Devyani Khobragade row: What India's hyper-reaction says about us

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The latest controversy over the treatment meted out to Devyani Khobragade, a woman Indian diplomat in the USA reminds us about the outrage that had occurred in the wake of the death of Savita Halappanavar due to medical complications in Ireland last year. In both these cases, two individuals have been the reason behind a sudden burst of nationalism.

The Khobragade case has united India, even in ways unthinkable at other times. For example, both Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi, the faces of the two main competing political forces in India, decided not to meet American delegates as a protest against the way Khobragade was treated for alleged visa fraud and exploiting her babysitter-cum-housekeeper.

If a woman dies abroad because of medical complication during pregnancy or if a diplomat is held for allegedly exploiting her maid, there is a huge reaction in the Indian media and among the politicians but when similar incidents happen in our own land, they are regarded as a common phenomenon and conveniently ignored.

Why does our media need to over-react to the incident in the USA? And what purpose is the political class serving by refusing to meet American delegates? If the US officials have overlooked any technical aspect in the case and have insulted our representative in their land, our leaders should take it up directly with them instead of posing for media attention. Or is it because they are feeling compelled to buy some fame ahead of a prestigious battle in the form of national elections due in some months?

About the diplomatic immunity

Have the US officials erred in not acknowledging Khobragade's diplomatic immunity? According to experts, Khobragade was unlikely to get such immunity because the basis on which she was held had nothing to do with her official status or action and rather a private matter subject to American laws. The case of former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was also cited by the experts. Kahn, who found himself in the middle of a sex scandal, was handcuffed and put into the jail before he could seek any diplomatic immunity.

Experts also pointed out that there are two separate international conventions, namely, the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 1963 [Read it here].

According to them, consular immunity is not as extensive as those of the diplomatic officers. They, for example, do not have absolute immunity from the criminal jurisdiction of the host nation. They are immune from local jurisdiction only in cases related to their official duty. A similar incident had happened in India last year when Pascal Mazurier, a French consulate official, was arrested by the Bangalore Police for allegedly raping his four-year-old daughter.

What's the problem then?

The problem is our mindset. As we often mistreat our domestic servants at our homes, we tend to do the same when abroad as well, forgetting that they enjoy certain legal protection there and land in trouble. Khobragade isn't the first diplomat who has found herself in a legal soup after 'mistreating' their domestic help.

In June 2011, India's the then consul general in New York Prabhu Dayal was accused by his former housekeeper of forcing her into forced labour. In February last year, Neena Malhotra, an Indian Press and Culture counsellor at the New York consulate, was fined $.15 million by a New York court for abusing her maid Shanti Gurung.

These three incidents come to focus because they involve diplomats and take place abroad but when the same thing happens in several households in India because of a pathetic standard of valuing the labour, nobody cares to talk about it. Whatever we are seeing on the television and other media today about the Khobragade incident, it's nothing but a hyper-nationalism at work. It is a great but not exactly a reasonable feeling.

Take this
According to the Global Slavery Index of 2013, India has the most number of people involved in modern slavery (the number is between 13.3 and 14.7 million). The Human Rights Watch also said that "countries like India face horrific abuses".

On the other hand, United States Fair Labour Standards Act sets up minimum facilities for workers, including minimum wage, overtime pay, record-keeping and also minimum standards for the child labour in all types of governments, federal, state or local.

For those who are shouting at the top of their voices against the Americans' bad treatment to the diplomat, why don't they show the same urgency to project the harsh socio-economic reality that prevails in our own country?

Why don't they feel the same for those poor and helpless people (mainly women, girls and children) from the tribal and rural areas who work as domestic servants and maids to earn a minimum living, even at the risk of compromising with their dignity and sometimes even life. India has a minimum wage legislation wherein both the Centre and states can fix the wages but domestic workers don't fall under it. Only in the state of Karnataka does the domestic help has a minimum daily wage (Rs 191).

What our behaviour says about us

Nothing special. The hyper-reaction that we are putting up on the Khobragade issue proves again that we are a typical developing country at the end of the day, where the leadership needs to fuel nationalistic sentiments to improve their prospects in the national elections.

The interesting part in the entire episode is that even Rahul Gandhi decided to turn away the US delegates as a protest. After the recent defeats in four states, Gandhi gave hint that he would make the Congress work like a common man's party and has been found giving views on various issues, including gay rights, Lokpal Bill and now the diplomat row. Even Narendra Modi had to take the common route of nationalism so that Gandhi did not get an advantage. So it's all about elections and India's political leadership has learnt to make use of the ambitious middle-class and the media riding a nationalist sentiment to facilitate their own cause.

But when real action is required on foreign policy issues, like taking a strong stand vis-a-vis Maldives or fighting in favour of a fellow Indian in Togo, our leadership is found indifferent. For those countries are too inconsequential. If we take on the mighty USA, we have a better publicity to gain.

Hence, over react and stretch it too far.

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