New Delhi/Washington, Jan 11: A nasty month-long diplomatic row between India and the US got inflamed Friday with New Delhi expelling an American diplomat after Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade, whose arrest had sparked unprecedented acrimony between the countries, was indicted by a US grand jury and left for New Delhi before she could be declared persona non grata or detained.
In reciprocal action, the US embassy was “asked to withdraw forthwith a US diplomat of similar rank as Khobragade”, official sources said.
“We have reason to believe that the officer was closely involved in the processes related to the (Khobragade case) and the subsequent unilateral action by the US side,” the sources familiar with the developments said.
The name of the expelled American diplomat was not known. The US embassy remained tightlipped.
Khobragade, 39, India’s deputy consul general in New York, was arrested Dec 12 and allegedly insulted for alleged falsification of her housemaid’s visa papers and violation of US labour laws.
The widely publicised American actions caused outrage in India and strained bilateral ties in ways not seen in recent years, especially since the two countries developed a special relationship following their civil nuclear deal.
She was acted on by US prosecutors after her maid, Sangeeta Richard, complained to human rights bodies that she was being ill-treated and underpaid.
Khobragade was arrested when she had gone to drop her daughter to school in Manhattan, and reported that she was handcuffed and humiliated like a common criminal, a fact that was denied by the office of the prosecutor, Indian American Preet Bharara.
She was later released on bail bonds.
Khobragade arrived in India late Friday night by a US Airlines flight.
According to officials, the American diplomat, who was asked to leave, helped the housemaid Sangeeta Richard’s husband and two children to fly to New York two days before Khobragade’s arrest.
The sources said that they were taken to the US despite the fact that there was a police case against Richard’s husband in a Delhi court. The US embassy not only quietly helped them fly, but also helped in granting full residency in the US to the domestic help’s family, the sources added.
The US State Department said Friday that it “deeply” regrets that a US diplomat in India has to leave the country.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in Washington: “This has clearly been a challenging time in the US-India relationship. We expect and hope that this will now come to closure and the Indians will take significant steps with us to improve our relationship and return it to a more constructive place.
“External affairs ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin had earlier said that Khobragade had been given a G1 visa with full diplomatic immunity after she was transferred from the Indian consulate in New York to its permanent mission at the United Nations, and was on her way back to India.
Prosecutors said that after Khobragade was indicted, US officials asked India to waive her immunity so that she could be prosecuted. India refused and transferred her back to New Delhi before she could be declared persona non grata and detained by local authorities.
The external affairs ministry said Khobragade was accorded Jan 8 the privileges and immunities of a diplomatic envoy.
“At the same time, the US government requested the government of India to waive (her) immunity.
“On Jan 9, India declined to do so and transferred Khobragade to the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi.”
In a statement after the grand jury hearing, her lawyer Daniel Arshack said Khobragade “is pleased to be returning to her country.
“Her head is held high. She knows she has done no wrong and she looks forward to assuring that the truth is known”.Her father Uttam Khobragade thanked the Indian government for his daughter’s return.
“It is only because of the entire Indian government’s effort, my daughter is returning to India with full diplomatic immunity,” he said.
Khobragade reiterated her innocence. “She also affirmed her determination to ensure that the episode would not leave a lasting impact on her family, in particular, her children, who are still in the US,” her statement said. Khobragade’s husband is a US national.
Hardeep Singh Puri, former India’s permanent representative to the United Nations, backed the Indian government’s move, saying “reciprocity was the best possible solution” to this unpleasant turn of events. He said the US would soon realise its folly and would feel the pinch of their diplomatic privileges being withdrawn by the Indian government.
The US has been asked to discontinue all commercial activities from its premises without proper license, a move that is going to hurt not just the large American diplomatic community but the American expatriate population here that also enjoyed the privileges of the American club, bar and other duty-free facilities that the embassy was allowed to have in what is diplomatically known as the ‘wink-and-nod’ reciprocal system.
Puri said the US case will not stand in the court of public opinion and said there was no way out since India refused to accede to the US request to waive her immunity for prosecution.
C. Uday Bhaskar, a leading strategic analyst, hoped that the reciprocal action would now bring the unseemly row to a closure and the two countries “revert to quiet diplomacy” to sort out the issue now.
“The entire gamut of bilateral relations, in the political, military, commercial and scientific levels cannot be predicated on a single issue and there is urgent need to repair the damage done to the larger strategic relationship,” Bhaskar said.