Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Illusion of Immunity: Strauss-Kahn and Krittika Biswas

By T.P.Sreenivasan

The US State Department has responded on June 14 formally to India's protests over the arrest of Krittika Biswas. The reply is sugar coated, but the answer is an unambiguous assertion that dependents of officers of the Consular Corps are not entitled to diplomatic immunity.

Diplomatic immunity gives a sense of security to those who "lie abroad" for their nations, but it is best when it is not tested. Fortunate are those who enjoy the privileges such as duty and tax free facilities, but do not ever have to resort to immunity to escape action against criminal offenses. The cases of Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) and Krittika Biswas clearly illustrate that police authorities, particularly of the New York variety, have little respect for diplomatic niceties. For them, they are criminals first and Managing Director of the IMF and an Indian Vice-Consul's daughter later. They know that the lawyers will fight endlessly over the fine points of law,but they believe in instant justice for those who are criminals in their eyes.

The way the world has reacted differently to the two cases of violation of diplomatic immunity, however, indicates that the public accepts technical violations in the case of serious crimes, but questions them in cases of juvenile or light crimes. The way DSK was pulled out of a plane and taken handcuffed to jail for an alleged rape attempt, which had not yet been proved, inspired awe rather than derision, while the narration of the travails of an 18 year old hapless Krittika aroused sympathy for her and condemnation for the police. Popular perception, rather than diplomatic immunity, was the decisive factor, which determined public reaction to the two events. The Managing Director of the IMF, doubtless, had diplomatic immunity, but it became irrelevant, while Krittika's immunity was in question, but her humiliation stood condemned.

Diplomatic immunities and privileges should be the same in every country that has ratified the related Vienna Conventions, but in actual practice, different countries apply them differently. The more developed the country, the less respect for privileges and immunities. In India, for instance, even the junior most diplomats and consular staff are treated with respect even if they do not have privileges by the book. In New York, on the other hand, people complain about special parking spots and tax concessions for diplomats. Those in the line at a department store in New York openly protested when I handed my tax exemption card to the cashier and no amount of explanation that this was a reciprocal facility available also to the American diplomats in India satisfied them. "They should also not have such privileges", was the answer. Parking fines and towing were made applicable to diplomatic cars in New York after a public outcry. At one point, there was even a move to ship the UN out of New York on account of the presence of too many diplomats disturbing peace in New York even while building peace in other corners of the globe. The city appeared to be willing to give up the vast amount of revenue it earned from the UN presence there.

In most developing countries, diplomatic passport holders are waved off at immigration and customs counters, but in many western capitals, such privileges cannot be taken for granted. Terrorism and drug trafficking have made diplomatic privileges less relevant today than before.

In the case of Krittika, diplomatic privilege is only a side issue. The questions being asked in India are whether her alleged crime was serious enough to call the police and whether the police treated her harshly because of her colour and nationality. The answer may well be negative to both these questions. Diplomatic immunity for the children of the Consular staff is a matter of interpretation of the Vienna Convention and the US interprets it narrowly. The first mistake was made by the teacher by calling the police, which took disproportionate action. The details of her humiliation, which were given by Krittika, were abhorrent, to say the least. Like the Indian police, the New York police seemed unaware of the basic human rights of a teenager. Whether she had diplomatic privileges or not was not an issue here.

The racial overtone was given to the incident by the subsequent revelation that the actual culprit, a Chinese boy, was treated differently even after his guilt was established. Here, a charitable explanation could be that having faced charges by the Indian Consulate and others in the case of Kirttika, the police went soft on the Chinese boy. The mystery is that this incident, which took place in February, did not come to public attention till Krittika announced her intention to sue the New York City for one and a half million US Dollars. Was her decision to sue the city prompted by the subsequent soft handling of the Chinese case?

It is quite out of place to bring into this case India-US relations and China-US relations and their respective importance for the US. The State Department could never have instructed the police to run foreign policy. There could well be a certain animosity in certain circles towards foreigners in general, but it will not be limited only to brown colour. One far-fetched explanation could be that Indian children in American schools are so bright that there could be some envy towards them and an over zealous teacher may have tried to fix one of them.

Indians in the US are great achievers and they have begun to be noticed everywhere from the White House to the Board Rooms of big corporations. Inevitably, therefore, there have been instances of targeting them for harsh action even on suspicion of demeanor. Average Indians constantly complain of racial discrimination in matters of promotion and crucial appointments. But the success stories are overwhelmingly higher than instances of discrimination. Discrimination is certainly not the policy of the Government even if it is being practiced in certain circles. The US is still a country of equal opportunities even if some may feel deprived of their jobs by immigrants. In the case of Krittika, it could be a conspiracy between a teacher and a police official, but not racial discrimination or anti-Indian feeling. Even the earlier cases of disrespect to diplomats should not be construed as anti-Indian.

