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Will the US ‘lose’ India? The Khobragade human rights puzzle

When the US attorney seeks to glow with a human rights halo, this is met with an angry groan in India.

Indian Prime Minster Dr. Manmohan Singh has a reputation for dithering and not speaking out. A cartoon that has gone viral in New Delhi shows a dentist asking Mr. Singh, who is lying on a table, “please open your mouth, at least here?” This is why when Dr. Manmohan Singh’s government takes a public stand against the US, the Washington DC mandarins should take note.

The proximate reason is the case of Ms. Devyani Khobragade, a 39 year-old Indian diplomat, arrested in mid-December 2013 by the US Diplomatic Security Service. She was charged with visa fraud and underpaying her domestic help, Sangeeta Richard. 

First, the facts. Ms. Richard arrived in the US with the Khobragade family in November 2012 to work as a nanny. In June 2013, Ms. Richard went missing. Ms. Khobragade contacted the appropriate authorities to report this case. After living with some friends, Ms. Richard contacted Safe Horizon, a nongovernmental organization which, “promotes justice for victims of crime and abuse.”  In July 2013, Ms. Richard’s lawyer contacted Ms. Khobragade and demanded a new passport (an ordinary one instead of the diplomatic one) for Ms. Richard and compensation for her work.

Ms. Khobragade saw this as extortion and lodged a complaint with the New York police. As the legal dispute escalated, the Indian government revoked Ms. Richard’s diplomatic passport. In November 2013, Ms. Khobragade initiated legal proceedings against Ms. Richard in India and the court issued a warrant against Ms. Richard. In December 2013, two days prior to Ms. Khobragade's arrest in New York, Ms. Richard’s family (Philip Richard and their two children) were spirited out of India by the US Embassy, an act which seems to be straight out of a John Le Carré novel. 

With the Richard family out of India, US authorities arrested Ms. Khobragade. But the story does not stop here. Ms. Khobragade was strip-searched (also by some accounts subjected to a cavity search), and placed in a police lock-up with violent criminals. This treatment meted out to a woman diplomat outraged the Indian press, especially in the light of the furore over heinous rape cases in Delhi.

To aggravate the situation, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Mr. Preet Baharara, in defending the Richard family’s secret rescue, made provocative statements about the legal system in India.  Because he is a political appointee, this was interpreted in India as also the position of the US Administration.

India retaliated. It withdrew the non-reciprocal privileges granted to US consular staff. India expelled Mr. Wayne May, the US diplomat stationed in the New Delhi Embassy, who masterminded the spiriting away of the Richard family. Alongside this, another scandal has unfolded. Wayne May and his wife Alicia Muller May, had been posting highly offensive and racist comments about India on their Facebook page. This made Indians wonder about their possible motives in “helping” the Richard family.

In January 2014, the US recognized Ms. Khobragade’s diplomatic status and allowed her to return to India. Yet, fundamental issues persist. Whose human rights were violated? From the US perspective, Ms. Khobragade violated the human rights of Ms. Richard by underpaying her.  From the Indian perspective, however, the US violated the human rights of Ms. Khobragade and allowed itself to be manipulated by an individual wanting to emigrate.

There are other issues as well. The United States foreign policy style is perceived to be arrogant. In addition to its declining military and economic power, the US has lost considerable moral credibility due to Guantanamo, phone tapping, and drone strikes. When the US attorney seeks to glow with a human rights halo, this is met with an angry groan in India.

In 2011, when Raymond Davis, a CIA security contractor shot and killed two Pakistani citizens in Lahore, the US proclaimed that he was a diplomat (which he was not) and therefore could not be tried in Pakistan. In the case of Devyani Khobragade, the US insisted on trying her although she had diplomatic status. Double standards such as these further undermine US credibility.

After the end of the second world war, the US was perplexed to find China becoming a hostile power. “Who lost China” became an important issue in US foreign and domestic politics. It remains to be seen whether “Who lost India” becomes an issue of future debate.

About the author

Aseem Prakash is the Walker Family Professor for the College of Arts and Sciences at University of Washington, SeattleHe studies environmental issues, international political economy, and NGO politics, and is the author of Greening the Firm: The Politics of Corporate Environmentalism (Cambridge, 2000), and the co-editor of Advocacy Organizations and Collective Action (Cambridge, 2010), and Voluntary Regulations of NGOs and Nonprofits: An Accountability Club Framework (Cambridge, 2010).

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