The Whole Truth Behind The Devyani Khobragade Row


When the first news of Devyani Khobragade’s arrest in the US began coming in, it just seemed to be a straight forward case of a domestic help arrangement gone wrong. However, once details of her being strip searched and cavity searched surfaced, it seemed like there was more than meets the eye. The first thing that became apparent and was widely agreed upon was that she had been treated highly inappropriately. There are three modes of arrest prevalent in the US, the first involves the DA calling the defense counsel and setting up a date and time for surrender and thereafter the arrestee shows up and is taken in discreetly and respectfully. This is the usual procedure for crimes that aren’t of a serious nature and should have been the logical choice in this case too, even more so given that the person in question was a foreign diplomat. The second option involves the police showing up at the person’s house and making the arrest. The element of shock and awe exists, but at least the arrest is made discreetly and doesn’t involve excess trauma or public humiliation. However in Devyani’s case, the third option was exercised. She was picked up on a cold winter morning while she was dropping her child at school and handcuffed in full public view. Thereafter, she was dumped in a cell with sex workers, drug addicts and petty criminals. This was followed by repeated strip searches and cavity searches. Not only is this entire process deployed in the case of hardened criminals and Devyani clearly wasn’t one; on a logical level, what were the searches conducted for? Such intrusive searches are usually required in the cases of drug dealers and violent criminals to detect concealed drugs or weapons. Given that Devyani was arrested for a domestic help wage dispute, what were they looking for in her cavities? The maid?

But all this is assuming that the arrest needed to have been made in the first place. The arrest comes inspite of an existing injunction handed out by the Delhi High Court on the same issue in September, that bars any other Court abroad from taking up this issue. There is also a warrant in the name of the maid, due to allegations that she attempted to blackmail Devyani. Furthermore, the maid’s family was flown in to the US on a T visa, a special category document that is used to evacuate people on an emergency basis. This was done without notifying the Indian authorities and is even more problematic given that the matter was subjudice in the Indian courts. The US has clearly meddled to unjustifiable extents.

The US asserting that domestic laws must take precedence over immunity is the equivalent of Karan Johar campaigning for the preservation of section 377. The US has over the years used diplomatic immunity as a stick to fend off all sorts of actions against its operatives in foreign nations even in cases where its operatives didn’t formally have immunity and had committed crimes that involved the death of local citizens. In fact, the whole idea of diplomatic immunity and its sanctity was concocted by the western nations to enable their envoys to operate globally without the fear of persecution.

A quick look at the timeline of events leading up to Devyani’s arrest, makes the foul play even more evident.

If this issue was indeed as big as the above evidence suggests, there are two possible explanations to why is descended to such levels. The first is that the prosecuting attorney got a bit overzealous and went to town on Khobragade to prove a point. This is unlikely as the US government has intervened on several occasions to block legal action against diplomats as in the case of the Russian diplomats involved in insurance fraud in the US. Given, the nascent strategic courtship between the US and India, it would be reasonable to expect the US to have extended basic courtesies to the Indian diplomat in so much as ensuring she didn’t get arrested or treated the way she did. It would in fact not be wild to have expected the US to take steps in the direction of not pursuing this matter the way they did given the nature of this case and the Delhi High Court order. The other explanation and the more likely one involves Devyani Khobragade being collateral damage in a larger turf war between the US and India.

India and the US have been embroiled in a tussle over the situation in Bangladesh. With an onslaught of sporadic violence gripping Bangladesh, India and the US have been sharing concerns over its stability. The US’ stance on this issue has put it at odds with India with the US in favor of the main opposition, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Indian highly suspicious of it.

