Devyani Khobragade, whose arrest set back United States-India relations quite a bit, is now back in India. Two questions then arise: Will she be treated
as a heroine? Or will the ministry of external affairs scrutinize her conduct and property returns with the attention
they undoubtedly deserve?
After all, she has made quite a habit of making fraudulent
declarations to seek personal benefits. Be it to obtain a visa
for her former live-in maid, Sangeeta Richards, or to obtain
an apartment in the controversial Adarsh building in south
Mumbai. Her assets statement also seems to suggest that
she has been a conduit for her father, Uttamrao
Khobragade a former Indian Administrative Service officer.
This should also open her up for culpability in a money-laundering scheme, as her salary is way disproportionate to
her acquired assets. With her criminal case still pending,
and with her effectively an absconder, she can never return
to the US. What will it do to her marriage to a US citizen is
a matter of speculation now.
In the last week, I have socially met certain senior US
embassy officials and have enjoyed their hospitality. They
are concerned about just one thing: Will they get back the
privileges taken away by India? They and senior Indian
diplomats are sanguine that the Khobragade affair will
soon be just a storm in a teacup and the US-India partnership can be resumed.
I agree to some extent with that assessment, but the relationship will not exactly
go back to where it was. That was a point of
inflection, and I think we are now headed
for a more undemanding phase in the relationship. This relationship might even be a
better one, as it will be a more equal one.
We are now like an estranged couple trying to work out things by coming together.
The past never really goes away. It will
always condition our future responses. Ask
The US-India spat has had several consequences. Not the least is that Energy
Secretary Ernest Moniz was forced to postpone his India visit as no one of any consequence was going to meet with him here.
If he still came, he would have been
fobbed off with a meeting with Veerappa
Moily, who is his counterpart here. But then
the US has for long got used to meeting persons well above their counterpart. Even
assistant secretaries have gotten used to
meeting with persons well above their protocol rank.
The visit of the newly installed Assistant
Secretary of State for South and Central
Asia, Nisha Desai Biswal, is also now on
hold as she was being earmarked just for a
meeting with her counterpart, the Joint
Secretary (North America) in the MEA.
Reciprocity is the guiding principle now.
Ever since Devyani Khobragade was
arrested on the charge of making a wrong
declaration to fraudulently obtain a visa for
her maid, India has been turning the screw
on pampered American diplomats by withdrawing their
special privileges and courtesies extended in a calibrated
manner to keep the heat on.
Suddenly, many US diplomats have found their old ID
cards extending them privileges of entry into all airports
and some government offices withdrawn.
The US embassy’s usual imports of food and victuals have
been severely curtailed and have become subject to the
most intrusive customs inspections.
The US embassy has also been told to stop screening
movies at the American Center and operating a restaurant
and social club within its premises, as they too are in viola-
tion of the Geneva accords.
The consequence of this is that even US Ambassador
Nancy Powell, a formidable lady who made and unmade
leaders in neighboring countries, is now subject to a
Central Industrial Security Force pat-down at our airports,
and her personal baggage subject to an intrusive examination. And there is no question of her car pulling alongside
an aircraft to board, even if it were a chartered or official
These are the rules, and India is throwing the rulebook at
the Americans with a vengeance. Very senior officials who I
met last week concur that it will be very difficult to give the
US diplomats their special privileges and most certainly
not in a politically charged domestic environment, and in
the Right to Information era where no government decision can remain under wraps.
Indian diplomats in the US have never had these privi-
leges and courtesies extended to them there. Even India’s
then defense minister George Fernandes was body
searched at a US airport. All our recent ambassadors have
been subject to pat-downs at US airports and our then
ambassador to the UN, Hardeep Puri, once even had his
turban removed and looked into.
A senior US diplomat last week asked me when things
will go back to normal. I had to tell her that if normalcy
meant getting back these perks, it is not going to happen
for a very long time, if ever at all. For the Indian public now
is more outraged that US diplomats have enjoyed all these
winking at the rulebook without any reciprocal winking at
laws in the US.
What apparently rankles the Americans most — and The
New York Times and Washington Post have made frequent
and pointed references to it — is that the US embassy-enforced closure of a public road, by placing concrete barriers to slow down passing cars, has been lifted. The Delhi
police just bulldozed these barriers aside and restored the
road free for use by the public.
The newspapers pointedly and wrongly refer to this as
removing security barriers, forgetting that providing
perimeter security is the responsibility of Indian security
All the police pickets, machinegun nests and patrol cars
are in place as before. Only the road encroached upon by
the Americans has been cleared.
At this point, it must be let known that the Washington,
Also, it must be known that the US
embassy in New Delhi gets far more security than the Indian embassy in Washington,
which doesn’t even warrant a uniformed
patrolman. India has lost more lives to jiha-di terrorists that the US has, our embassy in
Washington too deserves a modicum of
Things have indeed come to a bad pass. It
is true that Devyani Khobragade was violating US laws and had made a fraudulent declaration. But the State Department’s
Diplomatic Security Service was planning
on booking her since June 2013. The South
Asia department was in the know of it. They
kept this contemplated sting under wraps.
The operation was set in motion even as
the Indian foreign secretary was in
Washington for meetings at the State
Department. Indian diplomats equate that
The US authorities could have tipped our
MEA off that something was amiss and it
would be best if India quietly removed the
diplomat from the US. Instead, a complex
sting was orchestrated, and India embarrassed. That stings.
And India is showing that it too can be a
society of laws.
My daughter has coined a new word for
what is happening in India over this. She
calls it Khobrage. The right rage for the
wrong reasons. This Khobrage doesn’t seem like going
away for a long time. And when it does, business will not be
as usual for the American diplomats here. It will be as it is
for Indian diplomats there. This is what is called reciprocity. But Americans are used to being exceptional and the
Indian public will have none of that. Not till it forgets.
Forgiving is far easier.
Mohan Guruswamy is chairman and founder of the
Center for Policy Alternatives, New Delhi.
After the tiff, reciprocity
The US and India are now like an
estranged couple trying to work out
things by coming together
A bulldozer removes the security barriers in front of the US embassy in New Delhi, December 17, 2013.
What apparently rankles the Americans most is that the US
embassy-enforced closure of a public New Delhi road, by placing
concrete barriers to slow down passing cars, has been lifted. The
Washington, DC police closed the use of a vacant lot adjacent to
the Indian embassy to embassy cars some months ago, and we
didn’t make any fuss.
ADNAN ABIDI/REU TERS