U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called Indian National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon on Wednesday to “express his regret” regarding the very public diplomatic row regarding the arrest of India’s deputy consul general Devyani Khobragade in New York on December 12. Kerry also noted his concern that the two friendly nations “not allow this unfortunate public issue to hurt [the] close and vital relationship.”
Menon is one of many elected and unelected officials who have publicly denounced the United States’ handling of the arrest — where she was handcuffed and strip-searched — as “despicable” and “barbaric.” Khobragade is accused of submitting false documents in an application for her housekeeper to live and work in the U.S. and of not paying the housekeeper a minimum wage, as per the affidavit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice. While Khobragade is entitled to some diplomatic immunity related to her official duties, consular officials are still subject to arrest or detention for felonies.
Furor and backlash is resounding in all parts of the Indian society. ThinkProgress earlier noted that the arrest set off a growing feud, with many prominent officials chiming in. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the treatment “deplorable.” Indian National Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi and several ministers declined to meet five visiting U.S. Members of Congress. Opposition party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Narendra Modi sided with the majority for once, tweeting he would “stand in solidarity protesting ill-treatment meted to our lady diplomat in USA.”
Protests and calls for India to take an actual stand led to a series of petty reprisals — Indian authorities removed security barricades surrounding the U.S. embassy in New Delhi, revoked the identity cards of U.S. consular personnel, and began investigating salaries paid to Indian staff members at U.S. consulates. Citing the recent Indian Supreme Court decision outlawing homosexuality, one BJP official suggested arresting the same-sex partners of U.S. diplomats. As the BJP put it, India should “match each and every step of the U.S., to take serious action in this matter to establish Indian sovereignty and prestige of its diplomatic community.”
The U.S. handling of the situation certainly raises concerns on standard U.S. Marshall and State department protocol — are strip-searches necessary, even if performed by a female deputy marshal as the Department of Justice has clarified? Do the charges against Khobragade warrant public handcuffing? Scuttled under the fiery words and cries of humiliation, though, it has been forgotten that there are serious charges against the diplomat, and that the domestic worker is also an Indian. The bipartisan approach in which elected officials in India have come to Khobragade’s defense is a good sign of political pandering with the upcoming 2014 elections — where politicians are keen to show voters that Indian pride is still alive and well.
The Indian narrative surrounding this case reveals a troubling gender and class bias. The arrest and humiliation of a middle-class Indian woman has caused national outrage, yet the mistreatment of the lower-class maid goes unmentioned or worse vilified. The New York Times noted that “[it] is not unusual in India for domestic staff to be paid poorly and be required to work more than 60 hours a week.” The only statement that the Indian Embassy has made about the domestic worker in this case — Sangeeta Richard — is noting in a press release that she is the subject of an Indian warrant for “blackmailing by Ms. Richard demanding that she be permitted to change her passport, visa status and to work elsewhere.”
Indian officials appear to be reaffirming a norm that the poor should not be afforded the same rights as wealthier Indian citizens, with External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid stating his dismay, “I don’t think [the family of the maid] are so valuable to our relationship as a diplomatic officer of the government of India.”
Take also the case of the convoluted gender norm in India. A prominent Indian businessman and former operations head for IT giant Infosys stated that “no nation can be graceful at the cost of its honor, a woman at the cost of her chastity and a man at the cost of his dignity.” While the strip search seems potentially excessive, albeit standard protocol, Indian officials and the public appear to be equating her treatment with sexual exploitation, and even rape.
This association with sexual violence and the subsequent outrage reveal contradictory strands in Indian society. Indian officials and the public have infused the incident with sexuality, implying violation of an Indian woman. These accusations gloss over the diplomat’s actual treatment, and emerge from a backdrop of rampant sexual violence that often goes unnoticed or unreported.
This week marks the one-year anniversary of the Delhi bus rape case that shocked the world, upon which the father of the victim stated that “women would never be safe in India until there was a significant change in social attitudes towards sexual violence.” That clearly has not been the case, as the number of rapes in the first 10 months of 2013 was double that of 2012, according to October figures by India’s National Criminal Records Bureau.
Earlier this year, when a Swiss woman was gang raped in India as her husband was beaten, a BJP minister suggested that tourists were putting themselves at greater risk by failing to inform the police of their travel plans. ThinkProgress has reported that India’s deeply-ingrained rape culture — which perpetrates a stigma surrounding sexual assault, often blames the victims for endangering themselves, and ultimately dissuades people from reporting crimes to the police — is an ongoing war against the women who live there.
Whether this will boil over in due time, or remain a contentious issue remains to be seen as the United States and India look to bolster their relationship. Both nations are seeking to diffuse the situation. Secretary Kerry has reached out to India’s NSA Adviser Menon while the Indian government has chosen to transfer Khobragade to India’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York, seeking to enhance her immunity. But for now, by criticizing the U.S. approach in conducting its arrest process and rule of law, India’s questionable approach in seeking greater immunity for a diplomat who has allegedly committed a crime stains India’s claim of a nation ruled by law.
Aarthi Gunasekaran is a Research Assistant with the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress, where her work focuses primarily on U.S. policy in South Asia and the Middle East.