World focus on India: Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade’s arrest in New York and what followed

A round up of the international media’s coverage of the Devyani Khobragade case and India-US diplomatic row
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By Samyukta Maindarkar | dna Webdesk

The latest news to erupt across our screens is the case of Devyani Khobragade, the Indian Consul General who was arrested last week in New York, USA, on charges of fraud and lying on a visa application. India has objected to the manner of her arrest – she was reportedly handcuffed in public outside her daughters’ school, subjected to strip and cavity searches, and detained along with sex workers and drug addicts – and retaliated with a slew of measures curbing privileges accorded to US diplomats in India.

This incident has caused furore in India, and the US is reportedly shocked at the reaction it has garnered in this country. The reaction and extent of coverage in the international news media seems mixed.

Unlike India, news about this diplomatic dispute features only in the World/Asia-Pacific sections of the websites of two leading US media organisations, the New York Times and the Washington Post.

The New York Times perceives that what seems to trouble Indians the most are claims of how Khobragade was strip- and cavity-searched after being arrested. It also reported the concerns of the US State Department after India removed security barriers outside its embassy in New Delhi, and quoted deputy State Department spokesperson Marie Harf saying it expected India “to continue to fulfil all its obligations”.

Tellingly, the perception of India is that servants here frequently suffer abuse and abominable treatment at the hands of their employers. The article says, “It is not unusual in India for domestic staff to be paid poorly and be required to work more than 60 hours a week.” It cites the case of a 13-year-old maid in Delhi whose employers had left her locked in the house and gone to Thailand on vacation.

This is echoed by UK news website The Independent. “Most middle-class Indian homes will employ several domestic workers, often at very low wages,” it says.

The Washington Post describes the incident as a “conflict”, but also seems to express surprise at the extent to which this row has escalated. It reports that a furious Indian government’s reciprocal measures reining in the privileges of US diplomats in India has resulted in “a rare dispute between the two normally friendly nations”.

It describes the steps taken by the Indian government and calls the removal of security barriers from outside the US embassy in Delhi “a final slap”.

The Guardian also highlights the removal of security barriers, terming it the “most visible evidence of the anger in the country”.

“India is acutely sensitive to its international image and status,” it says, and adds that incidents of much lesser import have sparked off major clashes in the past. Another article describes how special official privileges are sensitive issues in India, like the use of a red beacon light atop official cars.

The BBC reports that several Indian dignitaries have refused to meet a senior US Congressional delegation as a way of expressing their displeasure at the manner in which a representative of their country has been treated. Gay partners of US diplomats “may also be liable to arrest for breaching Indian laws against homosexuality”, it says.

The US edition of the Huffington Post focuses on the reason why Khobragade was arrested in the first place: for allegedly committing visa fraud and underpaying her Indian maid Sangeeta Richard. It states that the US State Department has “determined that she is not eligible for diplomatic immunity” and that the diplomat “now faces up to 15 years in prison”.

The website of French newspaper Le Figaro ran a small article headlined “India takes retaliatory measures against the USA, after the arrest of a diplomat”, and briefly described the latest developments until Wednesday. The only other previous report of this incident on this website said the US ambassador to India Nancy Powell had been summoned by the secretary of state for foreign affairs last Friday.

The news website Bloomberg highlights the reaction of BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, who cancelled his meeting with a senior US delegation over the treatment meted out to Khobragade. It adds that Modi has been denied a US visa after the 2002 Gujarat riots.

The website of Pakistani newspaper The Dawn feels that “the revelation that a high-ranking diplomat could be subjected to such treatment while on a posting to the United States has caused huge offence in a country that sees itself as an emerging world power.”

It also feels that with the Lok Sabha elections due next year, both the ruling Congress and the opposition BJP will want to appear to be strong and capable enough to stand up to the US over the issue.

Australian news websites the Herald Sun and the Daily Telegraph (both run by News Corp Australia), report that deputy State Department spokesperson Marie Harf had said that “the US had made clear to the India government that it needs to uphold its obligations under the Vienna Conventions on diplomatic and consular relations. She said the US takes the safety and security of its diplomats very seriously.”

It explains that “the fear of public humiliation resonates strongly and heavy-handed treatment by the police is normally reserved for the poor. For an educated, middle-class woman to face public arrest and a strip search is almost unimaginable, except in the most brutal crimes.”

Many of these international news reports – including those in the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Herald Sun and Daily Telegraph – mention how it often makes the news in India when its top officials are subjected to security screenings in the US and elsewhere, as this is seen as an insult to the country.

Some of them list previous such incidents, like India’s UN envoy Hardeep Puri being asked to remove his turban at a US airport in 2010, and being detained when he refused, India’s ambassador to the US Meera Shankar being subjected to a hands-on search, former Parliament speaker Somnath Chatterjee refusing to fly to Australia without a guarantee that he would not have to pass through a security screening, and former Indian president APJ Abdul Kalam being searched before boarding a flight to the US in 2009 (the airline apologised afterwards).

*Originally published on on December 18, 2013