Khobragade harassment: The tailor’˜maid’ US regret

The maid was wanted in India and US authorites knew about it. Yet her family was given a visa and Khobragade was arrested for visa fraud.

The big headline in today’s newspapers was that the United States finally reached out to India in the deputy consul-general Devyani Khobragade harassment issue. Reportedly, the US secretary of state John Kerry called up national security adviser Shiv Shankar Menon to discuss her December 12th arrest.

Kerry expressed his regret and concern over the treatment meted out to the diplomat and stressed the importance of enforcing laws and protecting victims. With this, he joined the other defiant lot of US officials who has so far maintained that the arrest was made well within its rights to charge and arrest the diplomat because she had violated US laws, and thus, was not entitled to full diplomatic immunity.

To Kerry, the “close and vital relationship with India” that US shared was more important which he stressed “should not be hurt over the issue”. Even after the ghastly mistake that US government made, Kerry, “like all officials in positions of responsibility in the US government”, expected that laws would be followed by everyone.

“It is also particularly important to Secretary Kerry that foreign diplomats serving in the United States are accorded respect and dignity just as we expect our own diplomats should receive overseas. As a father of two daughters about the same age as Ms. Khobragade, the Secretary empathises with the sensitivities we are hearing from India about the events that unfolded after Ms. Khobragade’s arrest,” said a US state department news release.

Kerry’s response, needless to say, is just not enough. The US is still not apologizing and it has yet not responded to India’s questions over not arresting the maid who is wanted in the country. It has also maintained silence over allowing visa to maid’s kin to fly to US just two days before Khobragade’s arrest.

The absconding maid, Sangeeta Richard, was given a two room apartment with all the modern facilities to live in. She was given a mobile phone and the freedom to go in and out of the house any time of the day. Her husband’s account was deposited with Rs 30,000 per month and Sangeeta was given cash too as and when requested.

Sangeeta went missing in June this year and Khobragade filed a missing person’s report with the New York police and kept visitng the station for the same. There was also a court case against the maid after the Khobragade family complained that she had absconded with her diplomatic passport. The Delhi high court subsequently issued a warrant against her and this fact was also brought to the notice of the US authorities.

Interestingly, Sangeeta’s husband husband had filed a case in July demanding the Government locate his wife but he withdrew the petition later. There was no confirmation of reports that her father works with the US Embassy.

Yet her family was given a visa and Khobragade was arrested for visa fraud.

Taking the cue from this case, the government is now accelerating a proposal pending with the union finance ministry to designate Indian domestic helps working abroad as government servants on contract in order not to fall foul of minimum wages laws in developed countries. The ministry of external affairs had moved the proposal after the case of another Indian diplomat hit the headlines in 2011.

Under the pool system, a fixed number of domestic helps are available and their services are called upon by diplomats according to need. If this is coupled with short-term Government contacts, most of the issues that bedevil Indian diplomats will be sorted out – they will not be held personally culpable in case of a contractual dispute and the contract system will take care of the minimum wages issue.

Now India is demanding the diplomat be allowed to return home and all charges against her dropped. Unlike two previous cases, this was the first time the US Government had filed criminal charges.

The conduct of US authorities has nonetheless violated the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, 1963 and accepted norms and practice between civilised States. And an apology with the arrest of the maid and dropping of all charges on Khobragade would do better than regret.

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