Indian diplomat's return could defuse tensions

By Katy Daigle

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Jan. 10 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

Indian activists of an organization called Dalit Cobra shout slogans during a protest outside the U.S. consulate in Mumbai, India, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014. The arrest of an Indian consular Devyani Khobragade in New York, arrested and strip-searched for allegedly forcing her maid to toil for little pay, sparked a diplomatic furor between the United States and India.

Rajanish Kakade, Associated Press

NEW DELHI — In a move that could cool a smoldering diplomatic dispute, an Indian envoy was allowed to fly home to India on Friday after being indicted by a U.S. federal grand jury, giving both countries a way to claim victory.

The case has caused a serious rift between the United States and India, where officials have described last month's arrest and strip search of Devyani Khobragade, India's deputy consul general in New York, as outrageous and barbaric.

Khobragade, a 39-year-old mother of two, was accused of exploiting her Indian-born housekeeper and nanny, allegedly forcing the woman to work more than 100 hours a week for low pay and lying about it on a visa form. She has maintained her innocence.

She flew out of New York late Thursday after securing broad diplomatic immunity, one of her key demands. In a televised news conference Friday, Khobragade's father described the outcome of the case as a national triumph.

"Devyani today left the U.S. with full diplomatic immunity, vindicating the stand that whatever dispute being raised in the U.S. 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 Khobragade had been given immunity and was returning to India, but made no mention of the indictment in the U.S.

Much of the outrage over the case in India stems from the circumstances of Khobragade's arrest, which were seen as unnecessarily humiliating — something that resonates deeply in India. Khobragade was picked up Dec. 13 and then strip-searched in custody, which the U.S. 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 furor 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 U.S. and vowed to secure Khobragade's 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 U.S. diplomats. Some of the moves, such as preventing the American Center in New Delhi from screening movies, were seen by some observers as petty. But other actions have raised alarm, including the removal of concrete traffic barriers around the U.S. Embassy and revoking diplomats' ID cards.

One high-level visit to India, scheduled by U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz for next week, has been canceled, the Energy Department said.

"It's a shame this came to the fore over one individual," said Lalit Mansingh, India's ambassador to the U.S. from 2001-2004. "It sends the message that we're touchy about personal integrity, rather than about issues of global importance."

Ties with the U.S. have chilled in recent years over several serious policy issues, including India's delays in enacting more business-friendly reforms and the U.S. National Security Agency's alleged spying on New Delhi and other foreign governments.

It remains to be seen whether Khobragade's return to India defuses the situation entirely. But any further escalation would not be in the interest of either country, analysts say. India and the United States have a strategic partnership and more than $100 billion in trade, and hundreds of Indians apply for U.S. visas every day.

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