India took the gloves off in a diplomatic fight with the United States on Tuesday, curtailing privileges enjoyed by American diplomats to protest the public humiliation of its Deputy Consul General in New York Devyani Khobragade last week.
A furious New Delhi stopped most imports by the US embassy, demanded details of salaries paid to Indian staff and domestic help and asked American consular officers and their families to return their identity cards. Traffic barricades near the US mission, a security measure, were promptly removed.
“This is unprecedented, but a strong message needs to be sent to the US. Indo-US diplomatic ties have suffered a setback and it will have a lasting effect,” former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal told HT.
Calling it an “isolated episode,” US state department spokesperson Marie Harf said late Tuesday night, “We understand that this is a sensitive issue for many in India. Accordingly, we are looking into the intake procedures surrounding this arrest to ensure that all appropriate procedures were followed and every opportunity for courtesy was extended.”
“While this is a law enforcement issue and will need to be worked through standard procedures and official law enforcement channels, we will continue to work this issue with India in the spirit of partnership and cooperation that marks our broad bilateral relationship,” she added.
The special privileges withdrawn earlier in the day by New Delhi were not mentioned.
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Khobragade was arrested on charges of visa fraud related to her domestic help on Thursday, handcuffed and led away to jail , where she was reported to have been strip searched and lodged in a cell with drug addicts before being released on $250,000 bail that came with severe travel restrictions. She is back at work but has to attend pre-trial hearings in court.
Underscoring the dramatic downturn in relations between the world's top two democracies, two key Indian leaders - Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi and the BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi - refused to meet a delegation of visiting US lawmakers.
The visitors have also been snubbed by home minister Sushilkumar Shinde, Lok Sabha speaker Meira Kumar and National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon, a former top diplomat who has termed Khobragade's treatment as "despicable and barbaric".Kumar, herself a former Indian career diplomat, declined to meet the US delegation "as a sign of displeasure".
External affairs minister Salman Khurshid termed the treatment meted out to Khobragade “completely unacceptable”.
“We have put in motion what we believe would be effective way of addressing the issue, but also (put) in motion such steps that need to be taken to protect her dignity,” he told reporters.
“We have expressed our deep distress and sense of disquiet, that has been very, very strongly felt, in strongest words possible. We have communicated the sense that we feel (to the US).”
A source in diplomatic circles said that the privileges withdrawn were special courtesies accorded to the US mission and diplomats in India, but not given to Indian missions and diplomats by US authorities in their country.
A US embassy source said the Americans could live with the Indian measures provided they remained proportionate to the provocation.
South Block also withdrew airport passes issued to US diplomats and asked them to furnish details of wages paid to Indian staff employed at the four consulates in Kolkata, Chennai, Mumbai and Hyderabad.
US Ambassador Nancy Powell was summoned to South Block by Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh on December 13 and a strong protest was lodged over the treatment.
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New Delhi also asked the US to furnish visa details of all teachers at American schools, apart from information on pay and bank accounts of Indians working in these schools.
There is little sign of a climbdown from the US side, with a government spokesman maintaining that standard procedures had been followed during the arrest. The US has stuck to its view that Khobragade enjoyed immunity from the jurisdiction of US courts only with respect to acts performed in the exercise of her consular functions.
India has, however, said she should have been treated with sensitivity given her diplomatic status.
Devyani Khobragade, 39, a 1999-batch IFS officer, was taken into custody last week on a street in New York as she was dropping her daughter to school and handcuffed in public on visa fraud charges before being released on a $250,000 (Rs 1.5 crore) bond after pleading not guilty in court.
Khobragade, India's deputy consul general in New York, was accused by Manhattan's Indian American US Attorney Preet Bharara of visa fraud and exploiting her babysitter and housekeeper.
Khobragade was strip-searched, confined to a cell with drug addicts and also subjected to DNA swabbing, sources confirmed to IANS.
(With agency inputs)
• Deputy consul general Devyani Khobragade arrested in US
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• US hopes diplomat's arrest won't affect bilateral ties
• Indian diplomat's arrest is an insult: Khurshid
• India asks US to act 'sensitively' after senior diplomat's arrest
• Diplomat’s father cries foul, asks America to apologise
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