The diplomatic spat between India and the United States flared up again today, with India asking the American Embassy to remove one of its officers despite the US allowing an indicted Indian diplomat to return home.
The move is a sign that US-Indian relations remain tense, after a month of diplomatic drama during which incensed Indian officials described the arrest and strip search of Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul general in New York, as outrageous and barbaric.
Ms Khobragade, a 39-year-old mother of two, was allowed to fly home to India yesterday after being indicted by a US federal grand jury on accusations that she exploited her Indian-born housekeeper and nanny, allegedly forcing her to work more than 100 hours a week for low pay and lying about it on a visa form. She has maintained her innocence.
Many Indian analysts thought that would be enough to give both countries a way to save face and cool the smouldering diplomatic spat. But today, the Indian government asked the US Embassy in New Delhi to remove an official of similar rank to Ms Khobragade.
Press Trust of India, citing unnamed government sources, said India had reason to believe the US officer was involved in Ms Khobragade’s case.
She flew out of New York late yesterday after securing broad diplomatic immunity, one of her key demands. In a televised news conference today, her father described the outcome of the case as a national triumph.
“Devyani today left the US with full diplomatic immunity, vindicating the stand that whatever dispute being raised in the US is a prerogative of a sovereign country, India, and only can be adjudicated by Indian courts,” said her father, Uttam Khobragade, a retired bureaucrat.
India’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Ms Khobragade had been given immunity and was returning to India, but made no mention of the indictment in the US.
Much of the outrage over the case in India stems from the circumstances of her arrest, which were seen as unnecessarily humiliating – something that resonates deeply in India. Ms Khobragade was picked up December 13 and then strip-searched in custody, which the US Marshals say is common practice.
But in India, the process was seen as a brutal affront to a middle-class, educated woman, and a violation of courtesies afforded to diplomats the world over.
The furore over the case has underlined a sentiment in India that the United States is not treating the country like a powerful nation on equal footing with Washington.
“The case goes beyond the dignity of one diplomat,” said political analyst Sreeram Chaulia, an international affairs expert at Jindal School of International Affairs in New Delhi. “India made its point, which is that you can’t take India for granted.”
India’s government, facing general elections this year, lashed out at the US and vowed to secure her release. Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid told Parliament last week that he would not return to the chamber until he brought her home and restored her dignity.
India also unleashed a steady stream of retaliatory measures against US diplomats. Some of the moves, such as preventing the American Centre in New Delhi from screening films, were seen by some observers as petty. But other actions have raised alarm, including the removal of concrete traffic barriers around the US Embassy and revoking diplomats’ ID cards.
One high-level visit to India, scheduled by US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz for next week, has been cancelled, the Energy Department said.