The principle of diplomacy is based on reciprocity in the best of times. But it may also include competitive retaliation signifying the worst of times. The Devyani Khobragade episode is a perfect example of the latter. Indo-US bilateral ties now resemble a sordid drama and Khobragade stands indicted of grave wrongdoing by the United States of America. Even if one assumes, without conceding, that the charges are true, the treatment meted out to Khobragade by the US administration in the name of upholding the rule of law cannot be condoned. Was the US action justified? Is India’s unusual rejection of US criticism an aberration?
Some critics have said that the Indian political class, which is now up in arms against the US, supported New Delhi’s detention of the Italian ambassador earlier. This argument misses the fundamental point: the Italian envoy was challenging the Indian judicial system, which was investigating a serious case of the shooting of fishermen by two Italian marines. The detention, hand-cuffing and strip-search of an Indian woman diplomat, on the other hand, violates diplomatic conventions. The two cases are poles apart.
The American media allege that every time politicians, diplomats or film stars are subjected to a routine pat down, New Delhi complains of the loss of ‘national honour’. How would the US react if American VIPs were meted out similar treatment in Indian airports? India has always welcomed citizens from the West. Virtually every American diplomat is treated like a Badshah-e-Hind in this country.
That is not all. Almost a decade ago, an enquiry was made to the ministry of external affairs to know whether Indian diplomats on foreign soil are entitled to red beacons — which are used by some foreign envoys in an unauthorized manner in India — as a reciprocal gesture. The enquiry did not elicit a response from the authorities concerned. Meanwhile foreign diplomats continue to use red beacons on Indian soil.
What could be the reason for extending such one-sided hospitality to foreign diplomats? The answer is not difficult to guess. An American visa is the magic wand. There are countless important and not-so-important officials who cannot do without this precious document. This dependence allows Washington to do as it pleases.
One cannot be critical of the US for acting upon Khobragade’s alleged misconduct in accordance with the laws of that country. But the lack of sensitivity displayed by American officials towards the Indian diplomat has been shocking. How many times have US diplomats faced such ignominy in India?
No one in India would ever question the legal system of a sovereign country. But things could have been handled in a far more decent and sensitive manner. Such horrendous misbehaviour certainly deserves an unconditional apology from the US. American officials also need to be told in no uncertain terms that they do not have the right to criticize the legal system in India. Neither can they issue sermons from an imaginary high pedestal. Such a position is completely unacceptable to every Indian worth his or her dignity and self-respect.
Regarding the Indian reaction to Khobragade’s treatment by the US, although one could detect a streak of emotions, it was nevertheless understandable and justified. None in the right mind can find fault with the Indian reaction. Nevertheless, India will do well to remember that such an incident was bound to happen given India’s pampering of foreign dignitaries on its own soil at the expense of the honour and self-respect of New Delhi’s diplomats posted abroad.