India overreacts to diplomat’s arrest

India and the United States have become embroiled in a full-scale diplomatic row involving the case of Devyani Khobragade, an Indian diplomat who was arrested last week and charged with visa fraud by U.S. authorities. Prosecutors claim she imported and employed an Indian housekeeper to whom she paid only a small fraction of her promised wages.

After Khobragade’s arrest, she was strip-searched in a private setting by a female U.S. marshal. This in particular caused a firestorm of criticism in India, though prosecutors and police claim all standard procedures were followed and that Khobragade was even given special considerations due to her diplomatic status.

While the courts will eventually resolve the welter of claims and counterclaims — even the most basic facts in the case are currently in dispute and the diplomat’s attorney says the charges are false — it is clear that this arrest was the result of an investigation lasting several months. Given the sensitivity of arresting a diplomat representing a major U.S. ally, it seems likely that prosecutors feel that the case against Khobragade is very strong.

However, even without being able to determine Khobragade’s guilt or innocence with respect to the charges, l’affaire Khobragade shines an unflattering light on several elements of India’s diplomacy and its politics of privilege.

First, whether or not the charges and manner of arrest were proper, the intemperate reaction of the Indian government in response shows that, despite its status as an aspiring great power, India still frequently lacks the maturity on the world stage to behave like one.

In the wake of the arrest, India announced a number of steps against U.S. diplomats, including revoking government-issued IDs for U.S. diplomats in India, stopping the U.S. Embassy from importing most goods, and most provocatively removing a concrete security barricade at the U.S. Embassy in Delhi.

The sensitivity of such a threat to the embassy cannot be taken lightly, and the willingness of the Indian government to take such a step indicates a situation in which politics has run roughshod over any sensible understanding of diplomacy.

Jeremy Carl is a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a former resident of India who has written extensively on Indian politics and U.S.-India relations. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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