SAN DIEGO — What Americans really need to kick off the new year is a dramatic improvement in our relations with India. In a world where it sometimes seems that the United States doesn’t have many friends and allies, that south Asian country has become both. Most notably, since the attacks Sept. 11, 2001, India has been a partner in fighting the war on terror.
Now the relationship is on the rocks due to an ugly incident involving a 39-year-old deputy consul general of India who was taken into custody on Dec. 12 by the U.S. Marshals Service on charges that she lied on the application for her nanny and housekeeper to legally work in the United States.
That’s how it started. But to many Indians, this case is now about something much bigger. It’s about respect and what Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid has described as “our sense of self as a nation and our place in the world.”
U.S. authorities allege that Devyani Khobragade, who lives in Manhattan, stated on her visa application that she was paying the employee the minimum wage in New York — $9.75 per hour — when she was really paying only about $3.31 per hour. Despite Khobragade’s repeated insistence that she had diplomatic immunity, she was placed in a cell with other female detainees and strip-searched.
Technically, at the time of her arrest, Khobragade had limited immunity, according to U.S. officials; the Indian government is now trying to upgrade her status to full immunity.
Meanwhile, Khobragade’s attorney, Daniel Arschack, claims that a federal agent “erroneously and disastrously” misread the application. According to the New York Daily News, Arschack believes that the agent mistakenly thought a figure on the form — $4,500 per month — was what Khobragade intended to pay the worker. The attorney insists it was instead the base salary that Khobragade expected to receive at her job, and that it was on the form to show that she could afford to pay her employee the proper wage. U.S. officials had no response to Arschack’s comments.
Khobragade posted bond, and she was released. She is now assigned to India’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations. The whereabouts of the domestic worker, Sangeeta Richard, are unknown.
Indian officials are incensed over what they consider the “barbaric” treatment endured by this young woman, and they haven’t been shy about demonstrating how angry they really are. On Christmas Eve, India rejected the U.S. Embassy’s request for an extension on identification cards for its consulate personnel. Instead, when the deadline to extend these cards passed, India withdrew them.
Before that, an Indian official suggested that the country revoke the visas of gay partners of U.S. diplomats and arrest those individuals for violating Indian law, which prohibits same-sex relationships. Indian authorities also took down the protective barricades in front of the U.S. consulate.
The Indian government wants a formal apology for the way in which their representative was treated, and they’re not satisfied by what has been offered — a missive from Secretary of State John Kerry expressing “regret” that the incident occurred. Indian officials want to see more contrition, and perhaps even an investigation into the procedures for how U.S. officials deal with foreign diplomats.
Just when we thought that this story could not get any more unpleasant, it has. In what seems like a strange coincidence, the prosecuting attorney in this case — Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York — happens to have been born in India. That makes Bharara a despised figure in his homeland, and many Indians have already taken to Twitter to blast him as an “Uncle Tom.” To them, Bharara is a sellout who along the line stopped being Indian and became an American.
You saw that coming. And you know what comes next. As this drama continues, with every accusation and diplomatic threat, we’ll get further away from what really matters: the facts of the case and the law that pertains to them. This will become about a thousand other things, which will all serve as distractions.
That’s why the Obama administration has to clean up this mess with an official and sincere apology. It should be issued by Kerry. And it should have been done yesterday.
Ruben Navarrette is a column for The Washington Post Writers Group.