Although I haven’t taken a census on this suggestion, I do believe that entering the United States as an Indian, or non-EU or ‘developing’ nation citizen is one of the most harrowing experiences known to humanity. Just this year, returning to the States after a wonderful summer at home in India, I was subjected to the routine mortification reserved especially for individuals holding passports from the aforementioned nations. And if your name sounds remotely ‘Moslem,’ or, worse still, if you’ve made the cardinal error of being born to the Islamic faith, then be assured, you shall be subjected to the often racist and derogatory interrogation by (mostly) ignorant border security agents.
At the beginning of August, standing in the line reserved for non-US citizens, among other lesser mortals, at Boston’s Logan Airport, I was going through the motions of a weary traveller, rounding bend after bend of the taped maze, and reviewing my documents – passport, visa page, I-94, I-20, CBP Declaration Form – when a uniformed airport agent moved me, and around fifteen others, from the non-US citizen line into the privileged and rarefied US citizen line, to balance out the traffic. Standing in the sub-queue stretching from the counter I was sent to, I watched as passport after passport was stamped ahead of me, before the mustachioed immigration officer beckoned me with a nod. I hopped to, handing him my passport open at the photo page, before rubbing my thumbs and fingers against my jeans in preparation for my fingerprinting, when he barked – “Ma’am, you’re in the wrong line. This line is for US citizens only.” I, unruffled from numerous earlier experiences of a similar kind, clarified that I was sent to the line by an agent, and had not committed this most-foul transgression of my own volition. He shook his head slowly from side to side before returning to his thorough inspection of my documents. When he asked me for my I-20, I handed it over to him, expecting this last credential to be the end of our interaction, and most inconsequential association (for me at least), when he put the paper down, crossed his arms, leaned back in his chair, and asked me again, if I understood clearly that I was in the wrong line, a line meant specifically for US citizens. This time I shook my head at him, reminding him, again, equally slowly, deliberately enunciating each syllable of every word, that I was not eager to join the ranks of American citizenry, but had simply followed directions from someone who appeared to occupy the station of a competent authority, and that I was only regretful of this misjudgment.
This incident has wanted to write itself ever since it occurred. However, it was the deplorable conditions under which the arrest of India’s Deputy Consul General was conducted last week in New York City that prompted me to commit my experience to paper. Dr. Devyani Khobragade’s mortification at the hands of US Marshalls and the State Department reeks of American superiority and an assurance of impunity. The allegation of visa fraud leveled against anyone, including a high-ranking diplomat of a sovereign state undoubtedly demands an investigation. However, it is questionable if allegations of irregularities regarding the remuneration being offered to her domestic staff warranted a public arrest on the street, a strip search, a cavity check and detainment in, what media channels in India have been describing as, those meant to house common criminals.
Of course there are two issues at hand here. The first is whether Khobragade has indeed violated visa law by bringing her domestic servant into the United States on an A3 visa, guaranteeing remuneration equitable to the American standard and defaulting in payment of the same. The other, equally worrying, issue is, however, the uncivilized conduct meted out to a diplomat by American authorities. Unfortunately, the American media is making the incident out to be that of an oversensitive India crying foul over ‘standard’ protocols in that country. I would like to remind them that, and this is a sweeping statement, most Indians are resentful of any form of immunity that Indian politicians and bureaucrats receive when it comes to matters of jurisdiction and security. Therefore, to suggest that India is being petulant at what Nirmala George of the Associated Press calls an “issue that strikes deeply in India, where the fear of public humiliation resonates strongly and heavy-handed treatment is normally reserved for the poor” is a ridiculous overreach.
The rigour with which the incident is being reported in India is with an understanding that Khobragade’s arrest follows legitimate concerns regarding alleged defaults in visa procedures. That a bilateral conversation on the regularization of grey areas associated with passage, remuneration, living conditions etc. of domestic staff employed by Indian embassies and diplomats abroad, is more than apparent, and becomes painfully more acute in light of this controversy. However, there is no doubt that there have been glaring errors in the processes followed in Khobragade’s case. The fact that the US State Department and US Marshals are engaged in deciding on which of them deserves to be accountable for the Indian diplomat’s arrest offers a rather different picture than the one George paints in her biased article of a morally upright, perennially proper American system. It is equally imperative for the American citizenry, media and officials to understand that diplomacy is by definition a two way street. The official engagement between two nations is based on propriety and implicit respect; an understanding that manifests itself in the form of standardized procedure and mutual regard. For America to consider law of the land above all other commitments is commendable, however, it should do so with the understanding that then, laws of all other lands are applicable to its own people in the same vein; an understanding that has clearly escaped an over-eager USA on multiple prior occasions.