Devyani Khobragade and the future of India-America relations


The diplomatic-political row between India and the United States over the treatment of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade has both countries more or less scrambling to prevent it from derailing an important alliance between the world’s largest democracies.

Khobragade was arrested by federal marshals in New York City on charges of visa fraud and human trafficking related to how much she was paying her nanny, Sangeeta Richard.  She was arrested and strip-searched before being released on bail.  The Indian government was outraged and has since retaliated by rolling back privileges previously given to American diplomats in India.  Some Indian politicians have taken it further and suggested that gay partners of American diplomats should be arrested, as Khobragade was, since homosexuality has recently been criminalized by the Indian Supreme Court.

Indian politicians are furious, but many Indian-Americans applaud the arrest and the Indian citizenry is slightly divided but mostly upset at what they call blatant disrespect of their diplomats by the US.  Curious enough, every time I started to write about this I learned new information that literally changed my opinion on who was right and wrong.

I’ve observed American, British and Indian media coverage on this and while there are reasons to be suspicious of both Devyani Khobragade and Sangeeta Richard, it is incredibly clear that the US did not take their time to get all the facts and rushed to arrest Khobragade.  The American government “evacuated” the Richard family from India Sangeeta Richard was under criminal investigation by the Delhi High Court.  In doing this the US not only interfered with the Indian judicial process but sent the message that the US government does not respect India’s judiciary enough to communicate with it about what was going on and allow India to handle a situation from within its own borders.  India rightly points out that this is not acceptable behavior from a country that calls itself India’s ally.

I’ll also highlight that I only heard about Delhi’s investigation into Richard when I watched Indian coverage.  However the British news released information revealing Sangeeta Richard’s dubious motives.

I honestly do not know who is the victim here–Khobragade or Richard.  The truth is probably somewhere in between.  But as an American, I’m aware of the racism in American bureaucracy.  European diplomats on American soil have been accused of crimes much worse than this, and American authorities did not treat them the same way they did Khobragade.  India knows this and is rightfully angry.  Also, India has elections in 2014 which is also playing a background role as both the ruling party and main opposition seek to use this situation to demonstrate what they would bring to Indian Foreign Policy, that they will stand up to the West.

Furthermore, even if the case against Khobragade was air tight, the United States owes India respect as an ally, the world’s largest democracy and a rising power to not rush to arrest and prosecution like they did.  On his 2010 visit to India, President Obama praised India, calling it “a true democracy”, and America’s partnership with India, one that defines the 21st century.

Which brings me to my main point in even writing about this.  India has every right to be angry, and unless Khobragade has committed a crime on American soil (which it’s looking less likely that she has), she should be released, her passport returned and an apology issued to India not just for her quick arrest and strip-search but for American authorities completely bypassing India’s judicial system.

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India and the United States are the world’s largest democracies.  It does neither country any good to be on opposite sides, particularly the US.  China is continuing to rise economically and according to Forbes, is poised to become the world’s largest economy by 2016.  China is also spreading its influence beyond its borders to Africa, in particular.  India is pursuing partnerships with African nations as well, and if America wants to retain any type of leverage in a world system where the balance of power is shifting away from the US, it would seem self-evident that a partnership with India would not only benefit the US more given our shared ideologies, but it would provide a deterrent of sorts to China should it become overzealous in its pursuits on the world stage.

As in the 20th century, Britain was our indispensable ally–our shared language, heritage and government linked us together as countries with similar interests.  In the 21st century, the world order is not what it was in 1945.  Britain has accepted this, so must the United States.  I’m not advocating for US-India’s relationship to replace the “special relationship” between the US-UK, but we share the same similarities with India as we do with Britain.  It is a grave mistake to discount India as Asia becomes the global center of power, with China at the top and India poised to overtake Japan and become the world’s third largest economy by 2028 according to London’s Centre for Economics and Business Research.

All of this is to say, the United States no longer runs the world and must not act like it does. This is all part of the cycle of history, but if the US wants to maintain it’s world power status it must realize it is no longer the world’s most powerful, but one of many great powers.