New Delhi: In diplomatic practice, the expulsion of diplomats is considered an extreme measure. For India, it is even more unusual to resort to this action against Western nations.
On Tuesday, India announced that a senior Canadian diplomat was asked to leave within five days in a tit-for-tat measure after an Indian high commission official was expelled after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared that there were “credible” allegations linking the government of India to the death of a Canadian citizen.
India and Pakistan have periodically expelled diplomats from each other’s nations, with the most recent instance occurring in August 2019. During this recent episode, both countries expelled their high commissioners and downgraded diplomatic relations following the changes made to the status of Jammu and Kashmir within the Indian constitution. A year later, there was another round of expulsions as the staff in the embassies were further whittled down.
However, the dismissal of diplomats from Western countries is relatively rare in India’s diplomatic history.
Nine years ago, towards the tail end of Manmohan Singh’s second term, India asked the United States to withdraw a diplomat in the New Delhi embassy. The announcement was made just as Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade was on a plane back after the US state department told her to leave the US after she was indicted by a jury in New York for alleged visa fraud in January 2014.
The reciprocal expulsions had marked the lowest point in India-US relations, which was triggered by the strip-and-search of Khobragade for allegedly underpaying her maid, Sangeeta Richard.
However, relations with India were soon brought back to the rails when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was invited by US President Barack Obama after the 2014 general elections.
Similarly, another Western nation with whom India has a very close partnership had its top diplomat expelled about 35 years back.
In early 1985, the corridors of South Block were rocked by one of the “largest spy scandals in India’s history”.
It resulted in the Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Salman Haidar announcing that India had ordered the French ambassador Serge Boidevaix to leave the country within 30 days.
While India did not give any reason for the expulsion, contemporary media reports said that it was related to the discovery of a spy network which revolved around private secretaries at key ministries who passed on official secrets to an Indian businessman.
As per a UPI report, it was believed to be the “first time that such a high-ranking diplomat has been told to leave India in connection with espionage involving both military and industrial secrets”.
The spy ring that led to the expulsion of the French ambassador had allegedly penetrated the office of then principal secretary to the prime minister, P.C. Alexander.
A month earlier in January 1985, the French deputy military attache, Lt. Col. Alain Bolley, who was believed to have been at the centre of the spy ring, was withdrawn from his post in the New Delhi embassy.
According to a recently published book by veteran Indian diplomat C.R. Gharekhan, while the French connection in the spy network got the most attention, New Delhi also quietly expelled diplomats from the Soviet Union, Poland and East Germany.
Gharekhan wrote that Rajiv Gandhi regretted that he had dealt with the French “too harshly”. There were efforts to bring back relations to a keel, which included early approval for the new French ambassador. India also announced that Gandhi will travel to France to take part in the inauguration of the ‘Year of India’ which was earlier planned to have been kicked off by Indira Gandhi and Francois Mitterand.
While public announcements were made by the MEA in the above two cases, there seems to have been a more recent incident between Germany and India, where both countries expelled diplomatic officers but without any fanfare.
This was first reported by CNN News 18 in 2020, and was related to the impending trial of a Frankfurt resident who received payoffs from India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, for “spying on Khalistan and Kashmiri secessionists” in Germany.
As per the article, the officer was recruited into R&AW from the Indian Revenue Service and was operating out of India’s consulate in Frankfurt. He was asked to leave for indulging in espionage. In a tit-for-tat move, a German diplomat was asked to leave India. However, because there was no announcement of the expulsions, there is no official confirmation of the incident.