By Param Bhatter
On December 12th, the U.S. State Department arrested Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade in New York City, strip-searched her outside of her children’s school and detained her until she was released on bail. She was charged with making false declarations on the visa application of her Indian domestic worker, as well as breaking U.S. law by paying her employee less than minimum wage. Regardless of whether these allegations are true, which Khobragade has denied, Indians all across the world are still furious at the way that the United States handled the situation. Even a few weeks after the incident, national headlines in Indian newspapers and articles continued to print on the perceived obscenity of this situation, and the dust has yet to settle. To fully understand India’s extreme reaction, it is important to analyze Indian culture and its part in the nation’s response to this situation.
Immediately after the incident, the Indian government in New Delhi quickly retaliated against American diplomats working in India. The countermoves included restrictions on tax-free shipments, the removal of traffic barriers outside the U.S. embassy in New Delhi and demands for the salaries of any Indian nationals employed at the U.S. embassy to be made public. Although these countermoves may seem like an extreme reaction to the mistreatment of one foreign diplomat, Indians are rather emotional about the incident. Additionally, the United States’ lack of a formal apology has left many Indians even more spiteful. As one of the fastest growing nations in the world, India wishes to be recognized politically by the United States as a first world country, not as an inferior country, which was the indication of the actions against Khobragade. Many Indians believe that this public strip search and detention were completely unnecessary, and that any issues with the visa application of the domestic Indian worker could have been handled privately. Making this incident public was only an attempt to ridicule Indians all over the world by treating them as children, or criminals who needed to be exposed in public and made an example of.
Another reason that India takes such offense to the mistreatment of Ms. Khobragade is that foreign diplomacy is one of the most respected careers in India. Each year, the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) only admits 1,000 students into its program for training to work in diplomacy. These positions are extremely competitive, and many members of the IFS are among the brightest and most successful members of India’s population. The United States’ public ridicule of one of India’s most prestigious citizens has left many Indians furious. Additionally, Ms. Khobragade is Dalit, from one of the lowest castes in India known as the “untouchables.” She has worked her way to the top of Indian society, and people within her caste, who make up about 15 percent of the Indian population, are extremely sensitive to humiliation.
The nature of the Indian response also stems from the fact that national elections are scheduled in a few months, and the current ruling party, known as the Congress Party, has had difficulty retaining its political power as it has lost many recent elections. Often criticized as too politically aligned with the United States, the party has seen this incident as a chance to prove to the Indian public that it remains independent and will not accept inferior treatment from the United States. Although this is unfortunate for the United States, the current political instability in India has affected the party’s reaction, which is not considered to be that extreme by the Indian public.
Even a full month after the incident, tensions still remain high between the American and Indian governments. Whether this will only get worse or eventually simmer down remains unknown. What is important to the future of these two countries is for them to better understand how to work together and deal with issues in a fair, considerate manner while being respectful of each nation’s culture and needs.
Image by Param Bhatter