EDITORIAL: US and India Both Bungle Khobragade Case

Don’t Cry For me, Preet Bharara! (courtesy IndiaPost)

Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor of usindiamonitor.com.

Most of the available media covering the Khobragade disaster have been quick to take sides in the conflict, claiming alternatively that the Americans or Indians are more to blame.  I’m having none of it.  There is plenty of blame to go around.  At every turn both sides are guilty of handling the case with gross incompetence and utter disregard for common sense, or how to conduct the most basic diplomatic relations with one another.  If there is a silver lining in the whole affair, it’s that the diplomats and politicians serving both the United States and India have been exposed for their glaring lack of tact- that most basic quality required of those who represent us on the global stage.  Instead, I now present to you Exhibit A: Amateur hour on both sides.  That’s the first step toward repairing the problem- and relations.

A low-level and heretofore unheard-of Indian consular officer in New York may have broken several minor laws related to living wages and immigration forms for her household help.  The allegations made by the maid, if true, are disgusting and justified formal punitive measures- such as a quiet deportation agreed upon by both governments over a cup of tea or bourbon in a closed room.  How much heartache could have been avoided by this simple course of action?Instead, one minor non-event involving some small-fry suddenly spiraled out of control into a contentious international incident that has nearly ground diplomatic relations between the United States and India to a standstill.  How did the Obama White House, US Attorney Preet Bharara, Secretary of State John Kerry, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, National Security Advisor Shivshanker Menon, Indian Foreign Minister Salman Kurshid and others all become bit players in this drama, not one of them capable of quickly resolving the issue and putting it to bed for day, after day, after excruciating day?

The pathetic turn of events highlights in stark relief all that is wrong in relations between the two governments- and governments in general.  Despite frequent claims of friendship during state visits or international conclaves, there is a serious lack of trust and goodwill.  Without question, both the US bureaucratic apparatus and that of India have failed their citizens miserably by over-reacting, and then bungling the responses to the other’s overreactions.  In the process, Washington and New Delhi both exposed their true, ugly, inner selves: respectively, the holier-than-thou and paternalistic elder sibling who always knows better even when proven wrong; and the younger sibling with a severe inferiority complex who craves attention and respect from everyone else, but has no idea how to achieve these, let alone the ability.

I have little sympathy for Khobragade or her ordeal.  One of the worst aspects of Indian culture even today is the way that others of lower status are treated, and how the rule of law still depends upon one’s means. Wealthy Indians have for far too long abused their maids, drivers, cooks, and office laborers with impunity.  Additionally, a consular officer of all people should not be allowed to dramatically flout US immigration laws.  On the other hand, the US State Department and US Marshals should have sat down with Khobragade’s superiors in advance and detained her much more quietly and discreetly in cooperation with their counterparts, if she needed to be arrested at all.  Diplomatic immunity exists in a gray area, but why take the offensive route?

The Indian establishment should have pre-emptively responded to the evidence before the arrest, and resolved Khobragade’s behavior on the double instead of getting so defensive and rushing to turn Khobragade into a victim.  That’s how two civilized nations with friendly diplomatic relations and a plethora of common interests are supposed to treat each other, regardless of her crimes.  Instead the first salvo in a battle of errors was fired- and could not be retracted.  India’s over-reaction to the over-reaction was even worse.  It’s one thing to cancel high-level talks in protest or to investigate the behavior of US diplomats in India.  Those are proportionate responses.  It’s however quite indefensible to remove security barricades from US consular facilities regardless of the internal political clamor.  There were other disproportionate and even ridiculous steps taken, which we do not need to get into here.

Things continued to get worse from there- leaks to the media, editorials slamming one side or the other, heated comments from high-level government officials on both sides, Indian citizens clamoring for action over their native daughter being strip-searched in American custody.  I have never seen such hypocrisy from either side, and folks, US-India relations is my specialty.

American officials in justice and diplomatic circles reminded us that the United States is a nation of laws, equal for all- even while US corporations and government agencies run roughshod on foreign soil, exploiting local populations and lands for their benefit including in India.  Meanwhile, Indian officials are shocked, shocked over the treatment of an Indian female diplomat at the hands of the US justice system, even as rich and influential Indians have their own shamelessly open parallel system of justice, and every single day millions of Indians are tortured mentally and physically by the local, state, and federal police forces that are supposed to serve them.