The Government of India was right in taking up the case in right earnest and in allowing Krittika to sue the city, but this case should not be mixed up with politics or with immunity issues. Some have called for reciprocity in applying the immunity provisions to American diplomats, which is fine, but there should not be any action that smacks of revenge. Diplomatic immunity is meant for ease of functioning, not to shield offenders and it should be applied more as an art rather than as a science. The New York police was praised for dealing with DSK, but was criticised in the case of Krittika and that is a lesson in itself.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Legacy of Dr.Mathew Illickal

(Eulogy at the Memorial Service-- New York June 15, 2011)

My son has already spoken, more poignantly than I could, on our family ties to Dr. Mathew Illickal and his family. I have myself spoken yesterday how indebted we are to the Illickal family for enriching our lives in the last 31 years. Today, I shall speak more broadly, not just from the perspective of our family, about the legacy of Dr.Illickal, a legacy that makes us all feel proud.

First and foremost, his legacy is the family he has left behind. Lilykutty herself is his creation. She is not the same bride he brought along to these shores: she is today an accomplished lady, who is an asset to the community and to the society at large. His children, Mohan, Manoj and Maya and his grandchildren are the greatest gifts he has bequeathed to us. He will live on in them and remind us of him. His values will remain immortal.

Dr. Mathew’s professional legacy shall also last very long. I am sure his motivation to come to the US was to gain professional skills in this land of technology and research. He became one of the best in his profession as a surgeon, but he retained the traditional values of his Indian training. He relied on his touch, his instinctive understanding of the human body to heal, not merely on machines. I have never heard him speak of his accomplishments, which celebrities he has operated upon etc. But we knew his professional skills. We called him whether we had a cold or broken bones and he gave us the cure with his thoughtfulness and sympathy. He healed us in a way only God could, by giving us strength and confidence.

His legacy as an Indian immigrant to the United States is also a noble one. He did not leave India because he had a grievance or because he could not make a living there. And having come here, he did not ever denounce India or Indian medicine. He gave his life of service to his country of adoption and earned the respect and confidence of his patients at a time when Indian doctors were few and far between. If Indian Americans have won a place for themselves here and enhanced India’s prestige and influence, it is because of the hard work and talents of people like Dr. Illickal. He has done more to India-US relations than any ambassador could. Like other Indian Americans, he was a true ambassador of his country here. He did not speak nostalgically about returning home, but his wish to have his ashes sent home has revealed his passion for his motherland. If lekha was here, she would have spoken of the support he has extended to “Karuna”, the charity organisation to help the poor that Lilykutty heads in New York.

And more than anything else, his is the legacy of a perfect human being. He had no malice, no ill will. He had a beatific smile for everyone, a word of encouragement and comfort for everyone. He will be remembered for his aristocratic upbringing and unfailing humanity and humility. We are the poorer for his parting, but richer for his legacy. May his soul rest in peace.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Engaging Global Indians

(My Remarks at the Plenary Seminar of the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, Toronto. June 10, 2011)

I suspect that I am on this panel because I have had the experience of engaging global Indians in diverse situations in different times. I have dealt with the impoverished Indian farmers in Burma after the Indian exodus of the sixties, I have witnessed the military coup in Fiji against the Indians who made those islands a paradise on earth, I have been in Kenya where the Indians had virtual control over the economy, I have seen the emergence of Indian Americans as a powerful force in the United States since the eighties and I have engaged the largely professional Indian expatriates in Europe. As someone who lives in Kerala, I cannot be unaware of the problems and prospects of the Indians in the Gulf.

One conclusion I have reached from this experience is that there is no single formula that India can deploy to engage the diverse Diaspora it has around the world. India’s policies and approaches have also evolved over the years. In the early years of our independence, India had left Indian immigrants to find their feet in foreign lands with no expectation from them and no promises. India was a passive witness to the upheavals in Kenya, Uganda and the Caribbean, though India warmly welcomed those who returned to their motherland. In the second phase, India began to realize the value of engaging the Indian community abroad to seek technology and investment. That was a period of discovery for both India and the overseas Indians, but the bewildering diversity of demands on their side and limitations of action abroad by India led to a searching of souls by both. Today, we are in the third phase, in which the expectations on both sides have been toned down to a realistic level and India and her children abroad have begun to work in a cohesive manner.
India is today aware that engaging the global Indians should not be single dimensional. There are limits to the extent of investments that they can bring in. Other than the expatriates in the Gulf, the community will not make remittances to India. Demands for dual citizenship have been partially met. Welfare measures have been drawn up for those in need, particularly in the Gulf. The engagement is now deeper, multidimensional and mutually beneficial. The institutional framework has been established by the sagacious Indian leadership, particularly the Minister responsible for Overseas Indian Affairs.

Two major developments have helped to create the right atmosphere for engaging the global Indians for the benefit of the country. First, India’s unprecedented economic growth and its influence in the world have given global Indians greater pride and incentive to be partners in the great game. Their opportunities back in India have grown to such an extent that the thought of return to India is no more far-fetched. This does not mean that there will be a massive return to India. The psychological sense of security about a safe and prosperous homeland gives them greater confidence. I remember that during the Fiji crisis, Indians came to me not for Indian visas, but for Australian and American visas. India does not bewilder them anymore.

The second reason is the political and economic instability in certain parts of the globe. The power and economic centres of the world are shifting. During the recession in developed countries, India presented a relatively stable trajectory of growth. Some regions, who were considered stable and steady sources of energy, are witnessing dramatic changes and democratic aspirations. India presents an alternative in the event of instability and uncertainty and this creates a stake for the community in India’s growth and development.

