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U.S.-India diplomatic row sparks ugly memories in Pakistan

The tension between two strategic partners, the United States and India, over a diplomatic row is persisting for unusually long

Mansoor Jafar

Published: Updated:

The tension between two strategic partners, the United States and India, over a diplomatic row is persisting for unusually long. Both sides are yet to budge from their respective positions.

India is demanding an unconditional apology from the United States and the dropping of charges against one of its top female diplomats, who was “shamefully” treated during her arrest and strip-searched despite her diplomatic immunity. While U.S. authorities in New York say the deputy Consul-General Devyani Khobragade was not entitled to the privilege of diplomatic immunity in the current case since she was accused of visa fraud and paying a domestic worker far less than the minimum legal wage.

The U.S. Marshal’s office also denied Devyani’s accusations that she was handcuffed publicly, strip-searched and kept with drug addicts and hard criminals. A U.S. official said she was strip searched by a female official in isolation as per standard procedures for ensuring safety of the accused and other inmates, adding that she was not handcuffed and kept with women prisoners.

Yet I feel that the entire hue and cry will die down soon as both governments will find some diplomatic solution to resolve the matter and normalize the relations as responsible countries.

Double standards

U.S. arrogance for demanding privileged treatment for its diplomatic staff accused of committing serious crimes abroad, has become a well-known reality. Washington demanded diplomatic treatment even for its spies and CIA contractors under the cover of diplomatic officials who committed espionage and cold blood murders. But India trying to match this brazen attitude of the sole super power of the world seems odd.

The media frenzy and diplomatic warnings being issued from both sides make the matter a little complicated

Mansoor Jafar

Undoubtedly, India is the largest democracy of the world by virtue of its population, and made phenomenal progress after the cold war era to claim its berth in the New Economic Order of the world, closely following the economic giant, China. The majority of Indians feel that as an emerging capitalist and democratic power, India should be given preference by the U.S. over China as its economic and trade partner.

Yet the percentage of Indians living below poverty line is one of the largest proportions in the world countries; this makes India a poor country despite its industrial growth. I feel that Indian aristocracy is still suffering from the legacy of Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru who presented India as an “empire” claiming its heritage from every great ruler of its history including Ashoka, Akbar the Great and Lord Curzon. Nehru cultured Indian diplomats by instilling in them the mannerisms of the courtiers of great empires of the history.

The real issue behind the diplomatic tussle is that the Indian diplomat violated the laws of U.S. She submitted fake employment contract with her house maid, Sangeeta Richards, before the U.S. foreign ministry. Rampant poverty and insufficient legislation in the developing countries, like in the sub-continent, allow the ugly practice of exploiting house maids for shamefully low wages like the slaves of yore. The Indian diplomat forgot to shrug off this habit before leaving for the U.S. and was unlucky enough to get caught in a terrible situation.

Uproar in India

The mere arrest of Devyani would not have made such uproar in India. What outraged Indians were the reports that she was made to take off all her clothes for a body search, handcuffed publicly and kept in custody with criminals and drug addicts. Indian media outrage prompted a series of reprisals, including the removal of protective barricades outside the U.S. embassy in Delhi.

Indian officials and media are insisting their top diplomat was entitled to diplomatic immunity. But U.S. authorities claim diplomatic immunity was invoked only for official duties, and cannot cover the crimes and violations committed in a personal capacity. She violated two laws, one carrying a maximum sentence of ten years while the other, five years.

The media frenzy and diplomatic warnings being issued from both sides make the matter a little complicated. Former Indian Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha went to the extent of claiming that if diplomats are strictly subject to the local laws then most of the U.S. diplomats in India could be arrested and sentenced for same-sex marriages which is a serious crime under Indian laws. India’s Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath said “a mere regret won’t make us happy. They must offer a clear apology and accept that they made a mistake, which is the least that will make us satisfied.”

The U.S. media, which is known for always taking sides with the State Department and Pentagon, assailed Indian authorities for backing its diplomat despite the serious nature of the allegations. “India is siding with a woman who was in the wrong, who lied, paid her domestic help poorly and now is brazen enough to claim that she should not be treated like a criminal,” said a column in The Washington Post.

The case of Raymond Davis

It is the same U.S. media which demanded Obama take strong action against Pakistan when a U.S. spy and CIA contractor, working under diplomatic cover, was arrested in Lahore for killing two citizens in cold blood. For the people of Pakistan, the situation reminded them of a similar diplomatic standoff between Islamabad and Washington over the notorious Raymond Davis case of 2011.

Davis (an alias) was believed to be a U.S. commando or a private security contractor who shot down two civilians with a gun on a busy street. Davis, also believed to be a key U.S. agent who tracked down the hide out of Osama Bin Laden, took his victims as some intelligence officials while they were riding a bike ahead of his car. U.S. president Obama, other officials and media repeatedly claimed Davis was a diplomat entitled diplomatic immunity.

While Pakistanis argued that shooting down civilians of a host country was a crime not covered by diplomatic immunity, Islamabad rejected U.S. claims he was a diplomat since his name was not on the list of diplomatic staff. During the days Davis was under custody, the media demanded he should be put to the gallows for the cold blood murders. It was my considered opinion that the U.S. wouldn’t allow his prosecution and punishment at all costs. And he was finally released without prosecution by taking misplaced advantage of Islamic law.

Indian Foreign Minister Khurshid and few others officials tried some damage control. Salman was quoted as saying there was “a sense of hurt” over the treatment of the diplomat at a time when U.S. President Barack Obama is looking to bolster ties with New Delhi. Salman expressed hopes India’s “valuable relationship” with the U.S. would soon return to normal, but reiterated calls for the visa fraud case against diplomat Devyani Khobragade be withdrawn. “We are not convinced there are legitimate grounds for pursuing it,” Khurshid told foreign journalists. “I cannot believe if a U.S. senator was arrested he would be put through this behavior. I would rather not prejudge. Let us allow the American government to respond,” he said.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry tried to calm down Indian sentiments with a phone call to India’s national security adviser on Wednesday, expressing regret and stressing that the issue should not be allowed to hurt a “vital relationship.”

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Mansoor Jafar is Editor of Al Arabiya Urdu based in Islamabad. He can be reached via Twitter: @mansoorjafar

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.