What's driving Indian anger over the arrest of one of their diplomats in New York on charges of visa fraud and vastly underpaying her nanny?
It's an answer many US diplomats, including US Secretary of State John Kerry, would like to know as they attempt to defuse a diplomatic row that escalated this week when the Indian government revoked privileges of US diplomats in India in retaliation for the arrest.
Mr. Kerry called up India's National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon yesterday to express regret over the incident, but today the Indian government continues to call for a full apology and the withdraw of all charges against Devyani Khobragade, India's former deputy consul general in New York.
A key theme that emerges from comments from Indian journalists, bloggers, and politicians is that it was the style of the arrest –- which included a strip search – that was particularly egregious and is being taken as a violation of not only Ms. Khobragade's dignity, but that of India's as well.
"[I]t is the US duty to treat a consular diplomat with dignity and respect. A strip-search is in violation of that,” says journalist Siddharth Varadarajan, a leading commentator on Indo-US Relations.
Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid told Parliament on Wednesday that “It is no longer about an individual, [...] It is about our sense of self as a nation and our place in the world,” according to the Associated Press.
Khobragade repeated the theme of dignity in an email she sent to colleagues in the Indian Foreign Service, which was leaked to The Washington Post. She wrote, “While I was going through it, although I must admit that I broke down many times as the indignities of repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches, swabbing, in a holdup with common criminals and drug addicts were all being imposed upon me despite my incessant assertions of immunity, I got the strength to regain composure and remain dignified thinking that I must represent all of my colleagues and my country with confidence and pride.”
It did not help that the State Department's initial response to the outrage over strip-search was merely that “standard procedures” were followed. Indians find a strip-search, especially of a woman, a personal affront which in an Indian jail would be considered sexual abuse.
Even those who are asking questions about the treatment of the nanny whom Khobragade was reportedly paying a fraction of the minimum wage, are outraged at the police treatment of the diplomat.
“Just as Indians are unwilling to think about the plight of the domestic help because it is normal here to mistreat domestic labor, Americans don't seem to be outraged by the strip-search because American society seems to consider it routine. But it is a grave violation of democratic rights of a human being anywhere. Was the diplomat hiding something in her body that she needed to be strip-searched?” asks feminist writer Nivedita Menon.
The US Marshal Service has denied conducting a cavity search but not a strip search. The Indian media has gone into great detail about what a strip-search in the United States entails. “What is a full body cavity search?” asked Mumbai-based DNA newspaper. The Times of India suggested that the US Marshal Service's directives about strip-search may even be illegal.
However, the US attorney prosecuting the case, Preet Bharara, of Indian origin himself, vigorously defended the US process in a statement released Wednesday:
"Ms. Khobragade was accorded courtesies well beyond what other defendants, most of whom are American citizens, are accorded. She was not, as has been incorrectly reported, arrested in front of her children," Mr. Bharara said.
"The agents arrested her in the most discreet way possible, and unlike most defendants, she was not then handcuffed or restrained. In fact, the arresting officers did not even seize her phone as they normally would have. It is true that she was fully searched by a female Deputy Marshal in a private setting but this is standard practice for every defendant, rich or poor, American or not."