Wednesday, 8 January 2014 00:00
The very public spat between India, the most populous democracy in the world, and the USA, the most powerful, has received a lot of media attention in recent weeks.
Although the incident which gave rise to it, the arrest of a middle order diplomat for the violation of labour/visa regulations in the host country is not the kind of incident that would ordinarily push great nations into public quarrels, this has developed into a full-blown diplomatic confrontation between the two. Most times such things are handled discreetly, good relations and diplomacy being the overriding concerns.
From the accounts in the newspapers we are able to form a general picture of what led to the arrest of Devyani Khobragade, the 39-year-old Indian diplomat serving in their consulate in New York and the emotive aftermath, particularly in India.
Khobragade’s diplomatic status raised the matter to a level much above the mundane charges she was arrested for merit. Given the flurry of confusing accusations, denials and explanations of the events, the picture we form is somewhat hazy. It is obvious however that there are the striking differences in the way these two very dissimilar cultures look at the issues confronting them. People may be looking at the same things but will view them very differently.
Going by the information available, it seems that Khobragade used her diplomatic appointment to “sponsor” an Indian female to the USA, to serve her as a servant. Apparently in order to facilitate a non-immigrant Visa for the servant, Khobragade had been less than completely honest in the information she provided, particularly in respect of the servant’s intended salary. (The form was filled by her)
Although not unusual in the case of diplomats from certain Third World countries , it would be certainly unusual for an American diplomat to go abroad accompanied by servants from his country. The US economy is too advanced for diplomats to be able to afford “servants” from their own land. And, after all they are plentiful in most Third World countries, where US dollars are much valued and serving a diplomat is high status.
In the Indian sub-continent, the idea of employing a servant to attend to household and menial work is sanctified by both tradition as well as culture. Paying the servant a wage well below the minimum requirement is a prevalent practice. From the master’s position, the fewer the domestic chores he performs – cooking, washing, driving, etc. – the higher his status in the minds of his fellow citizens.
Why would a diplomat, a high status job in such a hierarchical mindset, make a cup of tea for himself? And, who would serve the mouth-watering savouries and the delicious sweetmeats of the sub-continent when the diplomat is entertaining his very important friends?
If the allegations are true, Khobragade not only gave false information in the Visa application of her servant but also paid her less than the American minimum wage. The argument that in the originating country (India) her salary, although less than the US minimum ,nevertheless would be a good wage holds no water, as much as the host country is not obliged to put up with child labour because it is acceptable in the home country.
The Indian fury is not so much on account of the allegations against their diplomat but mainly on the manner of her arrest. It is claimed that Khobragade’s consular position accords her certain immunities. She was arrested in front of her child’s school, kept with other female criminals and subjected to a “cavity” search.
Of course in a country where one may bear arms, there is always the real danger of a fatal reaction in the process of arrest. It is also not unusual for criminals to conceal in their person weapons or poison. The whole purpose of an arrest is to subject the suspect to the legal process, which he may cheat by taking his own life.
In any event, it serves little purpose in discussing the concept of diplomatic immunity here. The application of that concept of immunity in this situation is bound to be argued fully at her trial, if there is ever to be one.
Among the criticisms of the US action was the allegation of hypocrisy, pointing at incidents like the case where the superpower used its diplomatic might to secure the release of an employee of the US defence establishment who evidently shot to death two persons in Pakistan.
This person was part of the massive cloak and dagger operation against known terrorists who were operating in that country. It is said that compensation was paid by the US to the families of the victims as culturally required in Pakistan, charges dropped and the man was safely flown out.
Relevance to Sri Lanka
Coming back to Khobragade and her servant, it is useful for us to ponder its relevance to Sri Lanka and our impressive diplomatic reach , at least going by the number of embassies and consular offices we maintain all over the world.
We understand that among the entitlements of our senior diplomats is an allowance for a servant. Presumably the servant is entitled to air-fares and a salary paid by the Government. Going by the usual standards, it is unlikely that the salary of a servant to a Sri Lankan diplomat would be more than Rs 50,000 per month.
It is also not a secret that this is an area of much abuse, many diplomats taking their kith and kin to foreign lands in the guise of servants. As for the minimum wage, the only remedy would be for the diplomat to top up the salary of the servant himself, which is like hoping for miracles. How then can they avoid the cavity search?
Power equals degree of immunity?
South Asians and particularly Sri Lankans will have profound difficulties in comprehending the Khobragade saga. In this country a high official (the term “official” is used here broadly and should include the politicians) is by and large above the laws and rules applicable to others.
At the least, he may park his vehicle where others may not. If he is inclined to presume more, he could virtually do anything. It seems that power is understood here only in terms of the degree of immunity a person enjoys. A senior police officer getting a ticket for irregular parking is surely not a figure of authority!
In such a culture it is unthinkable for a labour officer to throw the book at a foreign diplomat. He cannot even think on those lines. Our Police will clear any street for diplomatic vehicles, provide a pilot car, declare large areas adjoining the embassies as no parking zones and do various other humble acts at the behest of a foreign embassy.
The message to the foreign diplomats is that we will do anything at their behest with no consideration whatever for the convenience of our own people. We have been trained that way, with years of practice with our own officials.
Other value systems
It is clear that in the rapidly changing global power balance, India is an important country for the USA.
Many from this part of the world probably wonder why President Obama cannot put telephone calls through to the US Labour and Visa Departments and have them drop the irksome matter of Devyani Khobragade in the interest of American diplomatic strategy. That is how they see things happen in their countries. But then it is perhaps not possible in systems working with a certain level of integrity.
But to see that requires looking at a lifetime of experiences differently and to understand other value systems. And that may not be easy…
(The writer is an Attorney-at-Law and a freelance writer.)