After the United States arrested an Indian diplomat for underpaying her domestic help, India has retaliated, stripping American diplomats of their IDs that provide diplomatic immunity and may be considering arresting same-sex partners of diplomats.
The diplomatic row first emerged last Friday when the New York Post reported that federal law enforcement officials had taken India’s deputy consul general for political, economic, commercial and women’s affairs into custody. Devyani Khobragade has been an advocate for women’s rights, especially among the underprivileged, making the charges that she paid a female nanny only $3.31 an hour all the more shocking. According to the Post, Khobragade is accused of “telling the woman to lie on her visa application to get to the United States,” having her write on the official documents that she was going to be paid $4,500 per month rather than the $573 her second, secret contract stipulated.
The arrest set off a growing feud that is quickly affecting most points of contact between the United States and India. Several members of the Indian Parliament refused to meet with a visiting Congressional delegation for the second day in a row over the arrest. One member of the opposition BJP thought the boycott did not go nearly far enough.
“The media has reported that we have issued visas to a number of US diplomats’ companions,” Yashwant Sinha, a former finance minister, said. “Companions means that they are of the same sex. Now, after the Supreme Court ruling, it is completely illegal in our country. Just as paying fewer wage was illegal in the US. So, why doesn’t the Government of India go ahead and arrest all of them! Put them behind bars, prosecute them in this country and punish them?” Sinha was referring to the Indian Supreme Court’s recent controversial decision to overturn a lower court’s decision that legalized sodomy.
That BJP officials would be pushing the current government to take more and stronger action is not particularly surprising given what’s at stake next year. Caroline Wadhams, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, told ThinkProgress that the Khobragade issue likely blew up due to the coming national elections, driving politicians to show the voters that they care about Indian pride, especially if it means standing up to the United States. BJP had a strong showing against the ruling Indian National Congress in the most recent local elections, causing some predictions that they will regain control of the government.
“I imagine just over time this will blow over, because the larger issues in our relationship are far more important,” Wadhams said, but noted that it can be hard to predict what going to unfold.
For now, the situation appears to be far from the point where such a dissipation is possible. While a diplomat of her ranking would normally receive diplomatic immunity, the State Department decided on Saturday that the case doesn’t merit such protection, further angering India. “Under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, the Indian Deputy Consul General enjoys immunity from the jurisdiction of US courts only with respect to acts performed in the exercise of consular functions,” State Department spokesperson Noel Clay told NDTV.
Khobragade has plead not guilty in the case and was released on $250,000 bail. “I have every expectation that she will be completely vindicated,” her defense attorney, Daniel Arshack, told CBS New York. “I don’t know,” he said when asked about why the arrest came now. “I think there must be some political motivation, but I don’t know.”
Following Khobragade’s arrest, U.S. Ambassador to India Nancy Powell found herself summoned to the foreign ministry, where Indian officials condemned the strip-search that Khobragade allegedly was forced to undertake. “We are shocked and appalled at what the US did,” the Indian foreign ministry said in a statement. “India is forcefully taking up with the US the treatment of the arrested diplomat. It is not acceptable.” India is also alleging that the nanny in question, Sangeeta Richard, has been “absconding since June” and requested that the U.S. help find her and turn her over to face an Indian arrest warrant.
Lower-level American diplomats began to feel the affects of the row on Monday, when the Indian foreign ministry asked all U.S. consulate personnel and their families to turn in their ID cards immediately. ” These will now be downgraded on par with with what the U.S. provides to our consulates in U.S.,” sources told The Hindu. The government also requested that the U.S. provide “visa information and other details of all teachers at US schools and pay and bank accounts of Indians in these schools.” All import clearances to the duty-free store — including for alcohol — have been halted as well.
Bulldozers also removed traffic barricades that had previously been in place in front of the U.S. Embassy in New Dehli. The removal of those barriers, Wadhams told ThinkProgress, was surprising given the relatively benign nature of the other forms of protest, calling it possibly a “step too far.” What this flare-up shows is that the Indo-American relationship “is one of high hopes, but it’s not easy,” Wadhams continued. “There have been more stumbling blocks than expected.”