Sensibly Resolving the Khobragade Disaster

Courtesy Washington Post
Courtesy Washington Post

Over the last week I have used this site to vent my extreme frustration with both Washington, D.C. and New Delhi with an impassioned editorial about the Devyani Khobragade case.  I used some unseasonably harsh language in it, toward both governments as well as the Indian Deputy Consul in question, but I stand by my opinions despite some of the criticism I’ve heard.  I must admit to allowing my emotions to affect my writing, but I decided not to edit the piece.  Next, I published a comic strip about the affair to laugh at the situation- a kind of therapy for myself and hopefully to members of the reading audience after a bad couple of weeks.Voicing my opinions wasn’t enough.  Trying to laugh at the situation wasn’t sufficient, either.  Something is still missing, especially as the situation has continued to spiral even further out of control, with both the United States and India stubbornly digging their heels in further in their respective and now very distant corners, instead of attempting to solve the issue with calm and civilized dialogue, of which I hear barely any.  In an ironic but sweet, sweet twist, even Pakistan has found common cause with India on this issue.  Both governments are wasting time and money to convene interdisciplinary study panels to prove why their own side is right-  the worst possible approach as neither side now dares to capitulate.  But I have admittedly been no better.

To use the old cliche, if you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem.  In my previous editorial I described how this mess could have been prevented from my unique Indian-American point of view, but it’s far too late for that now.  Too many hurtful actions and words have taken place that cannot be retracted.  Therefore the time has come for some prescriptive words under the current circumstances as of January 8th, 2014.  Hopefully, calmer heads can prevail after all and the bleeding can finally be stopped.  Here is how.

A thousand alopogies.  India has now made it painfully clear that they want attention, and specifically attention in the form of an apology from someone at a very high level in the US government.  I believe Indians will cease and desist their creative retribution after that.  At this point, I believe it would have to come from no less than John Kerry or, if the United States really wanted to make a forceful and unforgettable show of goodwill, from President Obama himself.  Kerry has expressed “regret” at the way the Khobragade arrest unfolded, and White House spokesman Jay Carney has waxed philosophical about the strength of US-India friendship, but clearly the Indian government and its people have not been placated by these half-measures.  So what should be done?  I believe President Obama should call a press conference at the White House.  For what?  Simply, to apologize for the US government apparatus arresting an Indian diplomat in an abrupt and forceful manner when the alleged crimes could have been dealt with in a quieter and more humane manner with a civil conversation between US and Indian diplomats and politicians.  Simple, easy, and no need to litigate the merits of the case itself- which isn’t really the point here (oh, if only Americans understood this).  The apology must be unequivocal, unconditional, and somber, and made out to the Indian people with nothing asked in return.

You may ask, why should the mighty United States apologize for following the letter of the law in a case where there looks to be a clear crime and a clear victim on American soil?  I would answer that there is a pretty fair price to be paid.

Quid Quo Pro.  India, for its part, and no less than Manmohan Singh himself in person, should be on hand at the White House to accept the apology- and to simultaneously present one of his own.  Singh must apologize on behalf of the Indian people for every single retaliatory action taken by Indians, including every one of the privileges of US diplomats in India that were revoked, and each intrusive investigation into their activities.  No questions asked, each and every single one of those privileges should be immediately reinstated.  Duty free liquor, aiport passes, parking rights, traffic barriers, and other perks are back to the way they were before this affair all started.  I don’t care how this plays in Indian politics, it’s the right thing to do.  If I were Singh, I would also apologize profusely for the behavior of his diplomats in the United States as well.  Khobragade is after all only the latest in a parade of Indians, diplomats and otherwise who have acted like feudal lords in America.

The Agenda.  In other words, the apologies would go something like this, in front of the press from both nations and for all the world to see:

Obama:  Hey Man(mohan), sorry we arrested your girl so abruptly and without consulting you guys first.  The facts seem to show that she behaved badly, but we should have handled this in a more civilized way, simply because we are such good friends and we treat each other’s people with dignity.  We really, really do respect India and its people and its culture and we probably insulted your specifically cultural sensitivities.  Sorry, Man(mohan).

Singh:  I accept your apology.  I would also like to apologize on behalf of my country for the swift and silly actions we took in response, including taking away your diplomats’ perks, bad-mouthing the US up and down the countryside, riling up our citizens, and the harsh statements that were made to the press.  We respect the United States and its very difficult role as leader of the free world that we are also a part of, we really do, and it was not our intention to downplay the work that your foreign service officers are asked to do. 

Now.  Was that so hard???

What about Devyani Khobragade?  I believe the two countries need to sit down, review the facts, and come up with an amenable compromise, which to me would sound a lot like deportation but to someone else may sound like allowing her to go back home in peace.  Make her a (highly appropriately name in her case) persona non grata, which is what is generally done with spies or diplomats caught misbehaving abroad.  She should not be allowed back to the United States and the life she had here for some period of time, but at the same time she would get to skip out on her trial and potential prison time.  Both countries could save face, and so could she.  In fact Devyani could get feted with the hero’s welcome that awaits her.

There are those of you out there who still believe that one side or the other shouldn’t apologize.  I say, why not?  Anybody asking that question simply has no idea about the extent of damage that recent events have done to the goodwill that both countries have for each other, which is very hard to earn in the international system and in fact can take years, not to mention the harm that is coming to both sides for it.  The retaliation could go on endlessly without a stopgap.  No doubt, Khobragade’s arrest and its aftermath has set back goodwill and trust by years already.

Others will say, this is more complicated than that, because there is a checkered history, and the question of reciprocity, and fairness, and pride, and how to deal with future events, and how this affects relations with other nations.  But it’s really not that complicated.  Apologies are the DIRE need of the hour and nothing else shall suffice.  All else is just background noise.

This incident should not be viewed as a power play about who needs who more- and therefore waiting for the other side to apologize first.  That’s silly and immature, especially when both sides have clearly done wrong.  The facts are indeed overwhelming that it is India that needs the United States more in the current environment.  But that’s irrelevant, because neither nation can survive even the next decade of this complex 21st century without working closely with the other.

This isn’t about who is right and who is wrong.  There are enough perils out there to sink both ships, with plenty left over to bring down all the other ships too.  The United States and India fancy themselves as leaders. It’s time to move on from this bullshit, and get to work.

Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor of

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.