The mark of good writing is its capability to reach across time, space and context in its applicability. When Edward W. Said published his seminal work Orientalism in 1978 he created ripples in academia with his thesis on what he deemed the Occident’s cultural falsification of ‘The Orient’ that facilitated subsequent colonial conquest and imperialism and the establishment of the norm of looking Westward for standards on culture, society and morality. Thirty-five years after its publication Orientalism continues to be a widely read work, instituted as an academic necessity in post-colonial studies, and provides an important framework for understanding contemporary relationships between the Here and There of global politics.
In assessing the Khobragade fallout, I can’t help but look to Orientalism to understand the increasingly ridiculous arguments being provided as justification for the manner of the diplomat’s arrest, and the circumstances surrounding it. So far, I’ve had the misfortune of reading a biased American media’s ludicrous weighing-in of the political fracas that Khobragade’s apprehending has caused. At the risk of generalizing, I posit that the summing up on their part has been limited to understanding India’s wrath as a reflection of our classist ideology that has been offended by the strip search of a middle-class Indian woman. The other, more damaging accusation has been on Indian diplomats’ continued violation of Human Rights, Khobragade’s cardinal error of not paying her domestic staff in excess of her own salary, not withstanding. I’m not going to pursue the right and wrong of Khobragade’s alleged falsification of documents here. My purpose is not to justify a wrongdoing on the part of an Indian diplomat, in the manner that the American media, judiciary and political establishment is engaged in right now by justifying the ‘protocol’ that was followed in Khobragade’s arrest.
I am, however, inclined to strip searching the American/First World concept of Human Rights and the position of superiority from which its compliance and violation is adjudged. To use Jacques Lacan’s mirror image theory of development, it would seem by associating gross misconduct in terms of human rights to the ‘Other’ or in this case ‘developing’ nations like India, allows America to construct a wholesome image of itself as a morally upright and continually correct nation. What is perhaps even more disturbing is America’s persistence in correcting these purported anomalies through continued interference in the affairs of sovereign states. Need I mention nations like Afghanistan and Iraq? The fact that the nanny or maid in question in the Khobragade case was already being tried in an Indian court demonstrates the US’s inability to recognize the machineries of other states at par to their own, automatically assuming a position of superiority. US Attorney of the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara’s continued reticence regarding the unprecedented discourtesy displayed in Khobragade’s arrest and his distasteful allegations against the judiciary and legal processes of our country, stem from a brand of arrogance that is distinctly American.
Going back to the analogy I draw between Said’s concept of orientalism and America’s reaction to the alleged maltreatment of Khobragade’s maid, I can only postulate that the incident is reflective of an American/First World desire to view these conditions through the distorted lens of occidental moral superiority. The assumptions of maltreatment are often in existence prior to the alleged misdemeanor’s occurrence. A morally upright America is therefore quick to assume that because the tussle here is between an educated, middle class Indian woman and her maid, then there is absolutely no doubt that the maid in question is in need of ‘protection.’ It is becoming increasingly apparent that the United States feels obligated to protect and nurture those individuals who are being violated as per its understanding of human rights. This assumption that the entire world functions as per American standards is not limited to the hotbed of human rights. Ideas of barbaric, uncivilized, violent and classist ‘Orientals’ is perpetuated through cinema, literature and art. Therefore, as an Indian citizen living in the United States, if my apartment is filled with aromas of some wonderful masalas and my own cuisine, then I am automatically clubbed in the smelly Indian category. That walking into an American home simmering with the smells of cooking meat and fish makes me want to gag is simply my inability to adjust to the circumstances of another culture. The problem reflected in both this example and the larger malaise that the Khobragade case is emblematic of, is that there is a systematic bigotry in place in the West’s understanding of the East that first assumes and thereafter creates the necessary conditions to justify the supposition.
To dub India’s retaliatory decisions in protest of its diplomat’s treatment at the hands of no less than the United States Department of Justice (US Marshals fall under its jurisdiction) as petty is reflective of the Lacanian concept of image construction. India’s reaction is dubbed trifling because it is in opposition to what the US regards its own actions as i.e. worthy, humane, standard, correct, as per protocol. Therefore, in terms of orientalist ideology, if we had switched places, and it was an American diplomat who had been arrested, DNA swabbed, strip searched and cavity checked, and the sanctions imposed in retaliation had been American choices, then automatically the Indian assault on a sovereign state’s representative would have been considered petty politics for the crime in question. The associations of greatness and littleness, therefore, are pre-determined, and accepted without a whimper on either side. Khobragade’s case, when viewed simply in terms of diplomatic protocol and conduct, smacks of American heavy-handedness, justified through the same systems that create misnomers such as America being the world’s greatest nation. Perhaps Khobragade’s case is not simply the stage for two democracies to engage in power politics, but an incident demanding a re-examination of our own ideas of righteousness and fortitude.
© Ayesha Sindhu 2013