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The diplomat's arrest: The Tuticorin connection

December 26, 2013 15:27 IST

Devyani KhobragadeIs Devyani Khobragade's arrest connected to India detaining an anti-piracy ship owned by a US security firm, asks Colonel Anil A Athale (retd).

The Devyani Khobragade episode in New York has two clear aspects to analyse. The first is the how and why of the incident itself and the other more important, its wider repercussions and what it means to India-US relations.

When the initial reports of India's acting counsul general in New York being handcuffed and strip searched on December 12 appeared, many like me viewed it as an 'oops' moment.

Most thought that the action was taken by an overzealous law enforcer of Indian origin. Many observers of the American scene are aware that when it comes to dealing with India, some Americans of Indian origin do show extra zeal to show their loyalty to the adopted country.

This is not to either 'defend' Dr Khobragade's contract with the maid and her acquisition of properties in India (getting a prime location flat in a building meant for war veterans). But the fact remains that she was treated in an extra harsh manner that violated her human rights and dignity.

The American media and officials hiding behind the cloak of 'standard procedure' need to realise that this behaviour is unacceptable in a civilised world.

The outrage in India was also due to memories of past incidents when India's former President and serving ambassadors, ministers and eminent artists were harassed at their airports.

But most, including me, took it as a diplomatic 'faux pas' at the worst.

As an Indian taxpayer, one was also concerned that it would be one more instance where we (coerced by American NGOs and ambulance-chasing lawyers) will bear the cost of fulfilling another maid's 'American Dream'.

However, more skeletons soon tumbled out of the American closet.

The family of the maid at the centre of this controversy was spirited away from India on December 10, two days before the Indian diplomat was arrested.

It also turns out that the maid's extended family worked at the US embassy in New Delhi. The family was given an emigration visa in 48 hours flat, impossible without the knowledge/approval of the ambassador and upper echelons of the US State Department.

The maid and her family have been given asylum in the US and the Indian diplomat is accused of human trafficking.

A wage dispute between two Indian citizens in the US on diplomatic passports (even the maid has a white diplomatic passport) has thus been turned into a row between two governments with most of the Western media giving it a suitable spin, equating India with countries like Saudi Arabia (that in American eyes can do no wrong) or North Korea!

Even the facts about the wages being paid have been given a fraudulent twist.

The maid in question was being given free lodging and boarding. In addition, Rs 30,000 was regularly credited to her account in India.

Since the money was paid in India, it ought to be accounted in PPP (purchase power parity) terms.

The 'Big Mac Index' of currency equivalence shows that $1 in July 2013 was equal to Rs 19.70 in India.

Thus, the 'real' money paid in cash to the maid is roughly $1,520 per month.

Add to that the facilities provided to her in New York, possibly she was being paid more than the minimum wage.

If the maid was dissatisfied with this, she had every right to leave the job.

It is believed that some such negotiations did take place in June/July.

There are a thousand discreet ways in which this issue could have been resolved without making it a public spectacle and without injustice to the so-called 'hapless' maid.

The inventive Western media seems to have forgotten that the individual maid in question had willingly signed a contract and gone to the US.

She got different ideas later, but that does not make this either a case of slavery or human trafficking.

Why was this incident, in which the exact 'guilt' of either party is yet to be proved, turned into an opportunity to create 'leverage' against the Indian government?

It seems more likely that the New York incident is connected to India detaining an anti-piracy ship owned by a US security firm.

The Sierra Leone-flagged ship, the Seaman Guard Ohio, belongs to the Virginia-based AdvanFort, a maritime security firm that specialises in anti-piracy operations.

The ship is held in the southern port of Tuticorin along with 10 crew members and 25 armed security guards.

The crew and security guards included British, Estonian, Indian and Ukrainian nationals.

The ship's crew has been accused of obtaining subsidised fuel without authority. Bail for the crew has been denied.

The curious aspect of this case is that the ship is licensed to patrol the eastern Indian Ocean and Gulf. The sailors or 'contractors' are in the Indian judicial system and not likely to be let off easily.

To those who doubt this connection, a reminder that the US, including its President, went to extreme lengths to save Raymond Davis who was charged with murder in Pakistan.

It seems very likely that a compromise will soon be found to circumvent the judicial process in the US and in India.

The Indian diplomat will be off the hook and the ship with its crew will be released. However, these episodes raise a question mark on the future of India-US relations.

Coming close on the heels of the American non-cooperation in the David Headley case, this will leave a bitter taste.

What is extraordinary is the utter American insensitivity to public opinion in India -- a rare country in which survey after survey showed the US as a popular country in the public perception.

Indians seem to have underestimated the strength of American self-perception of its 'Exceptionalism'.

The Americans believe that they are the champions of human rights and religious rights and American justice is second to none. They also have legal systems in place that puts American law over international treaties and other nations's laws.

Most of the world, especially after the scandal of the US National Security Agency snooping over communications in Europe, Asia and Africa with no distinction made between allies and enemies, see the US as a global sheriff, not just a global cop.

To an outsider, the US increasingly looks like a capitalist USSR, complete with its Big Brother snooping, its own Gulag at Guantanamo, its own version of Pravda in The New York Times and Izvestia in the Washington Post!

Even after the current impasse is resolved, Indians would do well to be strictly reciprocal in all dealings with the US and not keep all our eggs in a single basket.

Colonel Anil A Athale (retd)