Business Standard

Khobragade detention: Livid India hits back at US

Cancels diplomats' airport passes; seeks pay details of Indians working at consulates

Devyani Khobragade
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In a move that could have serious implications for , a furious New Delhi on Tuesday announced a host of retaliatory measures to put the US in its place over the alleged ill-treatment of an Indian consular official in New York.

The immunity US embassy and consular staff enjoy in India will now be limited. The government has asked for details of salaries paid to all Indians employed at the US consulates, including by consulate officials and their families. All airport passes for US diplomats — both from the embassy and consulates — have been cancelled. This means Americans employed by their diplomatic missions will not be able to walk into the immigration areas to receive family and other visitors arriving in Indian cities.

Visa and other details of all teachers at US schools and salary and bank accounts of Indians in these schools have also been sought by the government. This is to check if American schools are violating India’s visa policy. The identity cards of consulate personnel and their families have been recalled. All import clearances for the US, including for import of food and liquor, have been stopped. And, traffic barriers around the US embassy in New Delhi — put up as a courtesy measure for US embassy staff but a serious inconvenience for Indians — have been removed.

External Affairs Minister on Tuesday said India had communicated to the US its feelings, both as a reaction to the steps taken by a ‘friendly’ country and also its reaction to the extreme level of distress the diplomat was subjected to.

WHERE’S THE IMMUNITY?
on Consular Relations (Article 41) says:
  • Consular officers shall not be liable to arrest or pending trial, except in the case of a grave crime and pursuant to a decision by competent judicial authority
  • Consular officers shall not be committed to prison or be liable to any other form of restriction on their personal freedom*, save in execution of a judicial decision of final effect
  • If criminal proceedings are instituted against a consular officer, he must appear before the competent authorities. Nevertheless, the proceedings shall be conducted with the respect due to him by reason of his official position*, in a manner which will hamper the exercise of consular functions as little as possible
*Except in the case of a grave crime and pursuant to a decision by competent judicial authority. Under such a situation, if it has become necessary to detain a consular officer, the proceedings against him shall be instituted with the minimum of delay

“This kind of indignity is unacceptable. We have expressed our deep distress and sense of disquiet that has been very strongly felt. Whatever could be done is being done. It is in process. We have not only put in motion what would be an effective way of addressing this issue... There are some larger questions involved, but we are going to address the immediate concerns first. I do not want to say anything in haste. We are taking this case very seriously,” he added.

The Indian foreign office’s outrage stems from the way , an Indian consular officer, was treated — the handcuffing, the strip search and the DNA swab, even before the case came to court — rather than the actual charges levied against her. Article 41 of the Vienna Convention is quite clear about the protocols concerning treatment of diplomats.

A TURMOIL BREWING?

> Dec 12    
Devyani Khobragade, deputy consul general at the Indian Consulate in New York, arrested and charged with visa fraud and making false statements; released on a $250,000 bond after she pleads not guilty in a court
> Dec 13
US ambassador to India Nancy Powell summoned by the Foreign Secretary, who conveys “shock” over the “absolutely unacceptable” treatment meted out to Khobragade
> Dec 17    
India hits back by taking a slew of retaliatory measures — cancels US diplomats’ airport passes, asks for salary details of Indians employed by them and lifts traffic barriers outside the US embassy
INDIA-US VISA/TRADE DISPUTES
  • Infosys was made to pay a penalty of $34 million to the US government over a visa fraud case
  • India, US entangled in visa row over the latter raising fees for H-1B and L-1 visas in 2010. The case has been lying with the WTO dispute settlement body since 2011
  • In 2012, the US dragged India to WTO over restricting import of poultry products
  • India filed a case against US on countervailing duties on certain steel rods and flat products from India
  • US firms had been upset about Indian taxation laws and lodged a protest with the finance ministry
  • US is currently in the process of overhauling its immigration system, under which it is proposed that illegal immigrants would be granted citizenship

Lauding the steps taken by the external affairs ministry, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath said: “The US should step out of the mindset that there are still banana republics in the world. The US and other countries should recognise the dignity and respect of other countries. They cannot deal with other countries in such a manner.”

“I think more such steps should follow until the US has issued an unconditional apology. It needs to be awakened that this is a changed world... There is need for a paradigm shift and reciprocity while dealing with other countries,” Nath added.

It remains to be seen if the US will hit back and slow down visa clearances to those wishing to visit that country. If it decides to do so, Indian nationals’ travel plans, as well as Indian IT companies’ business plans, could be severely hit. The US consulate here adjudicates more than 600,000 visa applications each year.

Meanwhile, a Congressional delegation currently in India to explore investment opportunities here found its access to political leaders seriously curtailed on Tuesday. Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi, Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde and others cancelled their meetings with the delegation.

The reaction the delegation received from the political circles also raised eyebrows, with some even saying the row would impact India-US commercial ties. An Indian businessman exporting electrical machinery to the US said such political controversies affected business sentiments on both sides.

Indo-American Chamber of Commerce (IACC) President Lalit Bhasin said: “These things should be conducted in a dignified manner by both parties. I don’t think it will affect business because investments worth trillions of dollars are involved. But overreaction to a situation is not good. Our ties are very deep. These things should be handled diplomatically. The US has shown high-handedness, which is reprehensible. She (Khobragade), after all, is a senior staff of the Indian mission. But we also went overboard. We must remember diplomatic immunity cannot be in breach of domestic laws.”

Asked why the US was not extending the courtesies it expected from other countries for its diplomats, Marie Harf, a spokesperson for the US State Department had on Monday said: “Standard procedures were followed during the arrest.”

Sources told Business Standard the salary figure Khobragade mentioned in an application — “inadvertently” — was Khobragade’s own salary, and not of the domestic help, Sangeeta Richard, who is apparently absconding since June. Also, it seems Khobragade merely gave an undertaking on behalf of Richard — diplomats are entitled to do that. That is how Richard obtained her visa.

It is not yet clear what charges the US government has officially pressed against Khobragade, but sources here say she will be charged with paying less than the minimum wage, and not visa fraud. However, the deposition made by US Attorney General Preet Bharara’s office clearly says Khobragade has been charged with visa fraud.

“No nation can be graceful at the cost of its honour, a woman at the cost of her chastity and a man at the cost of his dignity. Whatever America has given us, India has given it the same. India has only tried to say that you have treated us shabbily. That (saying that) is fair enough,” said T V Mohandas Pai, chairman of Manipal Global Education and former board member & head of administration (HR, education & research) at Infosys.

“Whatever the US has done is wrong. The issue is not about prosecution of the lady, for whatever the alleged infringement of visa norms is; the issue is about handcuffing her in public; strip-searching her and putting her in a cell overnight with drug addicts. That is misuse of law,” he added.

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