Given that the United States is the most powerful country in the so-called community of nations, it is generally wise for our leaders to speak softly, and treat other countries with dignity and respect. Pride is a powerful emotion, and no one (let alone any country) likes to feel bullied. However, sometimes feelings of insult and honor tend to be aroused for all the wrong reasons, and should be dealt with less subtly. A case in point is the absurd row that has erupted between the United States and India, and which is dominating the news in the latter.
It all began last week after an Indian diplomat in New York City was arrested for improperly arranging a work visa for her maid. (She is also accused of lying to authorities about the alleged visa fraud). Moreover, the diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, was (not surprisingly) paying this housekeeper less than the minimum wage. She was taken into custody, strip-searched, and released on bail.
In the Indian news media, the case has registered powerfully. The Hindu reports:
The government asked all U.S. consular officers to turn in their identity cards and the entire American diplomatic corps their airport passes while senior Congress leaders snubbed a visiting U.S. Congressional delegation for the second straight day by refusing to meet it.
Even more outrageously, "The government also ordered the Delhi Police to remove concrete barricades on public land and roads that have existed for years around the U.S. embassy, sought salary details and bank accounts of all Indian staff employed at the missions and stopped all import clearances for the U.S. embassy, especially for liquor."
There's a hint in this last detail about the underlying reactionary nature of the response, and the gender and class angles of the case are thus worth paying attention to. An even casual glance at the Indian media reveals that the plight of the poor maid is not the subject of outraged talk. Indeed, as The New York Times accurately notes, "It is not unusual in India for domestic staff to be paid poorly and required to work more than 60 hours a week; they are sometimes treated abominably. Reports of maids being imprisoned or abused by their employers are frequent. But the idea of a middle-class woman being arrested and ordered to disrobe is seen as shocking." [Italics Mine] Or, as an editorial in The Times of India states, Khobragade was "treated like a common criminal." In short: only poor people should be treated like "common" criminals.
Then there is the gender aspect of this whole mess. I mentioned the strip search (which, as far as we know, was part of the typical procedure when someone is arrested) only in passing. But the thought of a woman being touched by impure hands is apparently quite a concern for some people. As one famous Indian businessman told the press, "No nation can be graceful at the cost of its honour, a woman at the cost of her chastity and a man at the cost of his dignity." Charming.
Meanwhile, Narendra Modi, the thuggish leader of India's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), tweeted that he "refused to meet the visiting USA delegation in solidarity with our nation, protesting ill-treatment meted to our lady diplomat in USA." This is a serious decision on Modi's part considering that a travel ban against his entering the United States means that he can only meet Americans on Indian soil. (The ban is in place because of Modi's role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which hundreds of people were killed). Meanwhile, a member of Modi's party has suggested that the Indian government arrest any gay spouses of American diplomats working in India. As he put it:
“The media has reported that we have issued visas to a number of U.S. diplomats’ companions. ‘Companions’ means that they are of the same sex. It is completely illegal in our country. Just as paying less wages was illegal in the U.S. So, why doesn’t the government of India go ahead and arrest all of them? Put them behind bars, prosecute them in this country and punish them.”
This nicely captures the mindset of the BJP, which finds the idea of homosexuality more disgusting than mistreating "the help." Depressingly enough, however, the response has been bipartisan, with so-called moderates lining up to denounce the arrest. Included among them is Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the increasingly enfeebled Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. (It's impossible to think about Rahul without picturing the medlar tree, which famously goes rotten before it becomes ripe).
It is certainly possible that American officials treated Khobragade roughly, and perhaps an apology of some sort will end up soothing hurt feelings. But much of the anger stems from the same combustible mix of self-pity and reactionary social values that is unlovely in whatever culture it happens to be found in. And no amount of apologizing can eradicate it.