Tuesday Dec 17, 2013

India-US diplomatic row escalates

NEW DELHI: The row over the maltreatment of an Indian diplomat in New York has escalated with India asking all US consular officers in the country to turn in their identity cards that entitle them to diplomatic immunity and senior Congress leaders refusing to meet a visiting US Congressional delegation for the second straight day.

After Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar refused to meet the five US Congressmen on Monday, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi and Union Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde also declined to meet them in protests against handcuffing and strip search of the diplomat Devyani Khobragade over a contractual issue with her domestic help who had accompanied her from India.

National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon also did not meet the Congressmen on Monday while terming Dr. Khobragade's treatment as ‘despicable and barbaric.’ However, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid chose to meet the delegation and expressed his displeasure to them.

India has warned of reciprocal steps later in the day in order to ‘convey a clear message that this treatment of the diplomat is unacceptable,’ said government sources handling the dispute.

South Block has already hinted at several options. One of these is paying back in kind by examining the salary structures of Indian employees in the US embassy and whether social security payments were according to law.

If the US is still not contrite and refuses to arrive at ‘creative solutions’, the government might closely examine whether American diplomats are adhering to the spirit of each Indian law. As a senior Indian diplomat told, “If you monetise the facilities we give to our home-workers, it adds to a decent sum. There is absolutely no hint of exploitation.’’

The US should accommodate that aspect, otherwise “We also know who all have brought in their gay partners and on what grounds they were given visas though there is a law against it in India. We can’t talk about it because this law is controversial and outdated but if the US wants to go to this extent, then this law and several other options are there,’’ said the officials.

But women's rights spokesperson Akhila Sivadas feels if the law has been infringed in the US, then the central government must step in to correct the situation by giving more allowances.

The directive asking all US consular officers posted in the country to turn in their identity cards means the government is trying to restore parity with its diplomats posted as consular officers in the US by stripping them of immunity in public life. Dr. Khobragade is also a consular officer and under US law, this post does not entitle her to full privileges, which has been a sore point with India. It has raised the issue several times but not very forcefully, said another senior diplomat.

Washington believes that the Indian Deputy Consul General has immunity from the jurisdiction of US courts only with respect to acts performed in the exercise of consular functions. But India says a diplomat can only be arrested for a grave crime.

India has more reason to feel incensed following the explanation offered by US authorities. “If arresting her in front of her children, strip searching her and locking her up with hardened criminals and sex workers was not bad enough, they are now saying that this was as per protocol when we clearly know this sort of treatment cant be applied to a diplomat for a non-heinous case,’’ said an official.

Dr. Khobragade was arrested last Thursday while she was dropping her daughter to school, handcuffed in public and later in the day released on a USD 2,50,000 bail. Following a complaint, the diplomat has been charged with accommodating false information about wages to be paid to her home-worker.