid gloves and given special treatments such as Family immunities etc, something which Indian diplomat’s family dont enjoy in the US. Something poor Kirtika Biswas learnt to her peril.

Posted by Adux | Report as abusive

very good article

Posted by RajeshJohn | Report as abusive

The worst action done by the US, is against the Indian Judiciary, the most powerful and the most feared organization in Indian State. They will not take this slight lightly. ‘Evcuate’ the maid’s family. What humbug. Her husband and children got their new fresh passports in September, something they would have never got if they were being harassed by Indian Officials. American weakening of Vienna Conventions is going to be very counter productive to its own staff, as well as 2 nd tier powers like UK and France, worse when the world is heading for a new style of cold war

Posted by Adux | Report as abusive

Americans are only good at spying on others Emails & then winning contracts just because they already know the Bids/Rate Quotes of other global firms….This is only we can expect from America…..Americans behave that only they are the saviours of World & rest are fools…Americans kill innocent people to protect their interests in the name of “War on terrorism”….What a double standard & the courageous people who speak against these mishappenings like Edward Snowden were prosecuted…Long live the new America…

Posted by Indiarocks | Report as abusive

We enable our citizens to use the *public* road in front of the US consulate and the Americans feel they don’t get the entitled segregation from the natives ?

And there is nothing stopping the US embassy from putting sandbags inside near the outer walls, is it ?

It is all about marketing and US is the past master at that.

Has the US given such an access for Indian Embassy in the US, after all after Faizal Hassan in New York, a pakistani to boot. Our diplomatic corps are in mortal danger in the US. Yet, they made the Parking in front of the Indian Embassy open to public. Well tough.

Posted by Adux | Report as abusive

The most incisive and practical take on the issue by a person who knows both countries well. If only the top persons in the US establishment could be so intelligent and bereft of ego and prejudices the problem would not have arisen in the first place. Well done Mr. Blank. Keep it up.

Posted by Fakir | Report as abusive

Vivek Shroff
The Indian media has been far more balanced in its approach showing both sides of the story.
The US media has been ingenuous at best. The Washington Post editorial is full of half-truths. They do not say that the barricades were impeding traffic and were unnecessary and the police presence has in fact been increased. They do not state that the maid’s lodging / boarding in a pricey Manhattan flat with full health benefits and her resultant savings WERE FAR HIGHER than those of A LEGAL WAL-MART WORKER. We are not even talking about the hundreds of thousands of illegals without whom US farmlands would rot away.
They do not state that all measures are only to bring a level of reciprocity. They do not state that the Americans were running a club with PAID MEMBERSHIP IN THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS for non-diplomats. WaPo forgets to mention that the US officers were importing duty-free liquor (meant for personal consumption) by the crate and SELLING IT TO NON-DIPLOMATS AT A TIDY PROFIT. IF THIS IS NOT SMUGGLING, WHAT IS? Indians do not run a beauty parlour or get income from sale of illicitly imported duty-free liquor, in their embassy in the USA.
Look at Washington Times and New York Times to understand the stranglehold their government has on the media. Thankfully, India is way better, at least in this respect.

Posted by Adux | Report as abusive

How arresting a US citizen, non diplomatic staff at embassy or Diplomats can put then in physical danger? While arresting, handcuff, strip & cavity search and locking her with violent criminal a consul officer is OK. Is the author not again using double standards? It is right time that so called first world nationals are created the same way in India like Indian are treated in those countries.

Sorry, boat has sailed… we can’t restore the special privileges. If you love burger and beer please buy from us (third world people) and not from burger selling US embassy.

Posted by Adux | Report as abusive

Is it this much only? what about US authorities evacuating illigally the husband of the maid, the fare was paid by tax free vouchers from US embassy new delhi.
The illigal liquer trade, clubs being run inside the US embassy with duty free liquer imported and traded n PROFITS POCKETED. The salary to the US embassy staff not declared, well below your as well indian standards, no taxes paid as per laws.

Posted by gopiksh | Report as abusive

Now the US of A has to be worried that the rest of the world is also watching the incident to act accordingly with the Americans internationally.

