Among the documents released by The Guardian, via whistle-blower Edward Snowden, is one from September 2010. It notes that the National Security Agency (NSA) used a range of methods to spy on a number of Washington-based embassies — including countries friendly to the United States from Europe and Asia. In the Asian list is India.
If these allegations are true, then the U.S. has violated Article 22 of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, of which it is a signatory. That article notes, “The premises of a diplomatic mission, such as an embassy, are inviolate and must not be entered by the host country except by permission of the head of the mission. Furthermore, the host country must protect the mission from intrusion or damage. The host country must never search the premises, nor seize its documents or property.” The nature of the spying, with bugs on crypto-fax machines and on communications cables, clearly breaches the protections enshrined in the convention.
While European countries have been forthright in their criticism of this espionage, India’s response has been shocking.
Union Minister for External Affairs, Salman Khurshid, said, “It is not snooping. It is only computer study and computer analysis of patterns of calls.” Compare this to the European Union’s Commissioner Viviane Reding, who said, “Partners do not spy on each other.” She invoked the U.S.-EU trade agreement that is to be negotiated this month, “We cannot negotiate over a big trans-Atlantic market if there is the slightest doubt that our partners are carrying out spying activities on the offices of our negotiators.” The German Foreign Ministry summoned the U.S. Ambassador to make a formal complaint. India, meanwhile, put its tail between its legs and tried to defend the U.S.
Ronen Sen, former Indian Ambassador to the U.S. (2004-2009) and now director at Tata Motors, joined Khurshid in the defence of U.S. policy. “It is standard practice for all major countries to keep an eye on the diplomatic missions of friend and foe alike. And not only embassies — also guesthouses, car services and trade mission known to be used by foreign diplomats,” he said. During his tenure in Washington, the U.S. and India inked the highly contentious nuclear deal. If the U.S. had been eavesdropping on Indian communications between Washington and Delhi, it would likely have afforded the U.S. an advantage in the negotiations. It is unlikely that the Indian government has the capacity or stomach to spy on the U.S. embassy in Delhi, which suggests that it is not “standard practice” for all countries to spy on each other. The asymmetrical advantage afforded to the U.S. is what confounds much of the world.
India was not always so servile to the American narrative of world affairs. In the 1950s, the Indian government was very aware of attempts by the U.S. to spy on India, and made it clear that this was unacceptable.
In the early 1950s, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru told his Foreign Secretary, Subimal Dutt that his government was “fully aware of the clandestine activities of a number of Foreign Missions in India,” with particular focus on the “Americans [who] indulged in such activities.” Spying could not be countenanced by Nehru, nor could the soft bribery of parties and friendship. “These Americans in India are lavish with their money and with entertainment,” he wrote in 1954. “They invite large numbers of our officers and other citizens, entertain them and, more especially, offer them alcoholic drinks in large quantities. Many of our people who go there talk freely and even loosely.” Nehru and his circle attempted to foster a healthy suspicion of the motives of both superpowers regarding India. His was not a sentiment that one could say is now anachronistic — faded away with the end of the Cold War. Nehru wanted to promote the dignity of the new India. That ethos should remain alive and well.
India’s response to the Snowden affair is both shoddy and undignified. At the very least, the External Affairs Minister should have taken the same kind of tack as adopted by the Europeans, arguably closer allies to the U.S. than India. India is also a signatory of the 1961 Vienna Convention. To be so cavalier about the implications of espionage shows that India, like the U.S., has become cynical about international law. This is a walk-down from the high ground that India once occupied.
Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South, Verso and LeftWord, 2013.