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Terra Incognita: Honor, humiliation and the third world mentality
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
24/12/2013
"Should foreign policy really be made in the modern era taking into account the violent “honor culture” some people love?"
 
On December 12 Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consular-general in the US, was arrested by US marshals on suspicion that she lied on a visa application. The seemingly innocuous event that could have been easily resolved has now become a huge diplomatic crisis. Indian politicians have whipped crowds into frenzies and mobs ransacked US businesses. The whole story reveals the degree to which India, despite 65 years of independence, is not a grown-up country. It is mired in the third world anti-colonial mentality which unleashes lawlessness as “punishment” for anyone who “offends” it. The reason that this is normal in India, and many other countries, is not only because those countries have not embraced maturity and a first world, modern mentality; it is because they are encouraged in this behavior by western excuses.

The story begins with a visa application that claimed Khobragade would pay her maid, Sangeeta Richard, $4,500 a month. According to the BBC reports, in June Richard fled the consular residence. Khobragade accused the maid of stealing at around the same time that Richard told US authorities that there was a dispute regarding her contract.

By September the US was investigating the case, and documents showed that Richard had only been paid around $573 a month. India retaliated against the maid by issuing an arrest warrant in Delhi in November, and ordering the US to locate her. Instead the US arrested Khobragade. State Department officials claimed at the time this was a “serious law enforcement” issue.

However, Indian officials were quick to turn the affair into an issue of “honor” and “humiliation.” It began with the release of a letter Khobragade had sent her colleagues describing her ordeal. She claimed to have been strip-searched and put with “common criminals and drug addicts.” She wrote that she tried to “remain dignified.” US prosecutor Preet Bharara claimed that in fact the diplomat was accorded “courtesies well beyond what other defendants” get. India’s government began its incitement by describing the search of the woman and her detention as “unacceptable.” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called it “deplorable.” The Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath asserted “the US is playing games with India. But America must understand that the world has changed, times have changed and India has changed.” He also said, “They should admit that they have committed a mistake and only then will we be satisfied.”

The Indian government demanded an apology from the US and claimed the diplomat had been “humiliated.” Within a week, the rhetoric increased. National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menom claimed the US was behaving in a “despicable and barbaric” manner. Foreign Minister Salman Khursheed argued that India’s “dignity” must be restored, and told parliament that he was giving a “direct” message to Washington. Arun Jaitley of the opposition BJP said India must “insist on being treated like equals.”

Protesters from all the parties, including the opposition BJP, came out to the streets. One man was shown burning a cross with Barack Obama’s head on it. In another a half-naked man wears a US flag to cover his genitals while donning an Obama mask. Another man is bound with a rope and others demand the US change its attitude, while wearing the red communist scarves of a major political party. An organization called the India Peace and Solidarity Organization held a banner claiming “Shame! Shame! America still racist with Obama as President” and “Uncle Sam don’t act ugly with Indians.”

This extraordinary outpouring of rage says much more about India than about the US. The American investigation was by the book and India was made aware of it months ago. The incitement and extremism is entirely manufactured by India’s political and media elite. The people out with banners calling Obama “racist” and burning him in effigy are part of the normal political process of India. When opposition leader Narednra Modi claimed he snubbed a US delegation in revenge and “in solidarity with out nation, protesting ill-treatment meted out to our lady diplomat in USA ,” he sowed this nationalistic ignorance.

The thousands of people marching with banners “big brother, don’t humiliate our sisters” are encouraged by the prime minister, national security advisor and parliamentary leaders. No top- tier leaders advise responsibility.

Instead they drum up ideas of women being “humiliated” and of “undignified treatment,” as if the nation were somehow “dishonored” because a diplomat was detained.

There are clear signs of patriarchy behind this, and also clear references to class. The US prosecutor was struck by the fact Indians seem to have “precious little outrage” for the treatment of the Indian maid; who was underpaid and whom the Delhi government tried to bully into silence by requesting her arrest for fleeing her work.

Instead there is outrage that Khobragade was kept with “common criminals,” a reference to her being next to people below her caste and class in India. In India, abuse and underpayment of maids are a major problem among the wealthy; there is an implication that “who is this maid to dare complain?” The ironies of this case are legion. Nath claimed “times have changed,” yet in India Yashwant Sinha, a BJP politician, claimed that any same-sex companions of homosexual US diplomats should be rounded up as retaliation, a reference to a recently reimposed colonial-era ban on homosexual relations in India. Has India changed? The masses ransacking US chain stores, burning effigies of Obama and claiming that the US is racist and then claiming that India is equal to the US all show that India is not equal to the US.

The racist claim is particularly ridiculous, since the US prosecutor, Preet Bharara, is Indian and was born in Punjab.

Rather than Indians being proud of his success and defending the rights of the maid, they have allowed themselves to be encouraged in ignorant protests. The irresponsible political leadership of India proves that, rather than addressing the legal aspect, their own diplomat is an embarrassment to them for lying on a visa application, they prefer to use “pride,” “humiliation” and “dignity” as a shield.

This jingoism of “women defiled” by “big brother” are throwbacks to a colonial era, when any rumor about a British colonial official could be used as an excuse to bring out the masses for a riot. The idea was that ignorance and being “colonized” was also a shield to any excuse for the behavior of people. Can anyone imagine Germans burning Obama in effigy or always falling back on “racism” and “our dignity was harmed” because a German diplomat lied on a visa application? The essential difference in equality is behavior; behave like an equal and one will be treated like an equal.

This is why US Secretary of State John Kerry saying he “regretted” the incident only feeds the third world appetite of trying to wring apologies out of the West. That is the old blackmail one hears throughout the third world; “the sensibilities” of the people are “offended” and they “demand apologies” or they will riot. Catering to this mentality is paternalistic and harms the third world, which India has made such strides to move away from. It was the same mentality that spoke of Israel needing to apologize in order to assuage “Turkish pride.” We hear it with regard to Iran, with George Perkovich at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace claiming in 2003 that “Iran has invested too much pride... in building its nascent nuclear infrastructure to abandon it completely.”

Similarly Ambassador April Glaspie claimed in the 1990s that “pride and avoidance of humiliation, shame and dishonor loom larger in Arab culture and calculations than they do in Western culture” when discussing Saddam Hussein’s actions. It is perhaps surprising that even in 1996 academics Dov Cohen and Richard Nesbitt wrote a book about Culture of Honor, arguing that US southerners were more violent because of “a culture of honor in which a man’s reputation is key.”

But should foreign policy really be made in the modern era taking into account the violent “honor culture” some people love? Saddam Hussein didn’t believe in any pride except for his own; gassing Kurdish villagers wasn’t part of a program of pride. Similarly there is nothing “honorable” in Iran’s behavior or Turkey’s bluster. The level of supposed “pride” is inversely proportional to how the honor culture treats others. Does India “honor” Obama by burning him? These countries are all allowed to wallow in a third world mentality of dishonorable behavior because the West has not called their culture bluff. There is no cultural value in lying on visa applications, no matter how many effigies Indian crowds want to burn
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