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The unnecessary spat over a diplomat's arrest

Business Standar Editorial Comment  |  New Delhi 


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The high-profile arrest on a Manhattan street of a mid-level Indian diplomat has set off a minor confrontation between India and the United States that should have been avoided. Devyani Khobragade, India's deputy consul general in New York, was arrested and handcuffed by officers of the South New York district attorney's office on charges of visa fraud. The allegations are being called "grave" by the US, but are being dismissed as non-serious by the Indian authorities. This is not mere semantics; according to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, consular diplomats do not have full diplomatic immunity. They can be arrested for grave crimes. The allegations against Ms Khobragade are essentially that she defrauded the US visa process by promising to pay the lady who worked for her as domestic help, Sangeeta Richard, the minimum wages required by US law. Instead, it is argued by the district attorney's office, Ms Khobragade paid Ms Richard only Rs 30,000 per month - under $500 a month, which works out to only $3.30 an hour, just over a third of the prevailing wage for the work Ms Richard was doing. If so, not only did Ms Khobragade violate the minimum wage law, but she also misled the US government at the time it was granting Ms Richard a visa.

The reaction from the Indian Foreign Service has been predictably furious. It has been argued that Indian diplomats cannot do without domestic help; and that those workers could not possibly be paid the prevailing wages, since then they would be paid in the same ballpark as those they are serving. The nature of Ms Khobragade's alleged crime has been minimised. It has been suggested that US diplomats in India be watched carefully, in case they put a foot wrong, as a form of retaliation. It is argued that the US, as a "friendly country", should not have treated Ms Khobragade like a common criminal and arrested and handcuffed her on the street. This is an unfortunate turn of events. Several points need to be noted. First of all, US law enforcement is fiercely independent. The district attorney for Southern New York, the high-profile Indian-American Preet Bharara, is not likely to listen to requests from the State Department in Washington if he believes he is carrying out his duties within the framework of the law. In the US all accused offenders are treated alike - witness the handcuffing of International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn a few years ago. Mr Bharara has made it his mission to address the question of mistreatment of domestic workers by Indians in the US, which has reached alarming proportions of late. In June 2011, India's consul general in New York was sued by his Indian housekeeper for forcing sexual favours. In February 2012, another consular official paid a fine for forcing an underage Indian girl to work without pay and for "barbaric treatment".

Clearly, Indian diplomats can no longer maltreat their domestic workers in the US. The US has worker-friendly laws, and it is to India's shame if its officials are not following them. This incident cannot be allowed to cast a shadow on India-US relations, and the ministry of external affairs should end its policy of supporting the use of domestic workers for its officials abroad.

First Published: Sun, December 15 2013. 21:38 IST