The departure of Ravi Thapar to India just after 18 months of his appointment as High Commissioner to New Zealand was an unexpected and painful affair but it was not the first time in the history of Indian Foreign Service (IFS) and perhaps in international diplomacy that a senior envoy was called back by his home country.
Mr Thapar faced an allegation that he had threatened to assault a person employed in his diplomatic household (‘India House’) in Lower Hutt near Wellington, while his wife Sharmila faced a more serious allegation of actual assault.
Initially Mr Thapar denied the allegations as ridiculous, motivated by ‘some persons who did not like him’ and travesty of truth. A number of people, including his neighbours (they wrote to Indian Newslink) expressing support saying that ‘The Thapars’ would never stoop to the level of beating their domestic servant and that the charges were malicious.
But a number of factors did not somehow match the denials.
Why should the domestic servant, apparently a chef, leave the house suo moto without any provocation? If he was ‘that smart’ as some said, why did he walk 20 kms instead of calling the Police or the High Commission for help? If he was vindictive, why did he tell the Police that all he wanted was to go home?
From another point of view it would seem that the Indian government decided to recall both Mr Thapar and the chef to avoid further international embarrassment and certainly away from the eyes of New Zealand, a country which expects its public servants to be squeaky clean and away from controversies.
It would also be untenable from another angle- New Zealand recently enacted its Immigration Amendment Bill (Number 2) which empowers the government to crack down on employers exploiting migrant workers. With ‘No one is above the law’ policy, the government would have been in a dilemma, even if diplomatic immunity was invoked to protect Mr Thapar and Mrs Thapar from facing prosecution in a New Zealand court of law.
Unlike the case of Malaysian diplomat who was extradited recently to New Zealand to face charges of assault in respect of a New Zealander, in this instance both parties are guests of the New Zealand government, creating yet another diplomatic maze.
According to Hindustan Times, a Delhi-based national daily, officials at a night shelter in Wellington contacted Labour Party MP Grant Robertson for help following a complaint by the victim that he was assaulted by Mrs Thapar.
“The service staff member came back to the envoy’s residence only after a special team sent by the External Affairs Ministry met him. What helped the government was the fact that the staff member did not press charges and that his only demand was to allow him to go home at the earliest,” the publication reported.
Sequence of events
Indian Newslink has been able to put together the sequence of events thereafter and hence believes that there was more than what was told or reported. Granting that each of these developments did occur, it is then untenable that a diplomatic couple should have behaved the way they did. There is never a thin line between a friendly chastisement of domestic help and an insinuative abuse. But the truth may never reach the public domain, even if it is heard at an inquiry in Delhi which Mr Thapar may face in South Block.
In more ways than one, the embattled diplomat was himself the cause of his downfall and was the instrument of his own destiny. Mr Thapar began well as his country’s ambassador to build political and economic bridges to lift bilateral relations to a higher level.
However, his somewhat difficult disposition and indiscreet statements in public platforms soon became subjects of discussion and disappointment among government officials and members of the business community. He could have made the distance with ease, dignity and honour but it was unfortunate that a career diplomat and a great achiever had to go unsung.
It is a pity that a man of his experience could not live up to the standard that was expected of him by a government that has been more than generous, putting up to his slide remarks. He could have completed his term in comfort and gone home with dignity.
After all, he was in well-meaning Wellington, not in some country where even a visit to the circus requires a diplomatic note to the foreign ministry.
What pains us more is that the Indian Foreign Service, one of the finest in the world, has of late been dogged by misbehaviour of an increasing number of diplomats doing their tours of duty overseas. According to official figures, the External Affairs Ministry received six complaints against its diplomats in 2012, ten in 2014 and twenty-seven in 2014.
Complaints have been filed against Indian Mission staff in Afghanistan, Austria, Botswana, Canada, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Kazakhstan, Mali, Mauritius, Morocco, Netherlands, South Africa, Thailand and Zambia,
Diplomats are not coddled cookie-pushers with a background of mystery and intangible and unquantifiable experience in public affairs. They are not people in obscure positions of authority but persons of high calibre and competence.
There are of course exceptions.
But just because there is no international consensus on the minutiae of diplomatic privilege, no one, no less a diplomat on recall, should be allowed to get away with loud allegations.
We are sure that those who have genuine grievances would bring them to the attention of the Indian High Commission.
Or perhaps even to this newspaper.