The new situation has transformed the chemistry between India and the Indian community abroad. Today, Indian communities abroad are seeking innovative ways and means to participate in the exciting events in India. Tomorrow I shall be at a meeting of Indian professionals from Kerala in Chicago to draw up a programme to give professional support to the Government of Kerala. This initiative has come without any prodding from Kerala itself. This is just one example of how global Indians are seeking to network in India for mutual benefit.

India is also in the process of orienting its policies for the benefit of Indian communities abroad. Memories are still fresh about the role played by Indian Americans in finalizing the nuclear deal and in taking India-US relations to a higher level. The growth in this relationship will serve the interests of the Indian Americans. Similarly, the growth in cooperation with Canada is of benefit to the Indian community here. There is a greater emphasis today on developing close ties with countries which have large Indian communities in the developed and developing world. Strategies are being worked out to turn the Indian communities abroad as a powerful resource in our foreign policy. The maturity that has developed between India and the Indians abroad will be of immense benefit to both.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Indians in the UN System

By T.P.Sreenivasan

You cannot throw a stone into the UN or its Specialized Agencies without hitting an Indian, but there are no Indians as chiefs in any of these bodies. Indians may do all the work and win approbation, but they continue to be sherpas and not summiteers. Even today, the highest level Indian in the UN system, Vijay Nambiar, is only the Chef d' cabinet, a glorified executive assistant to the UN Secretary General. None of the nearly twenty Specialised Agencies is headed by an Indian today, even though many Indians in key places may well be doing the work of these Agencies. After Arcot Ramachandran headed the UN Habitat in Nairobi many years ago, we have not been able to get a similar post even though we have highly qualified experts in many areas.

The reason for this sorry state of affairs is that we do not have a policy to create opportunities for deserving individuals to enable them to grow in the system. Even those who go fairly high do so by their own initiative and by pulling wires in the Government to gain support for one post or another. Many posts in the UN system are the preserves of different countries and the countries concerned plan the careers of successors in such a way that the jobs remain within the countries concerned or in the regional groups.

Even the Indian candidature for the post of the UN Secretary General was at the initiative of the candidate himself. The Government did not give any thought to finding a winnable candidate for the post and merely made Shashi Tharoor India's candidate after he decided to make a bid and influenced high places in India. Even after he became the official candidate, he did not get the whole-hearted support of those in the field and many of them were happy that he lost, as was predicted. It was argued that his candidature would stand in the way of reform of the UN and India winning a permanent seat in the Security Council.

The Asian Group in the UN is so diverse that there is hardly any possibility of agreement on a common candidate except on a rotational basis. There were already several Asian candidates, including Ban Ki-Moon when the Indian candidate emerged. Countries like Japan and Korea are able to get even posts considered preserves of other countries and groups by putting up candidates with relevant experience by keeping them in the mainstream for years. In our system, rotation is so sacrosanct that no individual is allowed to grow in any organisation beyond a few years.

Dr. Homi Bhabha helped establish the IAEA and his bust is still there outside the IAEA boardroom. But no Indian has risen to even the second level in the IAEA since then, though some of our scientists aspired to senior positions. Of course, our not signing the NPT had made several areas in the IAEA out of bounds for Indians.

The Indians who rise in the UN system are the objects of envy of their colleagues and every effort is made to get them back as soon as possible. Many diplomats have been forced to return to the country to protect their promotions in their own services, though now the Government is a bit more liberal in extending their deputation to the UN and other organisations.

We do not subscribe to the dictum that having Indians in high places in the UN system is helpful to India. Those who rise to these positions go out of their way to erase their Indian identity to become truly international civil servants. This is one of the reasons why those in the Government do not care to secure these jobs for Indians. Only personal networking enables them to get these jobs and the next time they look for the Indian ambassador is when they are due for a promotion or an extension. Most Indians in the UN system are no assets to the Indian missions accredited to them.

Most Indian PRs to the UN have managed to get positions in the UN, but not beyond Under Secretary General. None of them has contested for elected posts. Most heads of Specialised Agencies are elected and India is extremely reluctant to put up candidates. The myth is that contesting these posts will affect our chances for becoming a permanent member in the Security Council.

The World Bank and the IMF are even less democratic than the rest of the UN system because they operate on the basis of weighted votes. Even though we have good candidates and there is a general sentiment in favour of the highest jobs being made available to those outside the US or Europe, it will be very hard for India to get the top position in the IMF. India will be offered second or third positions as a compromise in the end.

There have been a few instances where it has suited the big powers to offer some high level positions to Indians. A few years ago, India got a very important post, but we paid a very high price for it by helping to bring down a fellow developing country head from another organization. Such deals may become increasingly possible, but we have to plan ahead and present acceptable candidates. No one gets top positions in the UN system by sheer merit. Major Powers should be made to develop vested interests in India or in certain Indians if Indians have to become chiefs in the UN system. Till then, Indians will be playing second fiddle or lead peacekeeping units under civilian bosses from the western world.