An insensitive arrest by the New York Police Department of an Indian diplomat has quickly sparked an international incident and could have serious consequences for American government officials overseas.
Devyani Khobragade, an Indian consulate official in New York in charge of political, economic, commercial, and women’s affairs, was arrested on suspicion of falsifying visa documents for her nanny last Thursday.
The 39-year-old diplomat is accused of claiming her nanny, Sangeeta Richard, was going to be paid $4,500 a month, but actually paid her $537 a month, or $4 an hour.
It's a serious crime, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail. But the mistake the NYPD made was the manner in which they arrested Khobragade.
After dropping off her children at school, Khobragade was arrested and handcuffed in the street and was later stripped-searched before being released on bail, according to Indian media reports.
Unlike embassy officials, which have full diplomatic immunity, consulate officials only have protection when it extends to their consulate duties. That's at least how the U.S. views the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Indian officials have pointed to the same document, highlighting the legal action against diplomats to “be conducted with the respect due to him by reason of his official position and, except when he is under arrest or detention, in a manner which will hamper the exercise of consular functions as little as possible.”
For India, the arrest of its diplomat is only the latest incident in which American ignorance has insulted their country.
In 2010, Indian envoy Hardeep Puri was asked to remove his turban at an airport, and detained when he refused. In 2011, the former president of India, APJ Abdul Kalam, was asked to remove his shoes and jacket after he already boarded a plane at JFK airport. Then, in 2012, Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan was detained for 90 minutes at White Plains Airport in New York. The U.S. ended up apologizing for the way they handled the Kalam and Khan incidents.
Though those situations were embarrassing, the arrest of Khobragade is far more serious.
The Indian government has already responded. Traffic barriers around the American consulate in Delhi have been removed and India is taking a close look at the immunity privileges of American diplomats in their country. Plus, India is one the U.S.'s strongest allies in the region and upsetting them over a sloppy arrest is stupid international politics.
But what might be most troubling is the ramifications for American diplomats around the world, especially in countries where the U.S. don't have close relations. Now when an American diplomat is mistreated in another nation, the U.S. won't have the moral authority to demand humane treatment of their diplomat.
The New York Police Department needed to have the foresight that Khobragade wasn't just any other suspect. Their ignorance will likely leave American diplomats at risk.