Indian diplomacy has a well-deserved reputation for conservative understatedness. You’ve rarely seen a professional Indian diplomat grandstanding or headline-hunting. Not even Mani Shankar Aiyar, when he enjoyed diplomatic immunity. Probably no one after Krishna Menon’s days of acid filibustery more than half a century ago. Not for any “proper” Indian diplomat the arrogant, stupid swagger of the occasional Pakistani — if anybody can recall an Indian insult to rival the unspeakable Munir Akram (later Pakistan representative to the UN) dismissing Salman Khurshid as a rented Muslim, and India as the sick man of Asia, please do let me know and I will stand corrected. To my recollection, the funniest Indian diplomatic comment came from K. Natwar Singh. When asked if he was a hawk or a dove, he said, “I am running foreign policy, not a bird sanctuary.” For someone who represented Bharatpur in the Lok Sabha, that was really smart. And the most cutting in recent memory was also possibly the most subtle. As India and Pakistan seemed to be drawing close to war in 2001-02 following the attack on Parliament, Pakistan responded by test-firing several “new” missiles, all named after medieval invaders of India: Abdali, Ghazni, Ghori, etc. Asked for comment at her daily press briefing, Nirupama Rao, then MEA spokesperson, simply said, “We are not impressed”. Just four brilliant, inoffensive words were enough to infuriate Pervez Musharraf.
What is to explain such a radical shift in the style and manner of such a classy, sophisticated and patient foreign service bureaucracy? Words like barbaric, despicable, inhuman, perfidy, betrayal, withdraw-all-charges-and-apologise and so on do not belong to the usual diplomatic vocabulary. These are the last resort of editorial writers and TV anchors always short of ideas or a clever turn of phrase. The same foreign service has handled three relatively recent incidents that amount to enormous perfidies — the torture and killing of Captain Saurabh Kalia and his patrol of five in Kargil (June, 1999), the beheading of an Indian soldier and disfiguring of the other on the LoC (January, 2013) and, in between, the greatest and continuing betrayal of all, the American double games over David Coleman Headley — with such mature equanimity.
It is not even as if Indian diplomats haven’t been put through harassment and worse in the past. Ravindra Mhatre, our assistant high commissioner in Birmingham, was kidnapped and killed by the JKLF to free Maqbool Butt and much later, following the destruction of Babri Masjid, the residence of our consul-general in Karachi, Rajiv Dogra, was ransacked. But never did our hallowed foreign service reach for the holster as they have done now. Nothing, not the CIA, PLA or ISI has roused this country to come together against a common enemy as this. It took just one perfidious, conspiring maid to stand up and ask for her rights.
This paper hasn’t been spared either for daring to advise against going overboard, and for pointing out the inconvenient fact that there is another person, a poor maid, also involved and probably (and I use this line with trepidation as it’s been in bad odour lately) there are two versions of this story. Or put it another way. If you wanted to see an entirely new manifestation of journalism of courage, you should have been an Indian Express editorial writer walking through the lawns of Delhi’s Hyderabad House on Thursday, peopled by a bevy of MEA officers at the minister’s annual year-end lunch for the media. Having survived many sniper alleys in my career, my instincts recognise one almost immediately.
The Devyani Khobragade, or rather the Devyani-Sangeeta (remember, the maid?), case is complex as it involves three tricky factors: class, caste and caste. Wait a few moments for me to explain why I use “caste” twice. Class, because in a row between master and servant, class will always triumph and so Khobragade must be right. Caste, first because Khobragade is from a Dalit family and so the insult is compounded. And caste for the second time because, in the caste hierarchy of sarkar-i-hind, the highest caste of all, the Brahmins of Brahminism, is the Indian Foreign Service. If that upstart Preet Bharara dares to read his rotten Manhattan law to an Indian diplomat, he will be made to pay. Uski naani yaad dila denge. Or maybe even get some uncle of his in Jalandhar or wherever charged with atrocities under the SC/ST act and show him how effectively India’s legal reform works. If only when it chooses to. Truth to tell, instead of cursing Bharara, we should try and import him as our first lokpal.
