A strip search with a hidden cost . . .

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Many pivotal moments in history resulted from single innocuous events.

Seduced by a prince named Paris, Helen of Sparta fled with him to his native land. This led Helen’s husband Menelaus to declare war on Troy, effectively wiping them out.

“For want of a nail; the shoe was lost” says the proverb describing the events that led to Richard III’s horse getting mired in the mud leading to his death.

In our time, the introduction of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction triggered the Soweto uprising of 16 June 1976. And the confiscation of wares from a street vendor in Tunisia led to his self-immolation, which triggered the Arab Spring.

So let us go back in time a month ago to New York City where a mother dropping her daughter off at school was suddenly arrested and handcuffed on the street by United States Marshall Services.

Her charge? She was accused of lying in documents to obtain a work visa for her housekeeper and paying the housekeeper less than the legal minimum wage.

She was strip-searched – the arresting officers ignored her protests and subjected her to body cavity searches. She was then put in a holding cell with drug addicts before she was released on $250 000 bail.

In so doing, the US Marshall Services set off a chain of events, which, I believe, will forever transform the relationship between the world’s two largest democracies.

The woman was India’s deputy consul general in New York, Devyani Khobragade. India’s government was outraged – their national security adviser, Shivshankar Menon, immediately called the treatment “despicable” and “barbaric”.

The government of India followed up with a formal statement saying it was “shocked and appalled at the manner in which she has been humiliated by the US authorities”.

India’s foreign secretary, Sujatha Singh, summoned the US ambassador to India, Nancy J Powell, for a dressing down.

When an apology was not forthcoming from the US and prosecutors insisted on continuing with charges against the diplomat, the Indian government retaliated with a quid pro quo. They removed protective security barriers at the US Embassy in Delhi. They cancelled the Embassy's food and alcohol import privileges. And they issued new identity cards to American consular officials and their families waiving diplomatic immunity for serious offences.

After a flurry of diplomatic exchanges with India standing firm, the US finally agreed to allow Khobragade to leave the country.

It was a rare display of national outrage from India, which has generally treaded carefully around diplomatic issues even with its historic adversaries, Pakistan and China.

Last year when Edward Snowden’s leaked documents showed that the US had spied on India, the Indian government’s response was quite muted compared to other world powers.

Even now, no doubt, US officials will be scratching their heads and wondering what happened.

I believe it was a spark igniting a simmering long-held view among Indians that the US does not take the country as seriously as it does other world powers.

Geostrategist, Brahma Chellaney, writing in India Today, said: “Make no mistake: America would not have dared to arrest and strip-search a Chinese or Russian diplomat for allegedly underpaying a maid, because it would have invited swift and disproportionate retaliation.”

But I further believe that the spark has forced India to take a cold hard look at its own progress in the world stage and realise its own strength.

India’s alliance with Brazil, Russia, and China has created a powerful bloc that has been outstripping the US in economic growth.

As a result, Indian expats who have dominated the knowledge economy in the US for decades have begun returning home.

On 5 November last year, India kicked off a mission to Mars. Two thirds of the parts for the probe destined for Mars and the rocket carrying it were made in the country by infrastructure group Larsen & Toubro, conglomerates Godrej & Boyce, state-owned aircraft maker Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd and Walchand Nagar Industries.

The probe orbited Earth six times before being released 1 December on a slingshot trajectory to the red planet. The entire project thus far has cost India about US $73 million – one-tenth the cost of the latest NASA mission to Mars. Considering that the space market is currently worth around $300-billion per year, this leaves India well placed to siphon off a massive chunk of that.

This is an election year in India. I expect the Khobragade event to feature strongly as a point of national pride.

Are we seeing the start of a new cold war?

Let's just say I do not expect US diplomats to regain lost privileges in Delhi anytime soon.