Chidanand Rajghatta,TNN | Dec 29, 2013, 05.46 AM IST
Devyani Khobragade case on backburner, US poised to irretrievably lose unilateral privileges
What is emerging clearly from Devyani Khobragade episode is that US diplomatic corps is poised to irretrievably lose many of the unilateral privileges it had in India.
WASHINGTON: In the annals of diplomatic exchanges across the world, it has long been understood that the United States will get more consular and protocol privileges than it will give to other countries. After all, the argument went, the US has the world's largest diplomatic corps, does more outreach, and its personnel face greater danger abroad than those from any other country. So if Americans demand greater security, easier access, more privileges in New Delhi or Islamabad or Kabul than it would give to diplomatic counterparts from these countries in Washington or New York, it was accepted without question — because it was reasoned that US diplomats faced more dangers and difficulties abroad than foreign diplomats did in the United States.
Someone in the US diplomatic service didn't apparently get this memo, and didn't quite understand and appreciate this aspect of foreign policy engagement. Their "foolish" overreach and "law and order" approach in the case of Devyani Khobragade, the Indian diplomat who is in the dock in New York for allegedly stiffing her housekeeper, will result in a drastic and "unfortunate" reassessment of US privileges that the American diplomatic corps will find unpleasant, going by conversations with Indian diplomats and officials who have stood up in anger at what they see as a vindictive singling out of their colleague in New York.
The officials, all of who spoke only on background, refuted the US suggestion that they were being vengeful towards the US diplomatic corps and endangering the US embassy by explaining the context behind the removal of traffic barriers around the US embassy in New Delhi, ostensibly in retaliation for the treatment meted out their colleague in New York. The barriers, they said, had been installed several years back in the teeth of opposition from several other embassies nearby (notably the French and Swedish) which complained it constrained them. They were done as a special consideration for the Americans, despite the fact that the US side had turned down similar reciprocal requests from the Indian side. A decision to remove the barriers was taken several weeks back when the US side removed a diplomatic parking lane in front of the Indian embassy in Washington DC (that also served as security perimeter) and turned it into public parking.
While the action to remove traffic barriers in New Delhi coincided with the diplomatic spat, Indian officials made no secret of their desire to see a level playing field in what many of them see as an iniquitous distribution of privileges. One aspect that has caused much rancor, besides the larger issue of diplomatic immunity to consular officials, is the treatment of Indian diplomats at US airports (some of whom have been subjected to special pat downs because of their attire) compared to their US counterparts in India who breeze through with special security clearance. It's another matter - and one the Indian diplomatic corps chooses to gloss over - that the prevalent VIP culture in India is an enabler of such special treatment, which the US side says they does not insist on, except where there are security considerations.
It is the same culture that the US side believes has resulted in the Khobragade imbroglio. They see in the episode a sense of entitlement on part of the elite Indian Foreign Service. But the Indian diplomatic corps believe the issue is much larger — it is the sense of US entitlement that its diplomats be treated differently abroad than it would treat foreign diplomats in the US. The Khobragade case, one official explained, is illustrative of a larger malaise, reeling off instances where the US insisted on full diplomatic immunity to its personnel involved in egregious offenses, while in the Khobragade case "elevating what was a simple wage dispute to a human trafficking case." Also at stake in the case is the primacy of each country's legal-judicial system. Since the judicial process in the dispute between the diplomat and the housekeeper had already ticked off in India, US authorities should have respected the process.
So some two weeks after the two sides got embroiled in a diplomatic spat involving Khobragade and her troubles with a disgruntled housekeeper, the stand-off is no closer to resolution. On one side there is unabated rancor, resentment, and dismay. On the other side: surprise, stony silence, and indifference. In fact, the matter has gone off the boil with many US officials central to resolving the crisis going off on vacation in the holiday season even as the Indian embassy in Washington is having a changeover with the arrival of the new ambassador S Jaishankar.
The new envoy had initial meetings with the State Department soon after he reached Washington DC but the only thing that has emerged after the first engagement is that there is a yawning gap in perception between the two sides that will not be easily or quickly bridged. The US side is said to be mystified by the Indian "over-reaction" and would like the episode to be move out of the headlines before any attempt can be made to disentangle the issue from the legal and judicial quagmire where it has been thrown into. The Indian side is equally astonished at the bureaucratic approach and political indifference to the matter, which they say has thrown sand in the bilateral relationship which may be hard to remove.
What is emerging clearly from the episode is that the United States diplomatic corps is poised to irretrievably lose many of the unilateral privileges it had in India, a special dispensation that the Indian side had accepted quietly because they had been instituted for historical reasons - such as the commissary that sold duty-free western goods to embassy personnel and the American school attached to the mission. Stung by the Khobragade episode, the Indian side has made it clear everything will now come under the lens.