It is early for us to pronounce on the merits of the case yet, except that you cannot deny that there is a case, there are two sides, two versions and two victims. The maid, prima facie, is a victim of awful, callous exploitation, and the diplomat of being subjected to the horrible indignities of America’s arrest procedures. We, by the way, are a nation of other extremes. We can’t handcuff anybody, not even Ajmal Kasab, so you see these curious pictures of dreaded terrorists and policemen walking to courts hand-in-hand as if in some Jai-and-Veeru bonding. But of course, we make up by routinely torturing, raping and murdering in custody.
It will not be out of place to quote here a comment that New York Times columnist Roger Cohen made to me on a visit to Delhi last week. “Please explain your country to me. You have a Scandinavian rape law and the Russian homosexuality law.” But then all our awful laws, sick thana culture, abusive policemen and creative FIR writers are not for PLUs. Definitely not for those on the top of the PLU pyramid. All these are for Sangeeta Richard and her type. Stupid, thieving, lying, free-booting maid types. India’s original, and sadly most enduring, idea of our below-stairs class. At least that much that clown Bharara should have known! What happened to his Indian DNA? That is what we are so angry about. Just because they got away with arresting Dominique Strauss-Kahn moments before take-off, in spite of his high diplomatic status, they thought they could touch an Indian. We aren’t the bloody French.
Of course, as an Indian, I would also wish that Khobragade is brought back to India, but made to face charges here of allegedly cheating her maid and bringing disrepute to her country by lying on the maid’s visa form, if she did that. Chances are, in today’s primetime-fuelled hyper-patriotism, she will be hailed as some kind of Jhansi ki Rani. We all know the oft-repeated truism that diplomats are sent abroad to lie for their countries. But are they also paid to lie to their maids, the visa authorities, and then claim immunity? Please tell me another. And please think twice before you can accuse an honest taxpayer like me, armed with no immunity other than what Article 19 of the Constitution gives 120 crore Indians, of carrying a chip on the shoulder about the IFS (‘It’s a chip’, Rajiv Sikri, IE, December 19) for raising these simple points. Sangeeta Richard is Indian too, and poor or rich, must have the same rights as Khobragade.
This case has stumped the political establishment as well. The UPA displays so much fake anger, you wonder when will it rescind the nuclear deal. Khurshid said he won’t come to Parliament until Her Excellency the Acting Consul General’s honour is restored. Did he think of making some similar sacrifice to restore the dignity of 50,000 Muslims in the camps of Muzaffarnagar, 150 km away? Particularly when he represents Farrukhabad, not so far from there. As for our left-liberal bleeding hearts, they still can’t figure out whether to fight for a poor member of The Great Unwashed or take on The Great Satan. And, since I am being so reckless, let me also ask another trick question. Where did your Indian pride and self-respect go when you silently congratulated the same Americans for denying a visa to Narendra Modi? Whatever your political differences, he is a leader elected to a high political office in India. If he can visit 7 Race Course Road or Vigyan Bhawan, he cannot be barred from visiting Washington. And if he is, we should at least make the pretence of protest. So let’s not talk again about national pride and diplomatic propriety. Let’s also not kid ourselves into believing that employing house maids is some kind of universal human right.
In a conversation the other night with a greatly respected former Indian civil servant, I learnt the history of the barricades in front of the US embassy in Delhi. A security review was carried out after the US embassy in Nairobi was bombed on August 7, 1998. The Delhi mission had no protection from such an attack, so a joint India-US team suggested putting up “Jersey” barriers, the heavy but movable concrete blocks so called because they were first used on the New Jersey turnpike. The MEA objected because it feared that every embassy would demand this. But L.K. Advani was advised by his key aides to overrule it, and he wisely did. Sushilkumar Shinde should have checked the files before getting these removed. And our churlish incompetence is only matched by America’s stupidity. Why didn’t they simply retaliate by shutting down the visa section until security was restored? The tone of primetime discussions would have changed overnight. How would you keep all those mummyjis, daddyjis and auntyjis away from their betajis in Christmas season?