Beyond making headlines and trending on social media, does the case of Indian consul-diplomat Devyani Khobragade and her maid Sangeeta Richard have any larger takeaways?

It would appear that Richard was ill-treated by Khobragade, an Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officer and deputy consul-general in New York. Richard was allegedly made to work beyond stipulated hours and paid less than the minimum wage.

There are allegations and counter-allegations made by the two parties, which are still to be proven in a court of law. But, clearly, this was a relationship that didn’t quite work out and raises serious questions about the diplomat’s conduct.

Enter the government of the United States.

On December 12, Khobragade (39), a mother of two, was arrested by American authorities and charged with visa fraud involving Sangeeta Richard, who fled the Indian diplomat’s house.

Khobragade, who was clearly not running away from the US, was not only strip searched, but subjected to body cavity searches as well. The process was both demeaning and unnecessary.

“While I was going through...the indignities of repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches, swabbing, hold up 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,” Khobragade said in an email to her colleagues.

In the normal course, if authorities have a problem with a particular diplomat, the practice would be to inform the embassy of the concerned country and withdraw the diplomat if the charge was not one of a grave nature.

But the United States is a different story altogether. India-born US attorney Preet Bharara, as this Washington Post story suggests, even surprised the Obama administration with his actions.

At the end of the day, as the Khobragade affair turned into a major diplomatic row between India and the US, not many cared about of the differences of approach between agencies of the American state.

Even if the charges against Khobragade are proven, there was absolutely no reason to treat her in the manner that Mr Bharara and his colleagues did.

“The US position is that as a consul, Khobragade was not immune from arrest for allegedly under-paying her maid. But even if that were the case, Bharara’s decision to treat her without regard for her status as a representative of a foreign, friendly government reflected the prosecutor’s over-exuberance straight out of an episode of Law and Order,” former Pakistani ambassador to Washington, Hussain Haqqani, wrote.

Referring to the murder of two Pakistanis by American national Raymond Davis in crowded Lahore, Haqqani said Davis was actually put on a list giving him full immunity only after he committed the crime back in January 2011.

“Pakistan’s government could not free a killer without due process. But once he had been identified as a US government functionary, our government ensured that Davis was treated with courtesy. American officials were immediately provided access to Davis and he was not subjected to a strip search. Once The Guardian revealed that he was, in fact, a CIA contractor, special arrangements were made for his security in prison in case other inmates might attempt to hurt him,” Haqqani added.

It is evident that Delhi has been extending privileges to American officials at consulates across India while accepting that its own consuls in the US receive less than diplomatic treatment.

And while the Khobragade affair has allowed Delhi to pull back some of the privileges extended to Americans working at consulates, it still leaves questions open on whether or not India will ensure that reciprocity in the long term.

Some Indians have asked whether Delhi would have responded with so much anger if the matter had involved a mere citizen. In my view, if India doesn’t bat even for its diplomats, it will give foreign governments more license to ill-treat Indian citizens abroad.

And, if Indian diplomats abroad are not doing their job, it’s the task of citizens to pressure and expose them.

If there’s a long term takeaway lesson from the Khobaragade case, it is this – don’t give anything extra to the Americans and always, always apply the principle of reciprocity in your dealings with them.

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