Departed Indian Diplomat Confronted US Business Over India’s IP Policy

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Just weeks before being abruptly arrested and strip-searched in New York leading to outrage in her home country, a now-departed Indian diplomat defended India’s position on intellectual property rights. For instance, she took on the powerful US business lobby over India’s controversial approach to intellectual property.

Devyani Khobragade, the former deputy consul general of India in New York, left New York Friday in a high-profile departure after her government refused to lift her immunity so she could face US charges related to visa fraud and treatment of a household worker.

[Update:] According to the US Justice Department indictment [pdf] (see p. 16, paragraph 44 and forward), the worker’s case against Khobragade began last summer. [Editor’s Note: this story does not intend to assert that there is a link between Khobragade’s departure and her stated views on IPRs.]

Her story has been front-page news in the United States and India, but with opposing views, as explained in a New York Times article.

“In the month that has passed since Ms. Khobragade’s arrest, she has been transformed into a symbol of India’s sovereignty, pushed around and humiliated by an arrogant superpower,” it said. The Indian press have been filled with strongly worded articles on the subject. People in the United States meanwhile have focussed concern on the house worker, Sangeeta Richard.

In a sense, the differing views of Khobragade by the United States and India reflect the differences the world’s two largest democracies have over intellectual property rights.

In the past year or so, the Indian government and courts have taken several actions on IP rights seen as unfavourable to the developed country pharmaceutical industry that could have far-reaching ramifications as other nations in the developing world begin to emulate them (IPW, Developing Country Policy, 27 November 2013).

Actions included court denial of pharmaceutical patents because they do not represent a true innovation, and issuing a compulsory licence for a drug, which allows generic production of a patented medicine without the patent-holder’s authorisation. India has the world’s largest generics industry.

These actions have stirred the ire of US business and government. A campaign was launched last summer, led by the US Chamber of Commerce, the largest US industry trade association, aimed at changing India’s tactics on IPR (IPW, Lobbying, 18 June 2013).

“In recent months, India has systematically failed to respect global intellectual property standards, causing an impact to its investment potential,” Mark Elliot, executive vice president of the Chamber’s Global IP Center (GIPC), said in a statement at the launch. “From unprecedented patent revocations and denials to insufficient copyright enforcement, India has established itself as an outlier in the global economy.”

(For Intellectual Property Watch stories about India, see here.)

On 14 November, the GIPC held an event on the doorstep of the investment community in Manhattan that called into question India’s practices on IPR, suggesting that it is hurting foreign investment (IPW, Developing Country Policy, 18 November 2013).

At that event, attended by Intellectual Property Watch, Khobragade was outspoken in defence of India and engaged in debate with US industry proponents. She emphatically denied that India has violated its obligations under World Trade Organization IP rules (no country has yet brought a dispute there), said investment and research are strong in the country, distinguished that India’s courts are independent from government, and said that just because of one compulsory licence and a couple of court decisions, one cannot say the investment environment is off.

Khobragade demanded that in future, an Indian representative be given a place at the table to present their side of the story. Industry representatives and consultants, meanwhile, argued that repeated efforts to engage with the Indian government have met with little success.

Further engagement would not be possible, however, as a few weeks later, the US investigation found alleged violations in her treatment and handling of the worker. [Editor’s Note: no connection has been established between the event and the investigation.]

India retaliated against the US action on Khobragade (including removing now-restored security barriers around the US embassy in New Delhi), and on Friday the US agreed to expel a US diplomat of equal rank from New Delhi, according to reports.

The US-India Business Council, which includes the US Chamber and Indian industry groups, tracked the Khobragade story on a daily basis in its news to subscribers.

Whether all of this activity are symptoms of the beginning of a global change in the IP system, or are isolated instances, may come clear in 2014.

William New may be reached at

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  1. Andy Mills says

    Just a slight correction, i drove past the US Embassy in New Delhi this very morning and i have to tell you that the security barriers have most definitely not been restored.

  2. sanjai dhar says

    Thank you Andy Mills. I am happy that India is showing some backbone at last.

    The ancient Sanskrit sayings is:

    Vinash kaalay vipreet buddhi. Loosely translated it means that at the time of destruction (of the US Empire) intelligence goes into reverse.

  3. Riaz Tayob says

    Without any disrespect to Ms Richard, from this article it seems Khobragade was “Spitzered” or “Swartzed”… meanwhile the NSA can’t tell Congress if it is being spied upon (so long separation of powers, checks and balances) – ironic because it will violate privacy (no kidding!). And unlike Dhar, the US ain’t in decline… it is just getting warmed up… ever wonder why anything progressive at the WHO was out maneuvered by the US? It was foreign service personnel who requested the spying… but don’t expect any of WHO’s global health diplomacy to talk about encryption and discretion. The least they could do is give poor countries the assurance that their machines are clean and they can freely use IT services (including wifi) without any fear of abuse… but then courtesy to poor countries has not been WHO’s strong suit…

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