If America was a bully in the china shop when it came to its handling of Devyani Khobragade, India has decided its revenge for its humiliation will be death to America by a thousand cuts.
The United States embassy has been told to close down all commercial activities it permits through the American Community Support Association by January 16. That means non-U.S. diplomats or private American citizens and their families can no longer enjoy the restaurant/bar, bowling alley or beauty parlor. India says these commercial activities in a duty-free facility violate the norm. Before that we heard about a directive to the American Center to stop screening films. A “tersely-worded communication” sent to the American Centre has said screening fims without a license is a “transgression.” Of course, stopping film screenings is going to annoy Indians who went to watch the films more than it annoys the Americans. But that’s just a niggling detail when it comes to the Great Game of score-settling.
It’s reached a point where the editorial board of the Washington Post has decided to weigh in. “The Indian government has compounded tensions with high-decibel rhetoric and a vindictive campaign against U.S. diplomats in New Delhi. Its bullying measures have ranged from the petty—withdrawing the U.S. Embassy’s permit to import alcohol—to the irresponsible—removing security barricades from the street in front of the facility.”
This the Post implies with a tone of tut-tut reproof is very disappointing especially because over the past decade, senior United States officials have portrayed India as an “emerging strategic partner” as well as a “democracy that respects the rule of law and shares U.S. values.” The Post’s lofty tone of aggrieved letdown boils down to this: We thought India was a grown-up who we could invite to dinner. But alas, it’s still a spoiled brat having a tantrum.
No wonder when that piece was tweeted out, Shashi Tharoor, the Indian Minister of State for Human Resource Development, a Member of Parliament, an author and columnist, tweeted back calling it “high-handed & presumptuous” wondering if the Indian Embassy would be allowed to block a street unilaterally. Tharoor tweeted that the Embassy had blocked the road on its own and the Indian government “let it pass in a spirit of friendship.”
Where once India turned a blind eye to these things, now it’s more like an eye for an eye and a tit for a tat. I believe that the issue of the treatment of Devyani Khobragade by the United States authorities and the issue of visa fraud in her employment contract are separate from each other. One does not excuse the other. However when it comes to these matters of equality before the law, the United States is very much the emperor who has no clothes. It really has little ground to adopt its tone of high moral dudgeon.
And one needs only one name to make that point: Raymond Allen Davis. That’s the American CIA contractor who shot two Pakistanis in Lahore and then ran over another person in his rush to get away. President Obama invoked diplomatic immunity to break him from a Pakistani jail. As Mukul Kesavan points out in The Telegraph the Pakistani government made exactly the same arguments that American state and its proxies are making in the Khobragade case. But to no avail. And Khobragade, unlike Davis, is not accused of killing anyone. “Does American wrongdoing in Lahore justify Indian wrongdoing in New York?” wonders Kesavan. “In normal circumstances, the answer would be no, it doesn’t. A thief can’t protest his conviction on the grounds that some other thief was let off on account of a miscarriage of law.” But as Kesavan points out the problem at the heart of all this is that we are judging these events by normal citizen standards of fair play and even playing fields.
This ain’t cricket. “There’s nothing ‘normal’ about diplomatic immunity,” writes Kesavan. That’s why both sides are in such an impasse. The Vienna Convention is more of an “extraordinary privilege” that all nations subscribe to because ultimately they all benefit from it in ways big and small—from evading murder charges to foreign wine and cheese. America demonstrated during the Davis affair that it could do whatever it wanted in the name of the Vienna Convention because hey, it just could. But in doing so it seems to have failed to realize that where the United States leads, others can follow.
Of course, turning off the Embassy liquor spigot and shutting down its DVD player is not going to do much to put hair on India’s chest though it is thumping it with such vigor. “Indians do shrill petulance better than they do manly truculence,” quips Kesavan. We can put that down to the surfeit of saas-bahu serials that afflict our culture. Now the foreign policy magazine The American Interest is asking Obama to intervene because he has the power to pardon. If he does decide to do that, here’s a line he could use: There’s a broader principle at stake that I think we have to uphold. It should come easily to him. He used it once before. For Raymond Allen Davis.
Sandip Roy is the Culture Editor for Firstpost.com. He is on leave as editor with New America Media. His weekly dispatches from India can be heard on KALW.org. This article was first published on FirstPost.com.