By Patricia Lee Sharpe
There are lots of things I don’t know for sure about this case, given my imperfect access to information as a denizen of a very comfortable, but much less than five star hotel in Kolkata, meaning no reliable 24/7 wi-fi or landline internet connection. No sooner do I get to googling than my access to a mysterious nearby wi-fi source dissolves into thin air. The life of a web pirate is very uncertain.
So, I don’t know if the Tri-Valley University is a genuine educational institution on any level. Or whether it’s just a façade for squeezing money out of dupes and/or opportunists. Even assuming the worst about Tri-Valley, which seems almost unavoidable, I can’t help thinking (though I certainly don’t know) that some of those young Indians caught up in the scheme were naïve dreamers, that is, trusting upwardly mobile kids from unsophisticated families. I hope that the authorities will sort the naïve from the conniving as soon as possible. The latter deserve quick (but humane - always humane) repatriation. The former deserve gentler treatment. Help in finding a legal academic home wouldn’t be a bad idea.
Two things I do know, however. The rough-and-ready cuff- ‘em-all approach to the Indian students caught in this awkward situation has been greeted very unhappily in India. And the flippancy” (this is the term that appears in the Indian press) of a U.S. consulate’s clueless Public Affairs Officer has made an already bad business ever so much worse.
Ankle cuffs are involuntarily-worn radio location devices. To the unhardened, they feel like humiliation and punishment without trial, like a scarlet G for guilt, as if the wearer has perpetrated visa fraud when no such offense may have been intended. (With many of these students, it would seem, genuine ignorance is a defensible defense.) This mass cuffing by myopic enforcers was clearly applied without thought for its potential damage to the U.S. image in New Delhi, whose friendship Washington has been cultivating rather assiduously in recent years. Nor did the cuffers reckon with the totally unsurprising howls of indignation from non-official Indians, even those with no personal connection to the victims of the indignity.
In short, the damage to the U.S. image has been as bad as a competent public affairs officer would have been predicted. Here are excerpts from some recent letters to the editor in Kolkata dailies:
It is shocking and shameful that Indian students…were forced to wear radio collars like criminals….this is definitely a violation of human rights. It also exposes the hypocrisy of the U.S….The recent incident is an insult to India’s national dignity….India should protest strongly….Otherwise we will once again be seen as a weak and docile nation.
The sufferings of the students…are distressing. The U.S., which claims to be a guardian of human rights, forced the students to wear tags like animals. The students are the victims of an immigration fraud. The U.S. has reportedly tagged the students to monitor their movements instead of going after the sham university that conned them.
Meanwhile, after the U.S. Consulate in Hyderabad (and presumably other U.S. consulates in other cities) had “issued a press release stating that the students can apply for fresh visas and that they would be treated fairly,” the soothing effect of those bland words was ruined, on TV no less, by the Hyderabad Public Affairs Officer’s insoucient description of the delicious “choice” that was offered to the students: sitting around prison in an orange jumpsuit or walking around with a tattle-tale cuff chaffing an ankle. Here are the words that have been seen as particularly offensive – and ludicrous – by Indians:
Let me tell you that there are a lot of celebrities in drunk driving cases. Do you think they sit in prison. No. No. No. This is very modern and trendy, just like the stars in Hollywood.
According to the Times of India, this “statement has only added insult to injury for the families off the students." Indeed! What caring parent thinks a drug-addled scofflaw like Lindsey Lohan might be anything like a role model for his/her bright, well brought up daughter – or son, for that matter? How could the PAO be so callous?
It gets worse. According to the rather stodgy Economic Times, this spokesperson (who shall remain nameless here, although her name and face are notoriously familiar throughout India by now) also compared the radio cuffs to the anklets worn by her servants, which puts this pathetic representative of the U.S. squarely in sync with a couple of centuries worth of cloistered expats whose only real contact with the country has been through their servants. Had the PAO been sufficiently immersed in Indian culture, the image that came to her mind might have been the ankle bells worn by kathak dancers, male and female. Or any other classical dancers in India. Now that’s class!
Note to State Department personnel officers: PAOs should know the country to which they are posted. They should also have a sophisticated knowledge of U.S. culture. Then they can put the two together in an appropriate way when the unexpected happens. And deadly boilerplate statements from Washington are no substitute for quick-thinking, well-informed, sensitive, intelligent officers.
Meanwhile, back in the U.S., here’s what the immigration thugs were doing, or so the Times of India tells me: in order to outfit her with an ankle cuff, said a female student, “they came to my house at 1 am [my itals.] and strapped the bracelet and did not even explain what it was about. It was quite intimidating.” Shades of a police state! Evidently she was able to make this statement on an American TV station. Kudos to that station.