By T.P. Sreenivasan
Diplomatic life has never been a bed of roses. Legend has it that in ancient times, a cannibal king told a newly arrived envoy that his predecessor was "delicious"! Today, diplomats are exposed to slander, arrest, expulsion, physical attack and even assassination for no reason other than being the accredited representative of a country.
We are not unfamiliar with stories of punishment being meted out to the messenger for the message. Duryodhana ordered imprisonment of Krishna for the message that the Kauravas would be destroyed in the Kurukshetra war if they did not do justice to the Pandavas. Ravana ordered ignition of Hanuman’s tail for bringing the message that Lanka would be burnt down if Sita was not returned with honour. If they did not have supernatural powers, both these Envoys Extraordinary would have perished for no other crime than performing their duties. The messages would have, however, outlived the messengers.
The recent expulsion and counter expulsion by the US and India of their diplomats may be linked in some way to their actions, but often the expulsion is a bolt from the blue. A classic case of expulsion was the ordering out of the Australian High Commissioner in tiny Nauru for showing the expenditure incurred by the Australians on erecting a lamp outside the High Commissioner’s residence as aid to Nauru. Nauru prides itself that it never receives any foreign assistance and the Australian action was seen as a national insult even though it was dependent on Australia for its very existence.
The pattern of expulsion of diplomats around the globe reveals that it is often the weaker partner in a bilateral relationship that resorts to expulsion of diplomats to make a point. When a country feels powerless to change the opinion of a foreign country, it feels tempted to use its prerogative to expel diplomats. Such actions can only make matters worse in the bilateral relationship. Eventually the bilateral relationship gets repaired, but the sudden dislocation and the adverse publicity affect the diplomats concerned and their families. One consequence of such expulsions is that those declared persona non grata, even for technical reasons, are unable to get back to those countries. In the case of specialists, the expertise lost is regrettable to both the countries concerned.
In the case of Devyani Khobragade, the expulsion came as a solution rather than as a provocation. A quiet withdrawal of the officer in September last year would have been a better solution than the series of events that rocked bilateral relations. The reciprocal expulsion of the US diplomat, it turns out, was more than deserved, as he had not only conspired to evacuate Indian nationals to the United States on a false pretext, but also had made no secret of his hatred of India and Indians. Gossip about the host country, its manners and its leaders is common in diplomatic cocktail circuits, but to put it on social media is to attract adverse comments, and worse, expulsion.
In our own diplomatic service, we have had several instances of quiet transfers and even expulsions in similar circumstances. Since these are not always publicized, statistics are not available in one place. There have been the highly publicized reciprocal expulsions by India and Pakistan at lower levels. Reciprocal expulsions with friendly countries are done most discreetly and sometimes diplomats under orders of transfer are technically expelled to complete the quota. The Chinese deliberately publicized the expulsion of two of our diplomats from China during the Cultural Revolution. One of them left the Foreign Service as a result of the trauma, while the other rose to the highest level in the Service, though his expertise on China could not be fully utilized. Quiet advice by host Governments and financial irregularities have brought back diplomats with little or no publicity. They will figure in the whispers in the South Block corridors for a time and then die out.
If there is any truth in reports that the American ire was more against India than against Devyani, the tragedy of her treatment and expulsion become all the more sad. The bilateral relationship will recover, while she will be deprived of the opportunity to live in the United States with her husband and children even after retirement. The present sympathy and support extended to her by the Government will diminish and she will have to resolve her problems herself. Nobody senior from the Ministry of External Affairs showed up at the airport to receive her. She must have also been advised not to speak to the media to avoid contradictory pieces of information coming out.
The distinction, which was sought to be made between official and private activities with regard to consular immunity, is patently unfair. A diplomat lives abroad simply because he is assigned there and his life cannot be divided into private and public. Immunity and compensation should cover all activities, regardless of the venue and nature of the event involved.
Lack of public sympathy for diplomats, who are seen as privileged and spoiled, is universal. Even those who enjoy multiple supporting staff at public expense in India sneer at one domestic assistant that diplomats are permitted. Drivers and cars are provided only to the heads and posts abroad, while the civil servants in India take such facilities for granted even at junior levels. Diplomats with no support system abroad should be treated with the same concern as soldiers in the frontline. It is a fact that the casualty rate in the Foreign Service is not less than in the fighting forces.
India has had its share of martyr diplomats, some murdered, some brutally attacked, some insulted and expelled and some quietly whisked away. India has reacted differently to different cases without a formula to nurse the survivors back to normalcy or to ensure that their careers are not affected adversely. Even worse, there is no grievance mechanism to deal with the trauma or to compensate the diplomats for the pain and suffering. Each finds his or her own way to contend with the enormous problems arising out of armed attacks or expulsions. No record is available in the public domain of the concessions or compensation given to the affected members of the service. Such information may give some cause of comfort for those who face dangers in the line of duty.
The time has come to ensure that we reduce the number of diplomatic martyrs and have a formula to treat those affected with sympathy and magnanimity.