(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.