India plays hardball with US as diplomat maid row escalates

Express news service Posted online: Wednesday, Dec 18, 2013 at 0000 hrs
New Delhi : Outraged by details of the alleged harsh treatment meted out to its deputy consul-general in New York, India Tuesday retaliated strongly with a series of tit-for-tat measures that jolted the perception of friendly ties between New Delhi and Washington.

US consulate staff and their families were asked to return their diplomatic ID cards. New Delhi also sought details of Indians employed, along with their bank accounts and PAN numbers, apart from names and salaries of teachers employed at US embassy schools. Besides, import duty waivers, including permits to import liquor, were withdrawn and security barricades outside the US Embassy in New Delhi removed.

Deputy consul-general Devyani Khobragade was arrested last week for alleged visa fraud while she had gone to drop her daughters at school.

Apart from being handcuffed in public, Khobragade, 39, was not only stripped but also allegedly forced to undergo repeated body cavity searches — a treatment usually reserved for drug suspects — before she was freed on a $250,000 bail bond.

Subsequently, Khobragade narrated her ordeal in an email to her colleagues.

“I must admit that I broke down many times as the indignities of repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches, swabbing, holed up with common criminals and drug addicts were all being imposed upon me despite my incessant assertions of immunity,” the 1999-batch IFS officer wrote.

She thanked her colleagues for their support and said that during her confinement, she “got the strength to regain composure and remain dignified thinking that I must represent all of my colleagues and my country with confidence and pride”.

Disturbed by the details, New Delhi upped the ante and stripped US diplomats and their families in India of several privileges.

Taking the position that American staff at consulates will be treated on par with how Indian diplomats are treated in consulates in the US, all personnel posted in consulates and their families have been asked to turn in their diplomatic ID cards immediately.

On the instructions of the government, the special barricading outside the US Embassy in New Delhi that had closed a part of Nyaya Marg to the public, was also removed. While the barricading and closing of the stretch of road has ended, a police picket will remain for security purposes.

Making a distinction between consulate and embassy staff – the US has four consulates in Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Hyderabad – instructions have been sent out that details of all Indians employed at the consulates have to be shared.

Besides, US staff at the consulates have been asked to provide details of the employment of their spouses or dependents along with tax details, bank account numbers and salary details.

In related moves, political leaders, ministers and Indian government officials have also cancelled their meetings with a visiting US Congressional delegation. Those who called off meetings with the delegation include Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi and home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde.

Describing the incident as “unacceptable”, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid said that a process has been “put in motion” to deal with the issue effectively.

“We have put in motion what we believe would be an effective way of addressing the issue...We have expressed our deep distress and sense of disquiet, that has been very very strongly felt, in the strongest words possible,” he said.

BJP leader Ravishankar Prasad condemned the incident and said the treatment of the diplomat “does not accord to the level of friendship that the Indian government claims to have with the US”.

“The way she was arrested after being handcuffed, kept with drug addicts and strip-searched in the police station; that is condemnable, reprehensible and regrettable and in clear violation of conventions,” he said.

National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon, who also called off his meeting with the Congressional delegation, termed the treatment meted out to the diplomat as “despicable” and “barbaric”.