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India-US Dispute Escalates as Diplomat Heads Home

  • Anjana Pasricha

FILE - Devyani Khobragade, India's deputy consul general, attends the India Studies Stony Brook University fundraiser event in Long Island, New York, Dec. 8, 2013.

FILE - Devyani Khobragade, India's deputy consul general, attends the India Studies Stony Brook University fundraiser event in Long Island, New York, Dec. 8, 2013.

India has asked the American embassy in New Delhi to withdraw one of its officers in an escalation of a diplomatic dispute over an Indian diplomat who was detained on visa fraud charges in the U.S. The Indian woman at the center of the dispute was allowed to fly home but ties between the two countries remain fragile.

Devyani Khobragade boarded a flight to her native country after New Delhi refused to waive her diplomatic immunity. The move would have made her liable to face criminal charges of visa fraud and lying about how much she paid her Indian household help.

She was indicted on those two counts by a federal grand jury in New York on Thursday.

"The government of India declined to do so [waive her immunity] and transferred counselor Khobragade to the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi," Syed Akbaruddin, India’s Foreign Ministry spokesman told reporters. "At the time of her departure to India, counselor Khobragade reiterated her innocence of charges filed against her.”

Related video clip: Syed Akbaruddin, Indian Foreign Ministry Spokesman

After India’s refusal to waive the immunity, U.S. authorities asked the diplomat to leave the country. Her return to India is believed to be part of a deal between New Delhi and Washington to cool the dispute that erupted following her arrest a month ago.

There was both official and public outrage in India that Khobragade was handcuffed and strip-searched after being detained, which the U.S. called "standard procedure". New Delhi is also incensed that the family of the diplomat’s maid was flown out of India by the U.S.

The maid alleged that she was forced to work long hours and was paid less than the U.S. minimum wage. Indian officials accuse the maid of an immigration con and say she was blackmailing the diplomat.

As his daughter flew home, the diplomat’s father, Uttam Khobragade called the outcome "a victory for India". "Devyani today left the U.S. soil with full diplomatic immunity, vindicating the stand that whatever dispute being raised in the U.S. is a prerogative of sovereign country, India, and only can be adjudicated by Indian courts,” the senior Indian retired bureaucrat said.

Diplomatic maneuvers

After the U.S. said it could not drop charges against the diplomat, India sought a way out by posting Khobragade to its United Nations mission in the U.S. where she would get full immunity. The U.S. gave the full diplomatic status that went with her new job after more than two weeks - just a day before her indictment. The delay also angered India.

Both countries say they do not want the episode to sour the relationship, but it may not be easy to put it behind. While bilateral ties grew rapidly over the last decade, there has been a drift in recent years, and this episode may deepen the problems.

The United States says it will withdraw a diplomat from its embassy in New Delhi after India demanded the expulsion, in the growing dispute.

Wayne May has been identified as the diplomat leaving the U.S. embassy. Media reports say he was instrumental in coordinating the case against Khobragade. He also is reported to have helped the family of the housekeeper receive visas allowing them to go to the U.S.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Friday that she hopes the move will bring closure to the situation.

"We deeply regret that the Indian government felt it was necessary to expel one of our diplomatic personnel," she said. "This has clearly been a challenging time in the U.S.-India relationship."

The spokeswoman did not identify the U.S. diplomat who will be withdrawn from India.

Already two high-level visits by U.S. officials to India have been postponed - one by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Nisha Desai Biswal, who was due here last week, and the other by U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who was to come next week.

In recent days, New Delhi has unleashed several measures to curtail privileges enjoyed by American diplomats in India and bring them on par with those extended to Indian diplomats in the U.S. It has also asked the U.S. embassy to close a club inside its premises to all outsiders, including American expatriates.

Ongoing tensions

Manoj Joshi at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi said it will take time for the two countries to get past the incident.

“Beyond the general sense of bad feeling which came out, there is some amount of mistrust which has developed between the two [foreign] ministries. That will remain. There seems to be a certain amount of bitterness,” Joshi said.

Indian media report that New Delhi had been contemplating more retaliatory measures if the standoff was not resolved. The charges against the diplomat remain pending, and will be revived if she returns to the United States without diplomatic immunity.

That is seen as a problem since her husband is a U.S. citizen.

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