There is no point in getting into who is more hypocritical, or who is more to blame.  It’s like trying to assign degrees of blame between the wood and the gasoline for a raging fire.  Our system of diplomacy, not just in the United States and India, but globally, is severely broken.  Diplomats do not receive the training they need to deal with the fast-changing world around them, and are often political hacks appointed in return for favors by the paymasters back home.  The far-flung bureaucracies created by the State Department or Foreign Ministry are incapable of quick decision making, message control, or basic tact.  The incident has also exposed the deepest problems within the US diplomatic community: its inability to adjust to a new role of global leadership with reduced clout, and its epic dearth of empathy for foreign values and culture at a time when this flaw is no longer affordable.  Meanwhile, the most serious flaw in the Indian diplomatic community, a complete lack of a cohesive foreign policy strategy, has been revealed.  India’s elite establishment wants to be a player on global issues, but remains a petty and provincial group who feel slighted at the drop of a hat.  Perhaps it’s appropriate, simply being a mirror of the Indian psyche.

Should it be any surprise that the two nations have failed to lead the world on environmental issues?  Or why they have not formed the partnership that is becoming of the world’s two largest democracies?  Or why nearly all of the progress in US-India relations comes not from government, but the private sector?  What do you expect when our diplomatic officials, paid to negotiate and make deals are instead  participating in a protracted amateur hour for all the world to see.


  1. One of the worst hypocritical article I have seen on this issue. You write as if all the accusations against Ms.Khobragade have already been proven.
    May be you are trying to show your loyalty to US or something. There was no reason to arrest and strip search her.
    And why is the Indian govt’s reaction inappropriate? All they have said and done is there will be strict reciprocity. What is the problem with that?


  2. It is a balanced and matured analysis of identifying what are amiss on both sides. Necessary pointers, if we have to move forward and act more DIPLOMATICALLY in future relating to diplomats. Good piece.


  3. The author needs to factor the possibility that the “displeasure has been building in Indian circles” at the preferential treatment of US consular personnel in India and clear “asymetry” of treatment in US for Indian consular personnel. Reasons could be valid or not. That is not the issue.

    Treatment meted to Devyani could be the last straw that broke the camel’s back. Three issues – arrest of the Dty consul, treatment of the consul and spiriting away the maid’s family with tickets paid by US Embassy.

    Clearly, diplomatic maturity calls for discretion which US should have adopted first The Indian ambassador should have summoned and notified in person with details of this case and an opportunity for correction needed to have been pursued. That was not done. So window of opportunity for close door resolution was lost..

    Here are some of the issues and questions that could be raised in Indian circles.

    India had little space but to focus on measured “reciprocity”. Afterall, why not apply Indian laws and matching privileges to US consul staff as they are applied for India consular staff according to US law? Why is US envoy above Indian security rules and Indian envoy “must follow US law”? – Afterall security is for everyone’s benefit. Would the author disagree? –

    The author claims that US is a land of laws. Many agree. But search on websites show cases, where other nationalities (Medicare scam) are involved “diplomacy, strategy and sensitivity” triumphed “law”. Medicare scam and filippino maid ill-treatment have been handled differently. When companies could settle visa rule violations with a fine, why strip search someone for same offense?

    Why “evacuate” three members of maid family so surreptitiously? Would the author accept a situation if people are airlifted in the same way and tickets paid for by Russian embassy or Chinese embassy?

    On “barricades”- Diplomacy is about building partnerships not barricades. And secondly, barricades does not equate security. Were it so, US would be using them for border security. Right? Clearly, there are other creative, effective and less intrusive options.

    I agree with the author on the strategic viewpoint that US and India need to get creative about solving problems in many areas. World is watching the conduct of these two great democracies? Are going to serve as model or warning? – Time only will tell.


    • Good points.

      We must also take into account that Indian diplomats in the United States have repeatedly been accused of abuse against domestic labor- this is not the first time.

      Evacuating the maid and her family are further poor judgments on the Americans’ part. I would not argue with that. I brought up America’s status as a land of laws to describe US hypocrisy.

      Finally, the “strip search” has been overblown. She was treated just like anyone else who was arrested. One can argue that the arrest itself was a bad idea, as I have. Searching arrested people is simply standard procedure.


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