India has reacted strongly to the arrest and strip-search of its deputy consul general in New York. The treatment of Devyani Khobragade at the hands of US Marshals has elicited an unprecedented response from New Delhi, which ordered the concrete security barriers removed from the United States Embassy in the Indian capital.
The escalating diplomatic row is turning acerbic with New Delhi yesterday demanding that Washington withdraw the case against the distressed diplomat, who was picked up by US authorities outside her kids’ school after dropping them off. The Indian Foreign Ministry led by Salman Khurshid in one of many retaliatory responses has revoked airport passes of US diplomats. India has also decided to make it harder for them to import some ‘convenience goods.’
The bitter standoff is not an isolated incident between the two countries that were on opposing sides during the Cold War. Instances of eminent visitors from India being humiliated and strip-searched abound in the United States that seems to suffer from an overbearing security paranoia. Former Indian president APJ Abdul Kalam and Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan have been earlier subjected to denigrating security procedures and questioning. Khan was detained for two hours for what was seen as a transgression because of his surname. Continental Airlines apologised in 2009 after security staff in New Delhi searched Kalam.
The treatment meted out to former Indian ambassador to Washington, Meera Shankar, set off a diplomatic storm after she was subjected to a pat-down by the all-powerful US Transport Security Administration.
New Delhi’s reaction to earlier diplomatic rows was relatively muted — drawing murmurs of protest from the foreign service establishment and outright rejection by the nation. India’s stance on the spat repudiates its soft state image that has come to characterise New Delhi’s foreign policy over the years. Even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, infamous for his taciturn style of functioning, came out strongly against the US treatment of the diplomat, calling it “deplorable”.
Khurshid’s approach shows that the foreign minister would have none of it from Washington. US Secretary of State John Kerry’s regret over the incident did not cool down tempers and the Indian establishment — backed by an unrelenting opposition — is demanding a downright apology.
That a housemaid — the dispute relates to Devyani allegedly underpaying her house help — could spark a diplomatic confrontation seems unbelievable. But the controversy can be a stepping stone for India to start changing its pacifist image abroad, leading to better negotiating terms in bilateral fora and giving its one billion people a new-found confidence•