The Indian government requested that the U.S. Embassy withdraw one of its officers in New Delhi on Friday, a tit-for-tat move that comes a day after the U.S. requested Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade leave the country after being indicted on counts of visa fraud and making false statements. A U.S. official confirmed on Friday that the Indian government had made the request.
Relations between the two nations have been fraught since Khobragade, then India’s deputy counsel in New York City, was arrested on Dec. 12 by U.S. officials for allegedly making false statements to secure a visa for her domestic worker. Whether the last 48 hours of high-stakes diplomacy mark yet another escalation in tensions or a mutual effort to move on remains to be seen.
A Manhattan U.S. district court indictment alleges that Khobragade submitted a false employment contract in line with U.S. labor laws with her employee’s visa application, but that a second, private contract was later drawn up under which the employee was paid $573 per month — less than minimum wage — and which did not include certain legal protections for the employee. The indictment also alleges that Khobragade asked her employee to work “often up to 100 or more hours per week, often without a single full day off.” Khobragade denies all charges against her.
India, which claims Khobragade had diplomatic immunity at the time as an adviser to its United Nations mission, quickly transferred Khobragade to a full-time role at the UN after her arrest. On Jan. 8, U.S. officials approved the visa that grants Khobragade full diplomatic immunity, but requested that the Indian government waive it. New Delhi refused. U.S. officials reportedly requested that she leave the U.S., which she has done, but have said that she may face arrest and prosecution if she returns without immunity. Khobragade has been transferred to the Ministry of External Affairs, according to a Jan. 10 government statement.
The news of Khobragade’s arrest last month enraged many Indians. Protests erupted throughout the country over a high-ranking diplomat’s unceremonious strip search and detention (although she was quickly freed on bail). Demonstrators carried signs beseeching the United States “not to humiliate our sisters” and not to “act ugly with Indians.” To many, the spotlight that the case brought on working conditions of domestic workers in India also felt like a high-handed blow. “We do not accept a foreign government dictating to us,” says Gopalaswami Parthasarathy, a former Indian ambassador. “We pay our domestic help very well by Indian standards.”
Meanwhile, a marked chill has set over U.S.-India ties. The Indian government has been applying pressure on the U.S. in New Delhi, clamping down on activities at the U.S. Embassy and demanding information about its employees and their staff. According to NDTV, earlier this week the Indian government asked the embassy to shut down a sports club and restaurants operating on its premises, among other activities. It was the latest in a raft of measures aimed at bringing the privileges of the American staff “strictly in line with reciprocity, the cornerstone of diplomatic ties,” according the Ministry of External Affairs. The same day, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz announced that an upcoming visit to India would be postponed.