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Shadow of cuffs looms on US posts

Washington, Dec. 13: Indo-US relations, already on a plateau on account of policy paralysis in New Delhi and a crisis of confidence in economic decision-making in India, is certain to suffer an operational setback with the arrest of Devyani Khobragade, deputy consul-general in New York yesterday.

For several years now, smooth-running the embassy in Washington and five consulates in the US has been a challenge for the external affairs ministry because there are no takers for diplomatic posts in America except at the senior-most levels.

Vacancies in the mission and in the five consular posts in the US — as in other foreign locations — are circulated by the foreign secretary’s office several months before they fall vacant and well in time before meetings of the Foreign Service Board (FSB) which fills these slots.

Because of repeated incidents similar to what Khobragade faced yesterday and legal activism in cities like New York, there are few takers for these American posts.

The arrest and public humiliation of the deputy consul-general yesterday — she was handcuffed and her daughter was left to fend for herself after she was taken away from their school — will ensure that even fewer Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officers will apply to go to the US.

This will mean the mission and posts will face a staffing crisis. At worst, it will be staffed with personnel with lower mettle who might otherwise not have been considered by the FSB for an important country like the US, where the demands of a vibrant bilateral relationship requires bright officers.

The IFS has in recent years viewed repeated American infractions of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations that governs relations between countries as coming in the way of the work of their members.

In addition, the Americans have progressively been putting new restrictions on visas, making it difficult for diplomats from developing countries to bring maids to the US during their assignments here.

For someone like Khobragade with two children, meeting the pressures of work in a post like New York is difficult without domestic help. Bright career-minded officers, therefore, increasingly opt for posts in countries that are not so restrictive.

For their part, the Americans insist that they are left with no choice with more and more cases of diplomats not paying minimum wages for their maids and houseboys, and in some cases, mistreating them.

An American legal luminary who talked to this newspaper on background used a popular baseball term to speculate on why Preet Bharara, the attorney for the Southern District of New York, took the action he did yesterday. That baseball term is “three strikes, you are out”.

The implication is that because this was the third incident of the same kind in a row at the Indian consulate-general in New York, the prosecutors lost their patience and decided that those in New Delhi who have not ensured that their house in Manhattan is in order — as they see it — ought to be told that wrongdoing has limits and will not be tolerated.

Ravi Batra, a prominent New York lawyer, suggested that a long-term solution for this problem was for the US state department to sit down with its counterpart organisations in other countries to work towards the creation of a new legal category for diplomatic foreign domestic workers in America, which exempts them from US labour laws, including, wages and working hours. Otherwise such incidents will recur or increase.

Batra has represented the Indian consulate in New York in several legal matters. His most recent success in court was in securing the dismissal of criminal charges against Krittika Biswas, the school-going daughter of an Indian diplomat in the Big Apple, who was arrested, handcuffed and thrown in a lock up despite holding an Indian diplomatic passport.

Batra has just won a second victory in a federal court which upheld Biswas’s right to sue New York city, her school and Manhattan’s police department for civil damages emanating from the incident. That case is pending.

Batra pointed out that “foreign diplomats here who pay their workers at or near US labour rates are free from risk. However, many nations are below in US-mandated hours and wage standards. Their diplomatic corps remain at high risk to be in the cross-hairs of illegality and their reputation is at risk.”

For the Indian embassy in Washington and the consulate in New York, the immediate priority has been to get Khobragade out on bail and ensure the welfare of her two children, for whom their mother’s arrest was a traumatic experience.

After that, the embassy “conveyed its strong concern to the US government over the action taken against Khobragade”. According to a media release, the Americans have “been urged to resolve the matter with due sensitivity, taking into account the existing court case in India that has already been brought to their attention”.

The reference to the court case is to a Delhi High Court injunction in September to restrain the absconding maid, Sangeeta Richards, from instituting any actions or proceedings against Khobragade outside India according to the terms or conditions of her employment.