For the past decade, senior U.S. officials have portrayed India as an emerging strategic partner of the United States as well as an emerging power, a democracy that respects the rule of law and shares U.S. values. It’s mostly a true story, even if the rosy view of the bilateral relationship has never entirely been reciprocated on the Indian side. But there remains a considerable political and cultural divide between the countries — as the ongoing furor over the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York has vividly illustrated.
From the point of view of U.S. law enforcement, the case of Devyani Khobragade, a consular official in New York, is straightforward: She, like a distressingly large number of foreign diplomats posted to the United States, exploited a domestic employee in violation of U.S. law. Ms. Khobragade allegedly submitted to the State Department a contract that promised to pay a housekeeper $9.75 an hour for 40 hours a week but separately gave the housekeeper a different contract at $3.31 an hour and required her to work many more hours.
She would not be the first Indian diplomat to commit this offence. At least two other high-ranking officials have been sued by domestic employees in New York since 2010.
Ms. Khobragade, 39, nevertheless generated a wave of outrage in India on her behalf by claiming that she had been subjected to the "indignities of repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches, swabbing, in a hold-up with common criminals and drug addicts" after her Dec. 12 arrest. In fact there was no cavity search, according to the U.S. Marshals Service, which handles transport for federal prisoners, and Ms. Khobragade was offered a few courtesies by State Department officials before being subjected to the same booking procedure as every other New York criminal defendant. Yet Indians — accustomed to domestic labour practices considered intolerable in the United States — perceived her treatment as the deliberate humiliation of a woman representing their country.
The Indian government has compounded tensions with high-decibel rhetoric and a vindictive campaign against U.S. diplomats in New Delhi. Its bullying measures have ranged from the petty — withdrawing the U.S. Embassy’s permit to import alcohol — to the irresponsible — removing security barricades from the street in front of the facility. Employees of embassy officials are being investigated for alleged offences, including working at American schools without proper paperwork.
Indian officials describe this harassment as a reciprocal response to the arrest of Ms. Khobragade, but it is not. She was the subject of a criminal investigation by a U.S. attorney acting independently. India is responding with investigations and administrative actions directed by the government for political ends — a tactic common in authoritarian states such as Russia or China but unworthy of a democracy. In a letter The Washington Post published Monday, the Indian Embassy in Washington claimed that Ms. Khobragade’s employee had "gamed" U.S. laws to gain admission to the country. If that’s true, there’s nothing to stop Ms. Khobragade from making the case in court.
In fact U.S. prosecutors and the diplomat’s attorneys appear to be seeking to negotiate a settlement of the case. That would certainly be the best outcome for both governments. As it is, both have suffered serious image damage. Indians may think U.S. officials have no respect for their dignitaries. Americans, for their part, have reason to wonder about a would-be ally that considers stripping U.S. diplomats of security measures an appropriate way of expressing displeasure.