Ravi Thapar | Photo Courtesy: Asiaforum.org
It was protracted negotiations and a deal with the cook of Indian high commissioner Ravi Thapar that finally saved India’s diplomatic relations with New Zealand. A replay of the Devyani Khobragade episode was on the cards, but for the negotiating skills of a team of ministry of external affairs officials, sent to Wellington to broker a deal with Thapar’s cook. The cook finally agreed not to press charges in return for a safe passage back home. The cook, an Indian national, had complained to the local police that not only Sharmila, but even the high commissioner had threatened to assault him.<!– Dna_Article_Middle_300x250_BTF –> The incident happened on May 10, when the cook escaped from the residence of the high commissioner and reportedly walked 20 kms before reaching a police station. Later, he spent several nights at a Wellington night shelter. With the cook agreeing not to press charges further, New Zealand authorities suggested that the envoy’s repatriation might be the best way out, as they were not impressed with Indian arguments that Sharmila was innocent. It took a month of hectic back-channel negotiations to settle the case quietly and diplomatically without a public investigation, senior officials said. Though the cook returned to India on May 28, the New Zealand foreign and trade office is believed to have asked Indian officials to probe allegations against Thapar and his wife. The New Zealand media had described Thapars’ treatment of the cook as “slavery”. Thapar was posted in New Zealand in December 2013 and was to have stayed in Wellington till December 2016. Thapar had not only refused to join investigations launched by New Zealand authorities, claiming diplomatic immunity, but even asked his mission staff and those working at his residence not to speak with the police, officials said. The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations say diplomats and their families are “not obliged to give evidence as a witness or join criminal proceedings”, but it does not exempt non-diplomatic staff and their families. The Wellington police had insisted on questioning non-diplomatic staff members at the high commissioner’s residence. The apparent stand-off between the high commissioner and New Zealand had threatened to spiral into a diplomatic issue. In 2009, the press counsellor at the Indian consulate in New York, Neena Malhotra, was accused of treating a domestic hand like a slave. In 2011, the then Indian consul-general in New York, Prabhu Dayal, was accused of inhuman treatment of his 45-year-old maid Santosh Bhardwaj. Both Malhotra and Dayal were quickly brought back to India. The case of Khobragade had almost derailed India-US relations. She was accused of enslaving her daughters’ nanny while serving as deputy consul-general in New York. Officials say these are just the tip of the iceberg. The ministry of external affairs is looking at 40 complaints against officials posted abroad. It received 27 complaints only last year. However, not all of them are against Indian diplomats, say officials. Many, they say, are also against locally hired staff and relate to issues of dereliction of duty and performance. As many as eight complaints have been against the UK mission and one in Madagascar. The mission in Kenya has seen seven complaints over the last three years, officials said. After the Khobragade episode, the government had ordered a review of the policy of sending domestic helps abroad. The ministry of external affairs had suggested that domestic workers posted with diplomats be elevated as government workers, but it is still awaiting finance ministry nod, given the monetary implications.