Cooler Heads Must Prevail in India-U.S. Spat

The arrest and strip-search of an Indian diplomat has triggered rounds of ugly reactions.

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Indian Muslim activists burn an effigy of U.S. President Barack Obama during a protest outside the U.S. consulate in Chennai, India, Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013. India's Information Minister Manish Tewari lashed out at the United States on Friday and demanded an apology for the treatment and arrest of Devyani Khobragade, India's deputy consul general in New York, saying America cannot behave "atrociously" and get away with it.

A certain amount of lying is necessary for the functioning of any human relationship. Whether it's "you look great," or "of course I love your (drunk, racist) little brother," we all say and do things to keep social avenues open and avoid hurting feelings for no good reason. Nowhere is this more evident than in the area of international diplomacy, what with the exchange of trinkets and elaborate insistences that someone is your "good friend," even though you are fighting mightily behind doors or tapping one another's cell phones.

And the case of Indian consular officer Devyani Khobragade shows just how fragile and ultimately unreliable those practices are.

Khobragade was arrested last month for allegedly abusing her housekeeper – basically, by paying the woman (also an Indian national, working for her in New York City) a fraction of what she claimed and what is required by minimum wage laws in New York. The housekeeper, Sangeeta Richard, escaped the home and claimed she had been forced to work long hours without the required compensation. There are also allegations Khobragade falsified visa documents.

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This is disturbing – people are supposed to obey the laws of this country while they are living here, unless they have diplomatic immunity (and prosecutors say Khobragade did not). But the episode has led to a series of escalating overreactions and counter-overreactions that have accomplished nothing other than to damage the diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and India.

Khobragade's alleged misdoings do not rise to the level of accusations made in past years against internationals – cases in which house workers were held as virtual slaves, subject to the threat of physical abuse and other outrageous punishments. This, as far as we know, was the case of someone who, at worst, seemed to think she could treat her employee with the same level of labor maltreatment that might be allowed in her home country. No, that's not acceptable. But was it necessary to arrest and strip-search her without so much as a heads-up, through diplomatic channels, to the Indian government? It's not that authorities aren't within their rights to strip-search arrestees (just as they would for a less-connected alleged perpetrator). But one has to weigh the consequences of the predictably provocative act.

India – and Indians – have displayed an overreaction as well, one which makes it harder to feel sympathy toward Khobragade. They have burned President Obama in effigy, an absurd reaction given that Obama had nothing to do with the local arrest. Indian authorities have also responded by removing security barriers from outside the U.S. embassy in New Delhi. More recently, the Indian government has demanded that the embassy stop screening movies at the American Center unless the films have been cleared by Indian censors. And now, the American Community Support Association, a club frequented by expats in India, will be shut to non-diplomats amid Indian claims of tax violations.

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Secretary of State John Kerry has expressed "regret" over the strip-search, but stopped short of an apology. The whole episode put Kerry – who has higher-level things to worry about without a headache like this – in an awkward position. Apologizing for the prosecution amounts to apologizing for the American criminal justice system, and also suggests State controls local law enforcement, and he can't do that.

The whole episode has caused a rift far more serious that what Khobragade is being accused of doing. Let's hope cool heads prevail on both sides of the world.

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