Special US officials run into Indian visa wall

The United States has run into problems arranging visits by two senior officials, recalling a diplomatic spat that soured relations two years ago.

india Updated: Nov 22, 2015 02:13 IST
US,India,Special envoys
US special envoy for LGBT rights Randy Berry.

Despite a fresh start in US-India ties under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a diplomatic source said the United States has run into problems arranging visits by two senior officials, recalling a diplomatic spat that soured relations two years ago.

Washington has been seeking to send Susan Coppedge, its newly appointed anti-people trafficking ambassador, and Randy Berry, its special envoy for LGBT rights, to New Delhi this month. Berry is Washington’s first gay-rights ambassador.

Human trafficking has caused friction between the US and India. The countries also disagree on gay rights, which the Obama administration promotes, while homosexuality in India is illegal.

“These visits were planned, they were meant to be here around this time. But there were some issues,” the diplomatic source told Reuters.

The US state department declined formal comment but an official said the sides were “working to coordinate the best timing.”

The external affairs ministry did not respond to a request for comment and Indian ambassador to the US, Arun K Singh, offered no clarification when asked about Coppedge’s plan to visit. “We’ll see,” Singh told reporters.

“When you ask a US official when somebody will be given a visa, they always say ‘we will assess when visa is applied for.’ ... I can do no better than to reiterate the US position,” Singh said.

The human trafficking issue blew up in 2013 over the arrest of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade for visa fraud and underpaying a domestic worker, who was later given a US ‘T visa’ issued to trafficking victims.

Khobragade’s arrest and strip search provoked an outcry in India and the issue has festered, although US-India relations have strengthened since Modi came to power in May 2014.

US officials say Indian citizens who have been issued US T visas have been subject to restrictions, including long delays in renewing passports at Indian consulates in the US.

Between July 2014 and March 2015, the crackdown was harsher, with authorities at Indian airports confiscating at least 20 passports stamped with US T visas. This prevented trafficking victims who went home to collect their families from returning to the US.

Singh played down the impact of the trafficking issue on US-India relations, saying these were “at a very good stage now” with two visits by Modi to the US, and Barack Obama becoming the first US President to visit India twice while in office. “These are all reflections of where the relationship is headed,” he said.

India was happy to work in an international framework to tackle the problem of trafficking, but rejected “unilateral assessments” of another country,” he said. “We will never accept it.”

First Published: Nov 20, 2015 00:55 IST