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Row hits zone that needs top intervention

Washington, Dec. 20: Any resolution of the escalating row over victimised diplomat Devyani Khobragade will require decisive political intervention between India and the US at the highest level.

By personally wading into the issue, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has created the space for such intervention from India’s side. “This is deplorable,” Singh said, using unusually strong words about Khobragade’s treatment by Americans when he was approached by reporters outside Parliament yesterday.

In the US, momentum may be building up towards such intervention with Congressmen beginning to express their irritation over how the Obama administration has mindlessly risked one of their country’s foreign relationships — with India — which was in full bloom for over a decade.

This morning, Tulsi Gabbard, the first Hindu member of the US Congress, issued a statement expressing her disappointment over how the case against India’s deputy consul-general in New York was handled.

“I was disappointed to hear initial reports about the treatment of Devyani Khobragade,” she said in comments on the issue. “I urge the state department to work with its counterparts in India to ensure our relationship remains strong and to ensure our law enforcement agencies put appropriate protocols in place for these situations.”

She said “our relationship with India is deeply valued and the progress we are making on economic, political and security issues is key in Asia and the Pacific region. Diplomats play a vital role in our ever-shrinking globalised world. And among America’s partnerships, the importance of our alliance with India cannot be overstated.”

Although Gabbard is a practising Hindu, she is not Indian. Both her parents are white Americans and she has been elected from Hawaii as a Democrat.

Yesterday, Indian-American Congressman Amerish Bera became the first US legislator to criticise how the Obama administration handled the New York case. He just stopped short of demanding outright that Khobragade and India deserve an apology for this lapse.

In an interview to India Abroad, an ethnic newspaper here, Bera said: “If there are apologies that should be made, we should make these apologies. If there were mistakes made, then obviously apologising helps us move forward and work through any misunderstandings and that is a good thing.”

Describing the entire episode as “unfortunate”, the Congressman pointed out that “this has been such a good year in the US-India relationship with our friendship and the countries growing ever more closer together and planning for a future together. I still hope that our diplomats — at our end — and the Indian diplomats are able to absorb this and move forward, and smoothen things over as quickly as possible, and rectify this if there was an injustice done.”

Bera is elected from California and, like Gabbard, belongs to President Barack Obama’s Democratic Party. That makes reactions by both members of Congress significant.

Gabbard and Bera are both members of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans. If these comments are indicative of the feelings within the Caucus, there is every likelihood that pressure may build up on Obama to personally intervene in the matter and act to resolve it.

But any such action will have to be based on India’s statement today that “there is only one victim in this case, that victim is Devyani Khobragade” and take steps to undo the wrong done to her and to her country.

In 1999, when Pakistan’s infiltration into Kargil and the subsequent war threatened stability in South Asia, the state department was reluctant to support India. So was president Bill Clinton, contrary to popular belief.

It was only after the India Caucus was in ferment and the House of Representatives acted resolutely to define Pakistani aggression as such that Clinton decided to summon Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to Washington and ask him to withdraw Pakistani forces to the Line of Control.

This time, however, reality dictates that support for the Indian diplomat within the India Caucus may be slower to build up. That is because at the popular level in America, there is much support for the maid Sangeeta Richard and very little for Khobragade.

Going by comments in the social media and on news websites from readers, the maid is seen as the victim of a well-to-do diplomat who is refusing to pay American minimum wage to her household staff. It is such support that is encouraging New York authorities to persist in their determination to punish Khobragade.

In any case, there is a lot of jealousy here against diplomats. In New York, adding to that is an undercurrent of popular resentment because many diplomats, especially from nouveau riche Gulf states, misuse their immunity and behave haughtily with lesser mortals.

If the Obama administration moves towards political intervention at the highest level to deescalate the tension with India, the trigger would have been an admission by the prosecuting New York attorney in this case, Preet Bharara, that he virtually conspired to spirit out the maid’s family, all Indian nationals, and bring them to the US.

Although Bharara may have acted within the confines of US laws, such laws were enacted here to protect victims of excesses in the worst dictatorships and repressive regimes, not citizens of a democracy like India, which is praised constantly in America for its shared values with the US.

It is understood that the undersecretary of state for political affairs, Wendy Sherman, who spoke to foreign secretary Sujatha Singh today, was at a loss to defend Bharara’s action. The foreign secretary questioned a defensive Sherman about the right of a foreign government to “evacuate” Indian citizens from within its borders while cases were pending against those citizens in Indian courts, sources said.