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US ignored requests by India to resolve Khobragade maid issue

india Updated: Dec 20, 2013 09:38 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times
Devyani Khobragade

There was a pattern to the way the US let Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade's troubles with her domestic help bubble up into the worst ever stand-off between the two countries in recent years.

It repeatedly ignored Indian requests--made simultaneously in Washington DC, New Delhi and New York--to address the issue. And when no one was looking out for it, Khobragade was arrested last week in New York soon after she dropped off her daughter at school. India alleges she was put through a humiliating "intake" drill. The US Marshals Service has said it had strip-searched Khobragade and placed her in a cell with other female defendants. It described the measures as "standard arrestee intake procedures."

Early on Thursday, US secretary of state John Kerry regretted the treatment meted out to Khobragade. "As a father of two daughters about the same age as Devyani Khobragade, the secretary empathises with the sensitivities we are hearing from India," said spokesperson Marie Harf.

Kerry conveyed his regret over Khobragade's arrest and treatment in custody in an early morning call to national security adviser Shivshankar Menon on Thursday.

That was the only time India found itself heard on the issue starting in June, when the domestic help went missing triggering a chain of events leading to her employer's arrest. Sangeeta Richard, who was brought to the US on an official passport in November 2012, sought Khobragade's permission to work elsewhere as well after a few months.

"But because she held an official Indian passport she was turned down," said a diplomatic source. She was a deemed Indian official and couldn't work for anyone else.

On June 23, Richard left home and never returned to Khobragade. The Indian consulate in New York informed the Office of Foreign Missions, a state department wing working with diplomatic and UN missions, and the New York Police Department (NYPD).

That was the first hint of trouble, but it wasn't as clear then. "Curiously," said a diplomatic source, "NYPD refused to take her complaint saying she was not family SO SHE COULDN'T." NYPD eventually did file a complaint, but after much persistence.

When asked for a response, an NYPD spokesperson said Richard's disappearance was a federal case and the department had nothing to do with it. But the matter between Khobragade and her help was not federal.

NYPD had not responded to an email sent at their request detailing the case, with questions about its refusal to react to issues raised by India till the filing of this report. That was the start of a long series of ignored requests.

The only time the Indians heard back from the US on this issue was on September 4, when the state department wrote to the embassy reproducing Richard's allegations. The letter listed Richard's complaints, and said the state department was concerned about them and that the Indian embassy should investigate them.

The next day, India's ministry for external affairs protested with the US embassy in New Delhi. In Washington, the Indian embassy protested with the state department about the "tone and content of the letter".

But, once again, there was no response. The complaints were re-communicated to the US state department in October and December eliciting no response as before.

Khobragade was arrested on December 12.