The US media has called the Indian reaction to diplomat Devyani Khobragade’s arrest and strip search, “revenge”.
But sources in the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) say, if anything, it was the US government who wrought revenge on Indian diplomat for a perceived insult meted out to one of their own by New Delhi some months back, looking at an opportunity to get back.
In 2010, Neena Malhotra, a consul at the Indian consulate in New York was accused by her domestic help Shanti Gurung of “slavery”. A New York court in 2012 decided in Gurung’s favour. It directed Malhotra and her husband to award $1.5 million for “barbaric treatment” they meted out to Gurung. Malhotra and her husband didn’t attend hearings, having returned to India before Gurung filed her suit. The court ordered damages be recovered from the Malhotras, which would have meant any assets they might have in the US to have been seized. Malhotra appealed against the verdict but didn’t travel to the US.
In New Delhi, Malhotra occupied important postings. She was, until recently, joint secretary in the visa division. Here, in November, 2013, Malhotra refused a visa to the spouse of a gay US diplomat when she discovered that the couple were homosexual. She said Indian law didn’t recognise gay marriages.
Sources say this hurt the Americans as the Indian diplomat threw the rule book at them. Given South Block’s relations with the US, the US Embassy ensured that Malhotra was transferred out soon enough and the gay couple granted visa. There was a feeling that Malhotra may have been unfairly insistent that the American diplomat follow the rule book, when the spouse could have been granted a visa as a family member if not as spouse.
A source said Malhotra may have only been doing to the Americans what they did to her over the maid issue.
However, Malhotra was shifted to managing archives and records, clearly a punishment posting.
But the Americans were not satisfied. In New Delhi, IFS officers were upset that one phone call from Roosevelt House ensured the diplomat was moved out, in what was clearly a very public message to the entire diplomatic corps that the Americans should not be treated lightly. This, when the diplomat was only following laid down rules.
Further, as Khobragade’s father Uttam Khobragade told news media, the in-laws of his daughter’s domestic help, Sangeeta Rcihard, work for the US Embassy. The embassy ensured that Richards’s husband and two children were able to leave India for the US, two days before Khobragade was arrested.
There will likely be many questions asked about the reasons for this special treatment to Richards by the US and ‘standard’ treatment to Khobragade, over alleged visa fraud over wages.
Sources said Khobragade’s case had brewed since March. The US government had alerted the Indians in September about the case but didn’t take any further action. The Indian embassy also failed to take the warning seriously because it had become routine to ignore discrepancies in wages between diplomats and personal staff brought with them on contract. And although Khobragade, herself, doesn’t make the minimum wage in the US, she remains out of the ambit and protection of US law as she is an employee of the Indian government.
Sources said the Americans have become used red carpet treatment in the last decade, particularly during the Manmohan Singh years. Malhotra’s refusal to grant visa was an insult for which the Americans wanted to pay back the Indians. This is where they extracted revenge on Khobragade – treated her like a common criminal, arrested her in front of her daughter and strip and cavity searched her.
Sources said the Manmohan Singh government would ordinarily have buckled under, as in the past, when it comes to the US, but the IFS top brass felt humiliated, as this came within weeks of Roosevelt House ensuring Malhotra’s transfer.
Other factors that contributed to this situation included the prominence of the Khobragade family in Maharashtra. Her father was a top bureaucrat and active in the dalit politics of the state. Ignoring the Khobragade case could have backfired on the Congress in election season. The party could have been placed in a difficult position in a state where it still enjoys sizable support among dalits.
The issue could likely move towards resolution with the US Secretary of State John Kerry expressing his “regret” to NSA Shivshankar Menon. But with the belligerent statement of US Attorney Preet Bharara after Kerry’s phone call relations appear unlikely to improve anytime soon.
External affairs minister Salman Khurshid claimed that Khobragade has entrapped in a “conspiracy”. India’s ambassador to South Korea Vishnu Prakash tweeted that “USA treated Devyani like a Taliban member in Guantanamo. Arrested & handcuffed her before her daughter in front of school gate”.
Former Ambassador to the US Ronen Sen has said that he had advocated for India to withdraw all non-reciprocal privileges that the Americans received in India, several years back. Former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal said there were many other such wage dispute cases involving US politicians, without them facing the treatment given to Khobragade.
India has transferred Devyani to its UN mission in New York. This gives her immunity from the US law.
A war of words also broke out within the IFS fraternity, with former secretary K.C. Singh openly accusing former foreign secretary and outgoing ambassador to the US, Nirupama Rao, of leaving India-US relations in shambles while herself having found a post-retirement sinecure.
Read the chronology of events that took place, eventually leading to the current controversy over the arrest and mistreatment of Devyani Khobragade by US authorities.