By Frank Jack Daniel
India ordered the United States on Friday to withdraw one of its diplomats from New Delhi, as the Indian consul at the centre of the row between the two countries flew home after being indicted in New York for visa fraud.
Devyani Khobragade, 39, who was India’s deputy consul-general in New York, was arrested on Dec. 12 and indicted on Thursday before being effectively expelled from the country. Her arrest set off a furore in India amid disclosures that she was handcuffed and strip-searched.
She was flying to India on Friday and expected to arrive later in the evening.
The month-long row has soured the broader US-India bilateral relationship, leading to reprisals against American diplomats in New Delhi and the postponement of visits to India by senior US officials and another by a US business delegation.
The deal bringing Khobragade home to India had been expected to help mend the rift, but there was no sign, in the short term at least, that India was ready to forgive and forget.
“We called the US mission to withdraw an officer of similar rank of Devyani as reciprocal action,” an Indian official who has knowledge of the decision told reporters.
The official said the government believed the US diplomat was involved “in processes relating to” the Khobragade case. The official did not give more details.
Tit-for-tat withdrawals of embassy staff are common when countries become locked in diplomatic disputes. The US embassy in Delhi and India’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the move.
Incensed by the treatment of Khobragade, India removed some security barriers from near the US embassy and reduced the number of embassy staff with diplomatic immunity. On Wednesday, it ordered the embassy to close a club frequented by American expatriates and other foreign residents.
During the crisis, both New Delhi and Washington repeatedly stressed the importance of their bilateral partnership, which includes $100 billion of annual trade. But the Khobragade case dragged on for almost a month before Thursday’s breakthrough.
In New York, a federal grand jury indicted Khobragade for visa fraud and lying about how much she paid her housekeeper, but she was allowed to leave after she was transferred to India’s UN mission and granted a higher level of diplomatic immunity.
Many Indians felt the case was an example of the United States taking its friendship with India for granted and support was strong for the government’s tough stand. Middle-class Indians sympathized more with Khobragade than with her housekeeper, who was allegedly overworked and underpaid.
The indictment accused Khobragade of coaching the maid, Sangeeta Richard, to mislead US officials, and of confiscating her passport and making her work 100-hour, seven-day weeks.
Khobragade denies all charges and has been backed by the Indian government. Khobragade’s lawyer Daniel Arshack said on Thursday she would leave with her head “held high.”
The foreign ministry in New Delhi said in a statement: “At the time of her departure for India, Counsellor Khobragade reiterated her innocence on charges filed against her.
“She also affirmed her determination to ensure that the episode would not leave a lasting impact on her family, in particular, her children, who are still in the United States.”
Her father Uttam Khobragade said she rejected an offer of a plea bargain to resolve the dispute and be allowed to stay in the United States.
If the diplomat had reached a settlement with her housekeeper, the charges against her would have been dropped but she decided against it, he said.
“Devyani said, this amounts to compromising the sovereignty of the country,” Uttam Khobragade said, noting that the dispute with the housekeeper was being dealt with by Indian courts.
Khobragade risks arrest if she return to the United States. Her husband and children, who are US citizens, are expected to follow her to India shortly, her father said.
“Upon her departure a warrant may be issued for her arrest and should she seek to enter the United States she could be arrested,” a US diplomatic note said.
It will take time to dispel the bad feelings built up between New Delhi and Washington. With national elections due in India by May, political parties have seized on the case and labeled it an attack on national sovereignty.
“We’ll focus on one day at a time, today is the day we focus on getting Devyani back,” said India’s foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin.
On Friday, American expatriates visiting the American embassy club in Delhi, popular for its swimming pool, hamburgers and beer, disagreed about the merits of the case.
In my mind, it’s the textbook definition of disproportionate retribution,” said Madhav, 15, referring to India’s retaliatory steps after Khobragade’s arrest. His mother, who likes the club’s gym, salon and restaurants, was more forgiving.
“It’s the principle of reciprocity also right? Of course we are disappointed we won’t be able to use (the club) but we hope it’s going to be resolved,” said the woman, who declined to give her name because of the sensitivity of the diplomat row. (