Happier times: Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Happier times: Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

There is an escalating diplomatic spat between India and the US that highlights a clash of pathologies of two political cultures. India's deputy consul-general in New York, 39-year-old Devyani Khobragade, a career diplomat, was arrested last Thursday for alleged fraudulent statements on the visa application for her Indian maid. According to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, consular officials may enjoy diplomatic immunity solely when performing official duties.

That The New York Times, supposedly the most influential liberal daily, failed to cover the news until it created an all-party furore in India (itself a rare occurrence) speaks graphically to the cultural and political insensitivity of Americans to others.

The persisting US belief in being uniquely virtuous and therefore exceptional means they believe that laws, rules and norms apply to and can be enforced on everyone else, but not themselves. One can only imagine the outrage and threats if US diplomats were subjected to such treatment. If all diplomats must scrupulously follow the law of the land in which they are posted, some US diplomats and partners could find themselves in prison under antiquated Indian law that criminalises homosexual acts, as Indian politicians pointed out on Tuesday.

A second US pathology is the attitude problem of some - mercifully not most - border officials handling customs and immigration. It would appear this extends to law enforcement officers. Arresting and publicly handcuffing, while she is dropping off her daughter at school, an accredited woman diplomat from a friendly country, strip-searching and putting her in prison alongside drug addicts and traffickers. Really, is this the mark of a civilised country? Was she a suspected people-trafficker with papers concealed on or in her body to be so traumatised? This is superpower arrogance and petty power mentality gone mad. National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon rightly described it as "despicable" and "barbaric''.

A third is the tendency to subject suspects to public humiliation before they have been convicted of a crime. We saw this with the former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn when he was arrested (and ultimately released without being formally charged) for molesting a hotel maid. The notion of innocent until proven guilty seems to be alien to justice department practices in some US jurisdictions.

Part of the explanation for this may be that the office of district attorney is the path to higher political office for many ambitious US prosecutors. So the politicisation of justice is the fourth US pathology.

Finally, some domestic staff in foreign embassies and consulates have discovered one possible route to seeking permanent residence is alleging mistreatment and claiming damages and asylum. According to the Indian embassy in Washington, the maid "absconded" from her employer in June and was the subject of an injunction issued by the High Court in Delhi, which US officials ignored.

India has its own set of pathologies. The first is the practice of maids brought from India, paid lower than prevailing wages and employed under tougher work conditions. The Indian foreign ministry response is twofold. Free housing and food top up the wages; and under Indian social practices, generally both employers and domestic staff prefer lifelong employment in one family's service as they move back and forth between Delhi and overseas postings. The few cases of abuse and exploitation have to be weighed against the many more of long-term mutual loyalty.

Second, Indians are not as scrupulous in filling out official forms with total veracity, in part because the forms can be unduly intrusive, sometimes contradictory, and often confusing and pointless. It can be tempting to write down whatever will produce the desired result with least fuss and trouble. The intention is not to commit fraud but to avoid red tape. The consequences of false statements in most developed Western countries can be quite serious.

Third, officers in the elite Indian services (especially the foreign, administrative and police services) are often lordly and overbearing in their dealings with ''ordinary'' citizens. This is the old colonial mentality of rulers and subjects. That sense of superiority translates into one of entitlement in being protected from the application of rules that govern the everyday behaviour of resentful citizens.

During a recent domestic flight in India, I was astonished to see displayed in public the full list of 31 (!) categories of people exempted from security checks. This often creates problems for Indian ''VIPs'' when travelling abroad. Recently the Supreme Court stepped in to restrict the expanding categories of officials entitled to flashing red beacon lights in traffic.

Fourth, the Indian government must be the most easily pushed around for a country of its size and status. The government is meek and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is meekness personified, reduced to pleading helplessness on anything and everything. Why has Singh not spoken out on this issue? Has he called the US President directly to convey the country's wrath? It is hard to imagine a Chinese diplomat being subjected to such humiliating and degrading treatment. It is not hard to imagine how the Chinese government would react if it did happen.

Much of the initial online comment focused on the second and third Indian pathologies to heap blame and abuse on Ms Khobragade. While understandable, this is wrong. Her individual identity is irrelevant. Her treatment is an unacceptable public insult to the state and nation of India. An apology would be too little. The individuals responsible should be punished - a rebuke will not be enough.

On Monday the parliamentary speaker, Meira Kumar, and the NSA cancelled their meetings with a visiting US Congressional delegation. Where was Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid's sense of national pride and shame in meeting them? Fortunately, on Tuesday Congress Party vice-president and heir apparent Rahul Gandhi, Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde and opposition BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi all declined to meet the delegation.

By the end of Tuesday an incensed foreign ministry had instituted a series of retaliatory measures: cancellation of airport passes for US diplomatic officials; salary and bank details of all Indian staff employed at all US missions, households and schools; return of all diplomatic ID cards by US consular officials; a halt to all import duty waivers, including for alcohol; and removal of all security barriers on public lands around the US embassy in New Delhi. As one headline put it, "Strip search finds India's spine.''

Ramesh Thakur, professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and a former UN Assistant Secretary-General, is co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Diplomacy.