US softens tone, but still no apology or dropping of charges

Washington, Dec 21: A week into their diplomatic spat, the US responded with a softened tone to India’s reconciliatory stress on preserving their “valuable” ties, but made no move to drop the charges against an Indian diplomat or offer an apology.

President Barack Obama left for Hawaii for his annual holiday without referencing the spat with India at his hour-long yearend press conference, an indication perhaps that the issue was not on his table and was not deemed serious enough to merit a comment from the White House.

Both countries meanwhile engaged in diplomatic conversations at various levels to find a solution to the stand-off sparked by the arrest of Devyani Khobragade, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters Friday when asked if an apology was forthcoming. Instead she pointed to the comments of Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid earlier “where he talked about the importance of US-India relations, talked about how valuable they are.

“And we certainly fully agree that it’s important to preserve and protect our partnership. It’s not just about diplomatic ties,” Psaki said. “So we will continue these discussions through diplomatic channels, through private conversations.”

On the issue of dropping the charges of visa fraud against Khobragade, India’s deputy consul general in New York, Psaki stood firm saying “this is now a legal case, and of course the State Department doesn’t have jurisdiction over that.”

Even as she acknowledged that “our law enforcement authorities and the Government of India have some different interpretations of the issues and allegations at play,” the official said “we have been clear about our position of certainly standing with our judicial colleagues.”

On the issue of diplomatic immunity for Khobragade in her new job at India’s Permanent Mission at the UN in New York, she said “when immunity is conferred, it does not retroactively take effect at a previous point in time, but relates solely to the diplomat’s current status.”

A change in status does not mean “a clean slate from past charges” and “Receiving diplomatic immunity does not nullify any previously existing criminal charges. Those remain on the books,” Psaki said.

“Nor does obtaining diplomatic immunity protect the diplomat from prosecution indefinitely” Psaki stressed, suggesting that Khobragade’s shift to UN would not necessarily keep her safe from the charges already filed.

The State Department, had “not yet received an official request through proper channels for re-accreditation” of the Indian diplomat, she said. But if and when it comes, grant of a different status “doesn’t mean it wipes out past discretions.”

UN spokesman Farhan Haq Friday said they UN “received notification to register Ms Devyani Khobragade as a member of the Permanent Mission of India to the United Nations,” and “is processing this request as per its standard procedures.”

Meanwhile, Psaki said, US Secretary of State John Kerry looked forward to having a conversation “soon” with Khurshid, who was “not available” when he called him Wednesday night before speaking with National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon to express his regret at the situation.

“That’s not scheduled. Obviously, we’re lining up schedules on that.”

Asked given the kind of exchanges between the two countries over the issue, she was confident that it will be resolved, Psaki again pointed to Khurshid’s comments.

Noting that the Indian minister had “talked about how valuable the India-US relationship is, how important it is, how we want to preserve and protect our partnership,” she said. “And that’s our view, of course, as well.”

“Now at the same time we of course are closely engaged with the Government of India, we’re in close contact, and we want to move beyond this,” Psaki said. “And I think we all recognize the importance of our long-term relationship.”

Asked if the US was concerned about possible impact on its economic and trade relationship with India, the spokesperson said “certainly, our trade relationship is vitally important.

“We have a $90 billion bilateral trade partnership with India, and so that’s one of the very important components of our comprehensive partnership,” she said.

“It is something that we are certainly focused on, and we certainly want our relationship and all the important components to continue.”

(Arun Kumar can be contacted at arun.kumar@ians.in)

IANS