Posted by gopiksh | Report as abusive

@RajeshJohn: We all would like to know the source of this 99% upper caste scoop. It is simply an eye opener. And (another) funny thing is that an educated Johny like you and I was commenting on some post yesterday that she is being shielded by Indian Government because she is upper caste. Honestly I don’t know much about your caste and care even less, but if your point is that the so called lower castes should be allowed to commit crimes in USA, then I would request you raise it with Bobby Jindal of GOP. I am not sure about his caste though

Posted by Ghulab | Report as abusive

India should provide as much protection to the US diplomats as the US is willing to provide to Indian diplomats and this should not be based on some verbal understanding but on signed agreements between the governments.

And no the real losers will not be citizens of India and its diplomats for they are already subjected to harsh treatment at the hands of US law enforcement as is amply demonstrated in the current case. The real loser will be citizens of the US and its diplomats in India at least.

Now it seems the seriousness of the situation and seriousness of India’s stand is beginning to sink in at least in some circles in the US. Contrast this with the initial reactions in most of the US press.

Posted by trinetra | Report as abusive

How arresting a US citizen, non diplomatic staff at embassy or Diplomats can put then in physical danger? While arresting, handcuff, strip & cavity search and locking her with violent criminal a consul officer is OK. Is the author not again using double standards? It is right time that so called first world nationals are created the same way in India like Indian are treated in those countries.

Sorry, boat has sailed… we can’t restore the special privileges. If you love burger and beer please buy from us (third world people) and not from burger selling US embassy.

Posted by trinetra | Report as abusive

Lets look at some facts of the case:

1) The maid had a contract signed with the Government of India & was paid according to it. Additionally, as others have pointed out, she lived in a well-furnished Manhattan apartment with meals paid for. So much for the “treated as a slave” canard that the US media trots out

2) If she had a wage dispute, she should have raised it with her employer or the Govt of India. She didn’t do either. She absconded one morning. This wage dispute case belongs to the Indian courts

3) Due to her disappearance without notice, there was a case filed against her in the New Delhi high court. The US State Department was also duly notified of the same. Devyani tried to file a missing person complaint with the missing persons office of the NYPD, which wouldn’t entertain her case!

4) Reciprocity is the first principle of diplomacy

5) The Indian response has been muted at best. The privileges that have been withdrawn were non-reciprocal ones that shouldn’t have been extended to American diplomats in the first place

6) If India really wants to go after American diplomats’ law-transgressions, the list is a long one. Starting from underpayment (per Indian laws) of Indians employed in American consulates, the hit & run killing of an Indian in Delhi streets (for which India let the American diplomat off the hook), the non-reporting of incomes earned by wives of consular officials in Indian schools etc.

7) US consular officials committed visa fraud for arranging for visas for the maid’s family when there was a pending case against them in India. This is a blatant intervention in India’s judicial system. The US State or Justice departments have no jurisdiction over Indians living in India. India would be well within its rights to conduct “in absentia” trials of both US Justice & State Department officials for visa fraud

8) Cavity searching, as per Indian law, amounts to “custodial rape”. India can, once again, conduct “in absentia” trials of US DOJ marshals

9) The indecent haste with which the maid’s family was shipped out of India, in spite of the State Department being made aware of the cases against them, suggests something more sinister. It wouldn’t be a stretch to suspect that the maid and/or her family were spying on behalf of the US.

Posted by Sreshta | Report as abusive

India owes the United States an apology over this incident. This diplomat should be suspended from her duties pending outcome of this litigation. The best way to resolve the issue would be for India to apologize and issue a statement saying that it is official policy that all overseas representatives obey foreign laws. The crooked and hysterical response in India to this incident including the petty treatment of US representatives, and manufactured investigations does not speak well for India which seems to think that this type of behavior will help matters. India seems to be working under the assumption that some at the US State Department can pick up the phone and call the Federal Prosecutor and ask them to give up the case. This is not possible, although perhaps that is the way things work in India. If this diplomat is innocent, the truth will come out soon enough. If she is not, then after conviction she can be expelled from the United States.

