Share story

IN December, Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade
was arrested in New York for human rights violations and visa fraud. The incident has touched off a crisis in U.S.-India relations.

One would hope that the Khobragade issue is now closed and both sides have moved on. Unfortunately they have not.

While it is tempting to blame this incident on the media, in reality it reflects deeper problems that bedevil U.S.-India relations. After all, a minor incident involving a midlevel diplomat developed into a major bilateral crisis.

Khobragade, India’s deputy consul general in New York, was accused of not paying minimum wage to her domestic help, Sangeeta Richard, and making a false declaration in the visa application that she filed to employ Richard.

One month later, she was indicted by a grand jury. Simultaneously, the United States granted her diplomatic immunity and allowed her to return to India.

In response, India expelled Wayne May, the head of the Diplomatic Security service in the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, who played a key role in spiriting Richard’s family out of India. India also withdrew the nonreciprocal privileges granted to American diplomats in India.

The U.S. media portrayed the Khobragade case as an exploitative upper-class Indian preying on her helpless domestic help.

The Indian media emphasized that a woman diplomat was arrested, strip-searched and placed in a cell with hardened criminals, a violation of the Geneva Convention and norms of decency.

Yet blaming media alone would be shortsighted. The Khobragade affair reflects poorly on the managerial capacity and the political instincts of the U.S. State Department.

Soon after Khobragade’s arrest, the State Department took the position that it could not influence the U.S. legal process. While technically true, this was an inadequate response. Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney prosecuting Khobragade’s case, is a political appointee who serves at the pleasure of the president.

Furthermore, it is flabbergasting that the State Department did not monitor the conduct of Wayne May and his wife Alicia Muller May, who made offensive statements on their Facebook page about Indian culture and the Hindu religion.

Wayne May made fun of vegetarianism, noting that his pet dog was better nourished than his vegetarian Indian gardener. Commenting on a well-publicized rape case in New Delhi, his wife noted, “It’s the vegetarians that are doing the raping, not the meat eaters — this place is just so bizarre.”

She made fun of cows. When her friends pointed out that she had insulted an Indian god, she proclaimed, “Not the first time, not the last.”

U.S. spy agencies apparently monitor electronic communication everywhere; how could they not monitor the comments made by their own embassy officials in New Delhi? Imagine the fallout had May been posted in the Middle East and he or his wife had made similar statements about Islam.

In the last three weeks, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has tried to assuage India. But his statements neither offer any diagnosis as to why this ruckus happened nor spell out measures to ensure that this will not happen again.

Has May been disciplined? Is there a new operating procedure whereby the U.S. attorney consults the State Department and the White House before publicly passing harsh judgments on other countries?

The incident has implications for all areas of U.S.-India relations. Bilateral trade touched $86 billion in 2011. More than 100,000 Indian students study in the U.S. India is one of the top markets for Boeing. Indian Americans have achieved prominence in business, academics, medicine and politics.

Both countries need to move beyond sweet talk and adopt specific measures to ensure that such incidents are not repeated in the future.

Aseem Prakash is professor of political science and the Walker Family Professor for Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle.