Central & South Asia

US moves to assuage India over envoy's arrest

US pledges to review arrest of diplomat in New York, following outcry in India over her "public humiliation".

Last updated: 18 Dec 2013 11:55
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Indians protesting against the arrest of Devyani Khobragade gathered outside the US consulate in Hyderabad [AP]

Scrambling to douse India’s anger over the manner one its senior diplomats was briefly detained, handcuffed and strip-searched in New York recently, the United States has indicated it will review the actions of its law enforcement authorities.

According to media reports on Wednesday, a US official conceded that the arrest of Indian diplomat in New York, Devyani Khobragade, was a sensitive issue. 

The reports, quoting US state department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf, said  Washington  was “looking into the intake procedures surrounding this arrest to ensure that all appropriate procedures were followed and every opportunity for courtesy was extended."

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The US government will move quickly to make sure that the kind of arrest and treatment the Indian diplomat had to endure would not be repeated, the reports said. One way of avoiding a repeat was to categorise employees of diplomatic staff as “government employees” of the mother country.

This would mean that such staff would not be under the labour laws of the country where the embassy was located and instead their salary bill would be taken care of by the home country, in this case the Government of India, the reports said.

Khobragade was arrested on the grounds that she had not given complete information in the visa application for her domestic help. Also, she was accused of paying the domestic help wages that are less than the mandatory minimum in the US.  

Ironically, the wages that Khobragade would need to pay the domestic help as per US laws would amount to more than the diplomat’s own salary.

What angered the Indian government was the treatment meted out to its diplomat. She was arrested, handcuffed openly and then lodged in a prison cell with drug addicts like any common criminal. Khobragade was also strip-searched and a DNA swab taken, reports said.

The Indian diplomatic community said the US treatment of Khobragade was against the Vienna convention and described her treatment as “despicable”. A visiting US delegation to New Delhi was all but boycotted across the board.

India raised the stakes on Wednesday, with foreign minister Salman Khurshid  telling parliament in New Delhi that the government would to bring home Khobragade "at any cost".  
"It is my duty to bring the lady back and we have to restore her dignity and I will do it at any cost," declared Khurshid.
Shortly afterwards on Wednesday, Khobragade was moved to the UN permanent mission in New York, which entitles her to full diplomatic immunity.

Rare display of anger

In an email earlier to her colleagues, Khobragade was quoted as saying she repeatedly told US Marshals that she had diplomatic immunity but that her pleas were ignored.

"I must admit that I broke down many times as the indignities of repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches, swabbing, in a hold up with common criminals and drug addicts were all being imposed upon me despite my incessant assertions of immunity," she was quoted as having said in the email.

The reports, quoting her email, said Khobragade requested the Indian government to ensure her safety and that of her children and preserve the dignity of the Indian diplomatic service which was "unquestionably under siege".

In New Delhi, the upper house (Rajya Sabha) of parliament expressed collective outrage over the treatment meted out to Khobragade. BJP leader Arun Jaitley said both countries must deal with each other as equals.

Communist leader Sitaram Yechury described the US as the world’s worst policeman. Many other ministers from India have been subject to indignity in the US, he said.

Mayawati, a former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state said the Indian government must have acted earlier. “Khobragade is a dalit (so-called lower caste) and that is why the government delayed in acting,” she charged.

In a rare display of anger and aggression, Indian authorities on Tuesday completely removed all special privileges given to US diplomatic staff in India.

A special security barrier in front of the US embassy in Delhi was removed, open-ended import clearances to the diplomatic staff for food and liquor were cancelled and their identity cards were recalled.

India also sought full details of the kind of salaries being paid to local staff working in US missions in India to see whether all mandatory tax and labour laws were being complied with. 

Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party leader Yashwanth Sinha suggested that US diplomatic staff who were living with their “companions” in India should be arrested as, according to him, companions meant homosexual partners.

Sinha quoted the latest Supreme Court judgement to say that gay sex was illegal in India and diplomats with same-sex partners should be prosecuted.

The crack in US-India relationship comes at a time when the two countries are enjoying an unprecedented level of mutual friendship with scores of deals being signed across various sectors including defence, trade and cultural.


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