March 31, 2020
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Diplomatic Impunity

The IFS is the last bastion of  the brown sahib, wrapped in a silk cocoon and steeped in an ethos of disdain towards ‘poor natives’.

Diplomatic Impunity

INDIA is not a banana republic. Yet, some of our diplomats treat it as if it were one— behaving outrageously and then seeking  diplomatic immunity abroad or patriotic excuses at home as covers for their wanton acts. Banana republics and medieval sheikhdoms indulge their offending diplomats and consider them to be above the law. Civilised democracies promptly withdraw diplomatic protection and allow the law to take its course against their erring officials.

The latest alleged incident involving an Indian diplomat in Paris is particularly horrifying. A French NGO, the Committee against Modern-day Slavery, and a distinguished French physician have established that Lalita Oraon, an orphaned servant-girl from a Scheduled Tribe in Bihar, was allegedly maltreated for a sustained period and mutilated with a blade in her genital area at the home of Amrit Lugun, first secretary at the Indian embassy in Paris. Having fled from Lugun’s residence, she was found wandering in the streets of Paris in a suicidal state on September 5 and was put in the care of a monastery by the French police. She again tried to kill herself by jumping off a high wall.

Instead of allowing police and legal probes to proceed against Lugun, the embassy in Paris launched a cover- up operation through the favoured PTI news agency, accusing the French police of being involved in a "campaign of disinformation and defamation" against Lugun and accusing the girl of not having worked satisfactorily! The embassy also demanded the return of the seriously injured girl to its custody. In Delhi, some air- headed Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officials even reportedly threatened to expel a French diplomat of equivalent rank from India in retaliation of any French request that the offending Indian official be recalled.

This isn’t the first instance of an Indian servant being ill-treated by Indian diplomats on stints abroad, though it’s the most horr i fic to have come to light so far. In the past, such charges have been levelled against Indian diplomats posted in Britain and Switzerland. These matters have been hushed up by taking recourse to diplomatic immunity and for the sake of maintaining cordial ties between governments. Every time such an incident happens, India’s image takes a severe beating. Ironically, the very same diplomats who mouth platitudes about upholding India’s honour and dignity, damage the country ’s image by insisting on diplomatic protection for colleagues who have committed criminal acts. Not to forget that rich private Indian individuals living abroad often also over- work, underpay and mistreat their Indian servants. But if caught, they face the full vigour of the law. An Indian doctor living in London was sentenced to several years in jail by a British court for illegally confining and beating his servant.

Indian diplomats must be made to subscribe to higher standards of moral behaviour than that of the humdrum, fat NRI businessman. Many of our diplomats are fine people but there are still far too many others who think that as twice-born officials chosen to represent India, they can get away with the most abominable behaviour, particularly towards their own countrymen and women. This manifests itself not only in the treatment of servants but also in how Indian embassies deal with ordinary Indian citizens who may require some mundane service from an Indian legation. Rudeness, delay, harassment a recommon experiences of Indian  nationals living abroad who may require as simple a transaction as attesting a legal document or adding a few pages to a full passport .

When a major problem occurs or there ’s a major mishap involving Indian nationals, our diplomats tend to look the other way instead of coming to the help of their fellow citizens. For instance, in the Gulf, our legations tend to be passive in reacting to patently offensive acts of physical abuse against Indian labour (especially maids) by their Arab employers. Strong re p resentations to the host government to take legal action against such employers are generally avoided as these may upset the authorities of the Gulf states. Our diplomatic motto seems to be: protect your colleagues but not your countrywomen or men.

THIS ethos of contempt and disdain for the ordinary citizen marks not just those in the IFS, but a whole lot of other bureaucrats in the IAS or the IPS, though there is a difference. The IAS and IPS officers are under constant pressure of and surveillance by public opinion, politicians and the media to be accountable for their actions. IFS officers are a rare and protected species, wrapped in a silk cocoon, placed on a high pedestal, distant from the heat and dust of India. But some are more privileged than others. Within the service, there ’s a palpable caste (and racist) hierarchy. Senior IFS officers from the reserved category of Scheduled Castes and Tribes rarely head our coveted embassies in the white, Western countries. They usually end their service days packed off as ambassadors to countries in black Africa which are regarded as hardship postings.

Under the cloak of national interest, IFS officials have carved an elitist niche for themselves and have managed to remain relatively unaccountable. On the specious ground of maintaining India’s status abroad, they have been pampered. Note the grand and sparkling homes of our ambassadors abroad and contrast them with the neglected state of their smelly and messy embassy office buildings. Under threat of being branded anti-national, journalists have been discreet about their inquiries into the workings of the IFS.

The IFS remains the last bastion of the brown sahib and the last remnant of the Indian Civil Service (ICS) of colonial times when the natives were despised and kept at a distance to avoid offending the prim sensibilities of their masters. Times have changed and the IFS, too, will have to and come down to earth and become answerable to the Indian people whom they are expected to re p resent abroad.  

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