Posted by WestFlorida | Report as abusive

Even if we assume that the diplomat was not on the right side of US Law, there were many ways of handling this issue in a far better manner.
It is clear that an example was made out of it, why? may be Mr Bharara wants to show himself ‘holier than the priest’ and he was successful too. But what it has proved again is that US cannot be trusted, they can’t be friends to anyone.
I’m happy India showed some spine.

Posted by aamatya | Report as abusive

Visa fraud is a way of life in India.

It was only last month that Infosys Ltd, India’s giant software services firm, was hit with a record $35 million fine on by the US government for rampant visa fraud, both of the H1B Visa program and the B1 Visa program.

One must remember that India has a very different history and culture than the United States.

India’s cultural history includes its famous caste system. The Indian cultural tradition of Suttee, the ritual burning alive of the widows, and Thugee, the ritual strangling of travelers by fanatics who deemed it a religious duty, were stopped only with great difficulty by the British, persisting even into the 20th century.

India’s culture has had migration after migration from every direction. It is made up of Hindus, Moslems, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Christians, just to start. India has literally dozens of languages, great corruption, a very high crime rate and chronic diseases like tuberculosis. Everybody speaking a different language, worshiping a different god, fighting each other.

Only last month major news stories have involved the long prevalence and acceptance of gang-rape in India. The caste system is gone, and yet it is not gone.

In India, bribery and government corruption is a way of life. Abusing the H1B visa system there is taken for granted. Abusing the H1B Visa program in India is an industry in and of itself. The vast majority of all H1B visa’s obtained by Indians have at least some element of fraud.

In this current Reuters article, it seems to me that America was right to arrest the Indian official. America should not let the atmosphere of habitual visa corruption (also recently exemplified by Infosys on a large scale) become a way of life in America.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

The real winner in this whole episode is the maid who used the diplomat’s error in filling the D160 form either intentionally or mistakenly and and a over ambitious and naive american prosecutor to get a permanent residency for her and her family in US. Kudos to the maid and her advisors . Long live indian ingenuity.

Posted by reuterssd | Report as abusive

“27 missions presented compelling arguments that their lower grade employees fall short of minimal living standards. These arguments included accounts of LE staff:
• Removing children from school
• Cutting back to one meal a day
• Sending children to sell water or little cakes or toiletries on the streets
• Foregoing prescription medication”

The staff were getting less than $1 a day!

Guess which country reported this about its own staff ?
http://oig.state.gov/documents/organizat ion/123525.pdf

As brought out by the author, the essential problem is of doublespeak. And the essential trouble will be faced by US embassy staff abroad, who get far more preferential treatment. Imagine if the Delhi police raid the US embassy club in “standard procedure” used for illegal bars and clubs.

Posted by BornJinx | Report as abusive

@AdamSmith: India has never dropped nuclear bomb and killed million of human beings. You are very good in detailing the phase which India is going through and a little about history. I hope you’ll learn more what attracted people all across the world to India in Medieval period.

Posted by Insaan | Report as abusive

What’s lost in this legal/diplomatic episode is meaning of *American Exceptionalism* and how its applied world-wide by hegemonic state power of America.

From what I’ve been reading in The Hindu tells me that even a serious paper from old Madras can really whisper that there is something seriously wrong about today’s American hegemonic power.

Compared to America, Indian subcontinent is not only old but culturally more diverse and pluralistic because of what the writer from Rand calls varied *languages*.

Dr Singh has given official notice of retiring in a few months. So expect all hell breaking lose on American diplomats in their sanctuary in Delhi…and more.

Posted by hariknaidu | Report as abusive

A rare balanced report from a Western writer. However, he is barking up the wrong tree if he believes that these non-reciprocal privileges could be restored to American diplomats. That ship sailed a long time ago. Those “security barriers” were unilaterally put up by the Americans on a public street just so that their diplomats could easily get to their “club” across the street; never mind the inconvenience to the locals and everyone else. Indian diplomats face the same security threats from the same actors, and yet their embassy in the US was denied their request not to locate a public parking lot adjacently. It is a new world. Get used to it.

Posted by zamo14 | Report as abusive