Diplomatic Impunity Betrays The Right to Justice of Abused Women

India is a signatory to various international laws. It expressly deem domestic violence as a crime. Five years ago, the country had enacted a national law, the Protection of Women Against Domestic Violence Act 2005 (PWDVA). The law seeks to protect the rights of women who face abuse within the home.

However, one incident cited is the immediate response of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) to a news that one of its senior diplomats based in the UK was alleged to have committed domestic violence. The woman who faced the attack went public. It was ultimately the MEA that was left appearing grossly insensitive to the feelings of women.

Revisiting the MEA’s first response to the event is useful because it reveals its instinctively patriarchal mindset. It professed to be “carefully looking into the incident.” It went on to submit that these are “sensitive and personal issues” that pertain to “individuals.” It also offered a sanguine presumption: “It is now expected that this matter will be resolved between husband and wife to their mutual satisfaction.”

The MEA has not learnt very much from a sordid incident that dates back to a decade ago, involving another Indian diplomat based in Paris. At the centre of that story was Lalita Oraon, an Indian domestic worker who was working for his family. She fled from the home of her employer alleging gross mistreatment, an accusation that seemed to be borne out by the ulcers on her body.

When the French media had reported this case in September 1999, a furious Indian embassy refused to even admit to the possibility that anything was wrong. They have stated without the benefit of an independent investigation that the allegations were “false and strongly denied.”

The MEA’s overblown reaction had attracted a great deal of opposition from various quarters. One of the concerns raised then was that in defending its diplomat to the hilt. The Indian embassy was neglecting its responsibility to Oraon, who was also an Indian citizen and entitled to its concern and protection.

This argument holds true in the London case as well. While the response from the MEA in the latest instance was a little more measured when compared to the Parisian imbroglio of 1999, the Ministry still seemed to be speaking more for the diplomat who had allegedly attacked his wife. In fact, by attempting to brush the episode aside as a “private” issue, it was betraying the right to justice of the allegedly abused woman.

The other issue that emerges in this development is the misuse of diplomatic immunity. In this case, according to the details provided by his wife, the diplomat kept citing his diplomatic immunity to intimidate his wife. This amounts to making a mockery of the immunity from prosecution granted under the Vienna Convention of 1961.

Chennai-based commentator, Swarna Rajagopalan, rightly asked in her blog, “Should diplomatic immunity extend to those who perpetrate violence against the vulnerable? Should domestic violence be treated as a private and lesser issue than the sanctity of diplomatic status? No one should be pronounced guilty until proven as such, but how can that happen in this case, where the accused cannot be investigated or tried?”

Domestic violence has a long unrecorded history.Unrecorded because it was never perceived as s crime since it occurred within the time-honoured sanctity of the home. It was invariably perpetrated by those wielding power within it. It was not until the last quarter of the 20th century that women’s and human rights activists succeeded in putting domestic violence on the table. They underlined that such crime was not just a matter between “individuals.”

Today, there is a growing realisation in India too. This is the only way to regard such behaviour. The PWDVA has defined domestic violence in the broadest possible terms and which includes physical abuse, sexual abuse, verbal, emotional abuse, as well as economic abuse. The Delhi high court recognised the importance of this when it commented in a 2010 verdict that often “laws are passed to ensure normative changes in the society.”

National interest, which the MEA purports to champion, must come to be defined in terms of commitment to the highest standards of law and justice. By any reckoning, punishing the perpetrators of domestic violence, once they are proved to have committed it, is a matter of national interest.

It was only after the outrage in India over the London incident broke out, that the MEA stated that it does not condone domestic violence. Hindsight is a marvellous educator and here’s hoping some important corrections in official attitudes will follow.