As per an article in The Times of India, “The US appears much more comfortable with the BNP-Jamaat combine, who have made no secret of their radicalized politics. India believes if this succeeds, Bangladesh would be very different as a nation. The politics of BNP and Jamaat have become more radicalized in the past couple of years. Indian intelligence has detected influences of both Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and al-Qaida. There is a lot of funding available to these groups from West Asian countries, and some from Pakistan. The US is less comfortable with Sheikh Hasina's government, especially after the PM's confrontation with Mohammed Yunus of Grameen Bank — the fracas over funding for the Padma bridge project — and also the war crimes tribunal. There appears to be a part of official thinking in the US that believes, according to sources here, BNP-Jamaat have better free market credentials, and that they would move away from radical Islam once they are in power. India is haunted by the 2001 Pyrdiwah massacre, when 15 BSF personnel were massacred by BDR troops in an ugly confrontation. BNP had explained Jamaat's place in government thus: it would be better to have them in than out. But once in government, Jamaat occupied the ministries crucial to furthering their radical agenda. Those years saw the flowering of Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and other terror groups like HuJI. India is opposed to a return to those days. An added regional vulnerability is the Rohingya problem in Myanmar. With heightened communal tensions in Myanmar along with considerable Rohingya population in Bangladesh, New Delhi believes that the situation is ripe for disaster. The implications of increased radicalized politics in Bangladesh would have terrible implications for Myanmar's stability. Again, reports of LeT and al-Qaida infiltration among Rohingyas are popping up frequently. The instability as a result of radical politics could spread to India's north-east and even China's Yunnan province."

Given this context, we must now look at a few curious facts. Sujata Singh, India’s foreign secretary was in Washington while the US state department cleared Devyani’s arrest. As per a senior official of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, Bangladesh was at the top of the contentious issues Sujata had raised with her US counterparts while there. Sujata Singh made India’s position explicit and clear in the course of her interaction and this is what is likely to have spurred the US to take measures they did to send India a strong message.

However what they probably didn't count on was India’s reaction. Used to a submissive India, they had their socks stuffed down their throats when India retaliated with the following measures:

1. All US diplomats were mandated to submit details of salaries paid to their servants, maids, gardeners and other domestic servants to the Indian authorities.

2. All American Schools were mandated to submit details of salaries paid to teachers and their bank account details, to be forwarded to Income Tax department for tax compliance.

3. All security barriers allowed to be erected on Nyaya Marg in the diplomatic enclave Chanakyapuri, New Delhi, for security purposes for the US embassy, were dismantled.

4. All import clearances given to US diplomats for importing fine food, wine and other costly items, as exemptions under customs duty rules, stood revoked.

5. All US diplomats working in consulates across India were asked to return their IDs and airport passes to Indian authorities.

These counter-measures were followed by the refusal of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar and National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon to meet a top-level bipartisan US Congressional delegation in New Delhi.

In response to the unprecedented retaliation from the Indian side, the US began to re-evaluate its stance and slowly backtrack on its actions with Kerry even offering an apology. The United States is accustomed to raising the stakes and pushing other countries with an arrogant brinkmanship that has characterized their dealing with nations such as India that they expect to have their way with. The maelstrom of a furious Indian public as well as a body politic has come as a surprise.

The ethics of defending a woman who was allegedly extorting a maid or defending the maid who was attempting to blackmail her employer is being debated endlessly on the Facebook page of our social media dilettantes, and simultaneously an attack on a Domino’s outlet (I guess Red, White and Blue aren't good colours for your logo anymore) is being undertaken by the more reactionary elements of our society. All told, the US aren't quite certain why or how, but they pushed too far - and the Indian political class, the Indian public, and the Indian media have shown that they are made of sterner stuff.


Unknown said…
Really interesting article man.

- reckon India's position at the recent trade/climate talks also contributed to US wanting to send a message? (i did not follow that closely, so my knowledge is sketchy)

- i understand that Kerry expressed regret, but did not apologize? In fact US has refused to apologize, is what my understanding is
KM said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
KM said…
Interesting theory, Aashay.

I'm curious about the status of the immunity those Russian diplomats had; was it full diplomatic immunity, or consular immunity (like Khobragade had)? A source would be much appreciated.

Also, in a case where an Indian is accused of a crime against an Indian in the jurisdiction of a foreign court, which judiciary has a claim?

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