THE Devyani Khobragade incident has created widespread outrage and revulsion in India primarily because of the inhuman and humiliating treatment accorded to her by the arresting authorities. It would not be wrong to say that in terms of the magnitude of the adverse impact it has created in Indo-US relations, this would rank after the decision of the Nixon-Kissinger duo to send the US Seventh Fleet into the Bay of Bengal during the war for the liberation of Bangladesh.
However, it is not the intention here to go into the rights and wrongs of the incident. Enough debate has been generated in the media with an overwhelming majority condemning the treatment meted out to India’s Deputy Consul General. Of course, there are dissenting voices which focus narrowly on the legal aspects of the case, or view it from the so-called human rights angle. Even a national daily like The Indian Express (dubbed by a few after the incident as ‘American Express’) saw it in terms of the Indian Foreign Service issue and even castigated the Foreign Service as India Feudal Service, with its editor proudly proclaiming that he had indeed ‘a chip on his shoulder’ when it came to the Foreign Service.
Be that as it may, there is no denying that it is a national issue because it was an Indian diplomat who was grossly mistreated in an arbitrary fashion as if the local authorities were apprehending an Al Qaeda terrorist! After all, a diplomat, to some extent, embodies a nation’s sovereignty.
The question which arises is why the Americans chose to behave in this callous and thoughtless manner towards a diplomat of a friendly country, and that too with a diplomat of the female gender who certainly deserved to be treated with a lot of dignity. Normal diplomatic practices were thrown overboard and no courtesies were shown in informing the Foreign Secretary, who was on an official mission to the US. Maybe the streak of arrogance— in MJ Akbar’s words, of a ‘unilateralist’ power—was at play here. Perhaps they perceived the Indians as meek who will take the insult lying down, as we have repeatedly done in the case of China and Pakistan.
It could also be possible that our general attitude of deferring to the white man, especially the Big White enchilada, may have encouraged this devil-may-care attitude towards this particular diplomat, who the Americans thought was allegedly in the wrong. We have, as a government, always shown a very generous attitude to American diplomats and the US Embassy, going beyond normal diplomatic practices and without insisting on reciprocity.
The reason being that this generates that elusive ‘goodwill’ which has never been quantified. We fail to realise that the world is a cruel place and no amount of goodwill is reciprocated when it comes to the crunch. The late Prime Minister, Inder Singh Gujral, was hailed by many when he propounded the rather infamous Gujral doctrine of not demanding reciprocity in dealing with a recalcitrant and hostile neighbour!
Sixty years of independence has not taught us that in foreign policy and diplomatic behaviour the surest guiding principle is absolute reciprocity— you get what you give—because that ensures fairness and acts as a deterrent to any arbitrary and unilateral action on the part of any one party. There was a famous case quite sometime back of a vehicle of the Nigerian Embassy in Washington being towed away by local authorities. The Nigerians in Lagos quietly rounded up a few vehicles of the US Embassy and towed them into a forest area, from where the US Embassy was asked to recover the vehicles. The Nigerians were then left alone, one was told!
OR, take the case of Brazil, which promptly instituted a system of fingerprinting of all American arrivals into the country when the Americans instituted such a system for all visitors to the US. When the Americans protested that only Americans were targeted by Brazil while the US had this requirement for visitors without any discrimination, the Brazilian retort was that the US had exempted several countries and Brazil should also have been exempted!
We, on the contrary, bend over backwards towards the US Embassy and it is therefore natural that American always demand more than they give in terms of privileges and immunities and we have acquiesced to this non-reciprocal regime over the years. The Ministry of External Affairs always insists on not giving any undue privileges to US diplomats, but other ministries and agencies are always ready to bend! I recall an incident when I was the Chief of Protocol and was temporarily looking after the Americas Division. The then US Ambassador was visiting the North- East and he had then to fly to Bhutan. I received a request from the US Embassy that since the Ambassador had to reach Thimphu by a certain time, he was not in a position to go to Calcutta and clear immigration there before flying off to Bhutan. So, could he please complete immigration formalities in Guwahati and fly to Bhutan from there? It was also conveyed that the State authorities in Assam were quite willing to arrange this, provided the Home Ministry and the MEA agreed to it. The Home Ministry was wishy-washy on the issue and wanted the MEA to take the final decision. I politely told the US Embassy that Guwahati was not a designated international airport and, therefore, no immigration facilities were available there and the Ambassador would thus have to go to Calcutta before flying off to Bhutan. Mercifully, this happened quite late in the evening and therefore there was no other contrary direction from any higher-ups. The Ambassador cancelled his visit to Bhutan and I was reminded several times that I was the cause why he could not visit Bhutan!
The other issue over which the MEA Protocol then had continuous argument with the Defence Ministry was the question of the American Embassy’s PX flights which, invariably, for inexplicable reasons, were allowed to land at Palam Technical Area instead of IGI airport. Our objections then were disregarded by the Defence Ministry. I am not aware of the present position, but the matter has to be looked into if this practice still persists.
Another issue was the practice of the US Embassy in insisting that certain cars belonging to the Embassy officials should be given normal Delhi number plates instead of CD plates. Here again the IB had its way, disregarding the MEA.
The present problem provides an excellent opportunity to have serious negotiations with the Americans about diplomatic privileges and immunity on a strictly reciprocal and level playing basis. In other words, we would give them what they give us; nothing more, nothing less. This would mean, for instance, that US dignitaries visiting India will be received by US diplomats only after the dignitary goes past immigration, as is the case in the US when our
The government must also make it clear that on the issue of diplomatic privileges and immunities, the decision of the MEA shall be final and all other ministries and agencies cannot unilaterally confer such entitlements which have no reciprocity. This clearly means that getting a green card for a near and dear one in lieu of special favour will not covered under any reciprocal arrangement!
HOWEVER, it remains to be seen whether we have enough political courage to take the bull by the horns as there are too many vested interests who may wish to take a softer line towards the US. One recalls what former American Ambassador Patrick Moynihan used to say, that despite all the abuses America used to receive in Parliament during the day, he was inundated in the evening by requests from the same set of characters for green cards for their near and dear ones!
There was another such issue which created quite a furore in India. This had nothing to do with diplomats, but related to young girls going to UK for marriage purposes and who were subjected to undignified virginity tests by the UK authorities. There was a lot of anger and fury at that time over this and there was demand for ‘strong’ action against the UK. But in the end, nothing much happened. The Joint Secretary in charge of the Europe Division then, the brilliant Sumal Sinha, had rightly predicted that nothing much would come out of it as too many people in power had sons and daughters in the UK.
One hopes that this will not come to pass again and the government must insist on a reciprocal levelplaying field with the Americans on the question of diplomatic privileges and immunities, without any exception of any kind. We must shed this notion of generating goodwill; national dignity and honour are more sacred.
Niranjan Desai is a former Indian Foreign Service officer