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Books written by B G Verghese

Indian visitors to the U.S, including high dignitaries, some of them travelling on diplomatic passports, have been subjected to detailed searches and rigorous pat-downs. Sikhs and those with Muslim-sounding names have often been needlessly harassed. All this, including the Devyani incident, has been sought to be passed off as standard operating procedure

The Arrogance of Power

The Indo-US spat surrounding Indian Deputy Consul-General in New York, Ms Devyani Khobragade was entirely avoidable.

By B G Verghese

Deccan Herald, 21 December, 2013

It has been well said of the United States that it is a great society but a dangerous state, heady with the arrogance of power. The Indo-US spat over the alleged infringement of American visa rules and labour laws by the Indian Deputy Consul-General in New York, Ms Devyani Khobragade was entirely avoidable. Any misunderstanding over violation of US domestics laws could have been first quietly discussed and settled in a friendly manner. Instead, US marshals arrested the diplomat outside her daughter’s school, had her handcuffed, strip-searched and put in the lock up with common criminals. She was only released after forced acceptance of several conditions and restrictions and payment of a $250,000 personal recognisance bond. Devyani has a very different story.

Normal diplomatic courtesies were set aside and the lady was publicly humiliated. Indian opinion was outraged by this crass highhandedness and the Government reacted strongly by rescinding certain concessions and courtesies granted to US diplomats and related staff, seeking details of payments by them to Indian staff, official and domestic, and related tax compliance details. Even at the risk of an escalatory stand-off we must not bend before insolent might.

Ordinary Indian citizens going about their occasions, this writer included, have suffered the indignity of being asked by US Embassy personnel to reveal their identity and state why they wished to traverse the heavily barricaded stretch of Nayya Marg just behind the Embassy. This is a major public thoroughfare on which the US sought virtually to exercise extra-territorial rights after 9/11. The barricades have now been lifted and a free thoroughfare restored.

Indian visitors to the U.S, including high dignitaries, some of them travelling on diplomatic passports, have been subjected to detailed searches and rigorous pat-downs. Sikhs and those with Muslim-sounding names have often been needlessly harassed. All this, including the Devyani incident, has been sought to be passed off as standard operating procedure and any personal hurt and embarrassment to the victim as akin to routine “collateral damage”.

The Raymond Davies incident in Lahore, where two Pakistanis were murdered by US gunmen to save a double-agent, and the games David Headley, another double-agent, was allowed to play while planning terrorist mayhem in Mumbai, are shocking reminders that the Americans go by the rules only when its suits them. The Devyani incident should be made a test case and taken up through the doyen of the diplomatic community in Washington and under the Vienna Convention. As in many other cases, the US has claimed selective immunity from parts of the Convention under domestic law.

The US prosecutor’s asks why there is no outrage in India over the “victim”, that is the maid. This is absurd. The fact is that she had run away, sought to blackmail Devyani, then filed a case against her with the New York Police and was given assistance by the U.S to bring her parents to the States where she now seeks permanent residence or asylum against the case filed against her in Delhi, about which the American authorities were duly notified. While the Secretary of State, John Kerry has regretted the incident in a fashion, the attitude of others has been wooden and unhelpful.

If the State Department thinks it is defending human rights under American law, it does not have clean hands. Its own record over Guantanamo Bay, renditions, building the fundamentalist Taliban, knowingly funding Pakistani cross-border terror in Pakistan and shutting its eyes to Islamabad’s acquisition of nuclear weapon capability, committing numerous illegalities in Indo-China and Iraq, causing huge collateral damage in Afghanistan and expulsion of the entire indigenous population of Chagos Islanders in shameless collaboration with Britain to build and operate the Diego Garcia air base is indefensible.

India would like to have cordial and cooperative relations with the US but not at the cost of honour. The Devyani incident is still unfolding. Hopefully it will end with a better understanding and redefinition of 21st century diplomatic standards.

At home, Parliament has adjourned ahead of time sine die but not before adoption by both Houses of the amended Lok Pal Bill. Everybody is claiming credit, Anna, Rahul Gandhi, the BJP. Anna’s fasts unto death were mistaken side shows. But for his opposition and insistence on his own untenable proposals, the Bill could have been adopted quite some time ago with improvements made by the select committee without the better being made the enemy of the good. The disaggregation of the concept is wise. A Citizens’ Grievance Commission is to be set up and the States are being empowered to adopt their own Lokayukta Bills. A whistle-blowers protection bill and a judicial accountability and standards bill are on the anvil and, hopefully, much of this will be accomplished within the next six months and an independently selected Lok Pal will soon be in office.

Meanwhile, the Aam Admi Party has sought some more days to receive and analyse the results of its popular consultation by e-mails, SMSs and mohalla meetings before accepting or rejecting the mandate offered it to form an administration in Delhi with Congress support. This time period should not be further extended; and if the mandate is refused it would be best to dissolve the Assembly and have President’s Rule until fresh elections are held along with the general elections next midsummer. But if the mandate is accepted, the AAP might find it has set a dangerous and untenable principle as all manner of people may demand “popular consultation” before any administrative or legislative step is taken. Populist government is a trap.

The Communal Violence Bill is still being debated before introduction. It should also apply to hate and fundamentalist speech that militates against human rights. A film based on a Taslima Nasreen novel is being sought to be banned even though it does not have a religious theme as some Muslim groups insist. The Film Censor’s Board’s certification should suffice to clear it for public screening. Likewise, a Muslim girl who won a beauty contest in a women’s college in Meerut is being castigated by Shia clerics who argue that the community is in mourning for atrocities committed against it in Egypt, Syria and Pakistan. This kind of piety can be stretched needlessly by anybody and should not be countenanced.

On a somewhat different plane but nonetheless divisive is the Government’s proposal to declare Jats as Centrally-recognised OBCs in nine northern States. This is even before the completion of an ICSSR base-line survey in six states to ascertain the status of Jats and examine whether they merit reservation. This seems an election gimmick and will give rise to similar denominational demands.

Finally, with the introduction of the Land Boundary Bill in Parliament, West Bengal and Assamese opposition to “ceding“ territory must on no count be allowed to prevent its passage. Both states can be suitably compensated to the extent necessary but national decisions and friendly relations with foreign states cannot be repeatedly frustrated by recalcitrant local leaders. Bangladesh is facing crucial elections and even otherwise rightly demands closure with regard to a now-settled dispute kept pending for almost 60 years.

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