U.S. to Review Indian Diplomat’s Arrest and Strip Search After New Delhi Backlash

State Department stresses importance of "mutually respectful" relations with India even as Indian government metes out retaliatory penalties on U.S. diplomats

  • Share
  • Read Later
Adnan Abid / Reuters

A bulldozer removes the security barriers in front of the U.S. embassy in New Delhi on Dec. 17, 2013

U.S. authorities have invoked a “spirit of partnership and cooperation” and pledged to review the procedures that were followed in the arrest of Indian deputy consul general Devyani Khobragade, after the diplomat’s detention sparked a furious reaction in her home country.

“We understand that this is a very sensitive issue for many in India,” U.S. assistant secretary of state Nisha Desai Biswal told the Times of India on Tuesday.

Khobragade was arrested in New York City on Dec. 12 and accused of submitting false documents in an application for her housekeeper to live and work in the U.S. and of not paying the housekeeper a minimum wage. Indians have been outraged by her public handcuffing and arrest — which took place as she dropped her daughter off at school — as well as the fact that she was strip-searched before being released on bail. She has some diplomatic immunity in line with the pursuance of official duties, but consular officials can still be arrested or detained for a felony.

A State Department spokeswoman said standard arrest procedures were followed, and the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) confirmed that “Devyani Khobragade was subject to the same search procedures as other USMS arrestees.”

However, India’s National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon called her treatment “despicable and barbaric,” while the Indian government said in a statement that it was “shocked and appalled.”

The Indian diplomatic corps has come to Khobragade’s defense, saying that her salary of approximately $6,500 a month would not have allowed her to hire a housekeeper on the U.S. minimum wage — about $4,500 a month.
Khobragade, who allegedly paid her maid less than $600 monthly, is married to an academic. She described herself in an interview with Indian expatriate website The Indian Panorama as someone whose ambition was to help “underprivileged women” and whose upbringing taught her that “women must be economically independent.”
In a bid to mend fences, Desai Biswal said the incident was “an isolated episode that is not indicative of the close and mutually respectful partnership” between the two countries. Earlier, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said “We do not want this to negatively impact our bilateral relationship.”

U.S.-India ties have been particularly warm since 2009, when Washington and New Delhi outlined a “strategic dialogue” covering cooperation in areas from science and economics to nuclear energy, education and combating climate change. India is seen as an important counterbalance in Asia to the growing might of China, and though trade is still relatively modest (India is the U.S.’s 13th largest trading partner), it is growing exponentially, surging more than 1,000% in the past two decades.

Nonetheless, New Delhi has taken a stern view of Khobragade’s arrest. In an indication of its ire, the Indian government has already ordered the removal from outside the U.S. embassy of concrete security barriers designed to deter terrorist attacks. U.S. embassy staff and their families have also been ordered to surrender their ID cards, and import clearances for the embassy, for items like liquor, have been suspended.

In a further twist, former External Affairs Minister and senior leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, Yashwant Sinha, said India should penalize same-sex companions of U.S. diplomats because homosexuality is illegal in India. “Media has reported that we have issued visas to a number of U.S. diplomats’ companions. Companions means that they are of the same sex,” Sinha was quoted as saying by Indian news agency PTI. “It is completely illegal in our country, just as paying less wages was illegal in the U.S.”