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Tough-talking India retaliates diplomatically against envoy's humiliation (Intro Roundup)

IANS  |  New Delhi 

A new tough-talking India Tuesday upped the ante against the US, seeking an "unconditional apology" over the arrest and humiliating strip-search of its ranking diplomat Devyani Khobragade in New York and also took a slew of steps to pare down the privileges of American diplomats here in a retaliatory measure.

Describing the treatment of Khobragade, who was put through both strip and cavity search procedures, as "barbaric and despicable", India sent a formal communication asking US consulates to surrender the Diplomatic Identity Cards issued to their personnel.

They would be treated as equivalent to Indian diplomats in US consulates, in effect, being deprived of numerous diplomatic privileges they enjoy in India.

There are two international conventions that govern diplomatic relations between countries, one the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the other the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (see IANS sidebar).

India has withdrawn all airport access passes for consular officials and import clearances for the embassy. This helped them to import liquor without paying customs fees.

The airport pass helped US diplomats and their families to enter the airport without security checks. They would now be required to request passes each time they take a flight, said officials. Indian consulate staff in the US are not given airport passes.

According to informed sources, India could also consider taking action against gay US diplomats who bring along their same-sex partners as homosexuality has now been criminalised by the Supreme Court (see IANS story).

Bharatiya Janata Party leader Yashwant Sinha suggested that India could now arrest same-sex partners of American diplomatic officials.

"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 less wages was illegal in the US, so, why doesn't the government of India go ahead and arrest all of them?" he said.

Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath, asserting that India was not a "Banana republic", said the US should tender an "unconditional apology" to India over the public humiliation of its diplomat and that "more steps need to be taken to awaken the US (because) it's (now) a changed world".

Sending a clear message of its anger, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi and union Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde Tuesday declined to meet a US Congressional delegation. BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi too declined to meet the US team.

On Monday, Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar and National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon had cancelled their meetings with the four-member US delegation of Democrat and Republican lawmakers. The NSA described the treatment meted out to her as "despicable" and "barbaric".

Khobragade, India's deputy consul general in New York, was charged last week with visa fraud and making false statements for seeking residence and employing her Indian housemaid.

The 39-year-old diplomat was strip-searched, confined in a cell with drug addicts and also subjected to DNA swabbing, sources confirmed to IANS.

External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid said India has expressed "deep distress and sense of disquiet" over the incident.

Khobragade's father Tuesday met Shinde and requested that UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi to intervene in the matter.

In further tough action, the ministry of external affairs Tuesday directed Delhi Police to remove the many security barricades outside the US embassy even though a police picket still remained.

The barricades had for years restricted public movement around the embassy and normal vehicular traffic was particularly barred from the slip road in front of the embassy and the visa office at the back of the chancery.

India is also seeking details of the salaries paid to Indian staff employed in the US consulates, including those working as domestic helps with the families of American officials. The government has also asked for salary details of teachers at US schools here to see if they are paying tax.

Khobragade was charged with paying lower salary - in comparison to US standards - to the Indian help she had taken along.

She was accused by Manhattan's Indian American US Attorney Preet Bharara of visa fraud and exploiting her babysitter and housekeeper. She was handcuffed in public by law enforcement authorities in New York last Thursday while she was dropping her daughter at school.

Khobragade was covered under the Vienna Convention for consular staff, which did not carry the same privileges as for embassy diplomats.

US State Department spokesperson Marie Harf made a distinction between "diplomatic immunity" and "consular immunity" and suggested police followed "standard procedures."

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First Published: Tue, December 17 2013. 22:10 IST