The Return of the Ugly American

Nearly a month after US authorities arrested India’s deputy consul general in New York and charged her with paying her Indian domestic worker a salary below the minimum wage, bilateral relations remain tense. Indeed, an era of steadily improving ties between the two countries may have come to an end.

NEW DELHI – Nearly a month after American authorities arrested India’s deputy consul general in New York, Devyani Khobragade, outside her children’s school and charged her with paying her Indian domestic worker a salary below the minimum wage, bilateral relations remain tense. India’s government has reacted with fury to the mistreatment of an official enjoying diplomatic immunity, and public indignation has been widespread and nearly unanimous. So, has an era of steadily improving ties between the two countries come to an end?

Judging from Indian leaders’ statements, it would certainly seem so. India’s mild-mannered Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared that Khobragade’s treatment was “deplorable.” National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon called her arrest “despicable” and “barbaric,” and Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid refused to take a conciliatory phone call from US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Emotions have run high in India’s Parliament and on television talk shows as well. Writing to her diplomatic colleagues after her arrest, Khobragade, who has denied the charges against her, noted that she “broke down many times,” owing to “the indignities of repeated handcuffing, stripping, and cavity searches, swabbing,” and to being held “with common criminals and drug addicts.” A former Indian foreign minister, Yashwant Sinha, has publicly called for retaliation against gay American diplomats in India, whose sexual orientation and domestic arrangements are now illegal after a recent Supreme Court ruling. The government has not taken him seriously, but his suggestion indicates how inflamed passions have become.

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