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A maid rattles US – India ties

Melkulangara BHADRAKUMAR | 30.12.2013 | 00:00

A first rate diplomatic row has erupted over the heavy-handed arrest and detention of India’s deputy consul-general in New York Devyani Khobragade a fortnight ago by the US authorities. The charge against her is that she willfully committed a visa fraud by submitting a visa application for her domestic help Sangeeta Richard, which allegedly contained false and inaccurate statements.

The Indian diplomat was arrested on a public street in Manhattan, New York, on December 12 morning, held in a cell and was released on bail after executing a bond of quarter of a million dollars and surrendering her diplomatic passport. The case has been slated for hearing in the US court in mid-January.

By Khobragade’s account, «I broke down many times as the indignities of repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches, swabbing, hold up with common criminals and drug addicts were all being imposed upon me despite my incessant assertions of (diplomatic) immunity».

The US lobbyists in the Indian media insist that it is a discord over varying interpretations of diplomatic privileges and immunities under the Vienna Convention. But the shadow play is significant. Many intriguing elements remain unexplained:

- The US authorities kept the actual whereabouts of Richard a closely guarded secret for the past several months.

- The Indians made several demarche over the past six months with the US state department that there is a Delhi High Court injunction seeking Richard’s repatriation to India to stand trial, but they were ignored.

- Finally, in a covert operation, American embassy in Delhi bought the air tickets and spirited away Richard’s family members to the US just prior to the arrest of Khobragade.

- Quite obviously, Richard has become a valuable «asset» for the US.

- The US been aware for years, if not decades, that the domestic staff of Indian diplomats use official passports and are paid wages by Indian norms – in this case, US$ 500 as net monthly income (or savings) plus air passages to New York, home leave fares, comprehensive medical coverage and free housing and lodging in diplomatic premises, all paid for by the Indian government. These norms are well-known to the US embassy and are, actually, far above the quality of life available for tens of millions of Americans, both Blacks and Whites. Nonetheless, a diplomatic row has been precipitated.

- The despicable and barbaric treatment meted out to Khobragade was far out of proportion to the alleged crime she committed.

- Washington even risked bringing into the crosshairs the glaring asymmetry between the seamless diplomatic privileges and immunities accorded to the US consular staff posted in India by its specious plea that Vienna Convention did not provide for immunity for the Indian diplomats posted in the consulate in New York. The Khobragade case is, clearly, a high-stakes game.

From all appearance, the US intelligence was masterminding the case and the State Department played a secondary role as the «front desk». In fact, the Indian Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh was holding consultations in the state department in Washington when the operation against Khobragade was about to be mounted in Manhattan, but the American side kept her in darkness.

All things put together, therefore, the impression becomes unavoidable that Washington kicked up the nasty diplomatic row to deflect attention from the whereabouts of Richard as such. Indeed, the discourse has instead taken either an intellectual form dwelling on the mystique of the Vienna Convention or other salacious issues such as the lifestyle of Indian diplomats in general, their capacity for humility or «non-feudal» behavior and so on. According to sources, the American embassy in Delhi has been doing terrific media management.

Unsurprisingly, Delhi has focused its efforts in the first instance on getting the US authorities to drop the charges against Khobragade. However, the US will expect a «deal» that involves making the closure of the criminal case against Khobragade conditional on their not having to hand over Richard to Indian custody. The bottom line will be Richard’s «immunity» from interrogation by the Indian security agencies.

Why such paranoia? The reading in Delhi is that Richard colluded with her American handlers to frame the Indian diplomat. Indeed, it doesn’t need much ingenuity to figure out the shadow play of espionage. Edward Snowden’s disclosures revealed that the security of the Indian diplomatic and consular establishments has been comprehensively breached by the US intelligence. The point is, Richard worked as a maid in the Indian compound in New York where the diplomats posted in the consulate and in the permanent mission to the United Nations live.

Delhi traditionally adopted a relaxed attitude toward the American diplomatic establishments. It has now begun talking about reciprocity. Delhi could haul up dozens of American diplomats posted in India for open violation of Indian laws. For example, family members of US diplomats take gainful employment in India without taking permission from the foreign ministry, as they are expected to, and do not even pay income tax. The US embassy and consulates in India employ local staff at wages that are far below the prescribed norms in America.

A denouement to the diplomatic row is inevitable at some point. But the core issue remains, namely, there has been extensive US intelligence penetration of India in the recent years. Alas, a lackadaisical attitude has developed amongst the Indian elites generally over the US’ track record of subverting foreign countries. Even reasonably intelligent people suspend disbelief and indulge in esoteric interpretations of the Vienna Convention and diplomatic immunity to explain away what happened.

However, the good thing is that a maid has rattled the US-India ties. What happened over the past fortnight brought to the surface the state of play in the US-Indian relationship, although rhetorically it has been hailed as the «defining partnership of the 21 st century».

The neocon rhetoric is wearing thin. In sum, India’s reluctance to be party to the US’ rebalance strategy in Asia irks Washington and the Indian market failed to generate massive business opportunities for US companies, belying the hopes in Washington. In turn, India feels frustrated that the high hopes raised by the 2008 US-India nuclear deal have petered out.

However, nothing much will really change in the alchemy of the US-Indian relationship. No matter the rhetoric, it has been a transactional relationship where both sides did cherry-picking. Ironically, amidst the current diplomatic row, India and the US signed in Delhi on Friday yet another mega defence deal for supply of six more C-130J «Super Hercules» aircraft.

Delhi knows the Americans will make a few hundred million dollars worth profit out of this $1.01 billion deal, but then, India apparently needs this awesome product for the modernization of its armed forces and is willing to pay the asking price.

Equally, the Americans are eagerly awaiting the Indian orders for M-177 ultra-light howitzers, Apache attack helicopters, Chinook heavy-life helicopters and P8I maritime patrol planes – all worth another cool $4.3 billion. These are deals stuck outside the ambit of open global tenders or competitive bidding and are worth their weight in gold.

Suffice to say, the US will be anxious to get over the hump. For the Indian elites, too, life without America is unthinkable. A columnist of Times of India newspaper wrote yesterday that the Indian expatriate community in America is mighty upset with Khobragade. Indeed, that is entirely plausible. The «NRIs» in North America (Non-Resident Indians) are largely drawn from the upper castes of Hindu society and have extensive social kinships with the elites in Delhi. (Khobragade is a ‘Dalit’ woman.)

Besides, the US also effectively leverages the so-called CEOs Forum, which comprises powerful figures in the Indian corporate industry who are stakeholders in the US-Indian partnership.

The Richard file is the third glaring instance that came to light in the recent years regarding robust American espionage activities in India. The previous two have been shoved under the carpet with delectable ease, thanks to political interference. The Richard file was receiving the attention of the Indian counter-intelligence as far back as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to New York in September. Evidently, no one in the Indian bureaucracy showed the gumption to upset the apple cart of the US-Indian defining partnership of the 21st century.

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    Valentin KATASONOV

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Melkulangara BHADRAKUMAR

Former career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. Devoted much of his 3-decade long career to the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran desks in the Ministry of External Affairs and in assignments on the territory of the former Soviet Union.  After leaving the diplomatic service, took to writing and contribute to The Asia Times, The Hindu and Deccan Herald. Lives in New Delhi.

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