Devyani Khobragade Scandal: Why India Still Won’t Back Down

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Mohammed Jaffer / SnapsIndia / Reuters

Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade attends a Rutgers University event at India's Consulate General in New York City on June 19, 2013

Three weeks after the bilateral row began over the arrest of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade in New York City, the dust has yet to settle on the wintery streets of New Delhi. People may have stopped burning images of President Barack Obama, but India’s front pages still carry news of the ongoing fallout, detailing the tense exchanges between the U.S. and India over the strip search and detention of India’s deputy consul general in New York City, who India says had immunity at the time of her arrest.

On Dec. 12, U.S. State Department agents arrested Khobragade outside her children’s school in New York City, after which she was strip-searched and detained before being released on bail. She has been charged with making false declarations on a visa application for her Indian domestic worker, and has allegedly broken U.S. law by paying her employee below the minimum wage, among other alleged infractions.

Khobragade has denied all of the charges. In a letter to colleagues after her arrest, she wrote that she “broke down many times as the indignities of repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches, swabbing, holdup with common criminals and drug addicts were all being imposed upon me.”

(MORE: Devyani Khobragade Scandal: The View From India)

U.S. officials have denied conducting a cavity search on the diplomat, and on Dec. 18, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara said in a statement that “Ms. Khobragade was accorded courtesies well beyond what other defendants, most of whom are American citizens, are accorded.” India claims, however, that because of Khobragade’s status at the time as an adviser to India’s U.N. mission, she was entitled to diplomatic immunity. On Dec. 30, a State Department deputy spokesperson said the government was “looking into it.”

The blowout has left Washington’s relationship with India on shaky and emotionally charged ground. New Delhi quickly retaliated with measures aimed at U.S. diplomats in India — among them the removal of traffic barriers outside the U.S. embassy in the Indian capital, restrictions on tax-free shipments and demands that the salaries of Indians employed by U.S. diplomatic staff be made public.

Indian officials have asked that the U.S. admit it was in the wrong, but U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has so far said only that he expresses “regret” over the incident. To many Indians, that’s far from enough. U.S. handling of the affair has been “outrageous,” says Gopalaswami Parthasarathy, a former Indian ambassador who spent time in Washington. He says there was no reason to treat Khobragade so unceremoniously, and thinks the Indian government’s action has been in step with the national mood. “We cannot take this,” Parthasarathy says.

(VIDEO: Indian Diplomat’s New York City Arrest and Strip Search Sparks Fury at Home)

That the government has seized this particular moment to take a tough stand is probably not a coincidence. National elections are scheduled for a few months away, and the ruling Congress Party faces a tough fight to stay in power after a series of losses in recent state elections, most notably in New Delhi itself.

“This government has been criticized by its opponents as being excessively pro-American,” says Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a political commentator in New Delhi. “This is a good opportunity for them to say, ‘O.K., we can act tough too. We want to know how much you are paying your gardener, and your person who works in the kitchen.’”

The jury is out on the long-term impact of that strategy. External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid has sought to soften the tone, stressing the nations’ “valuable relationship.” Indeed, in 2011, the countries did some $86 billion in bilateral trade, and the world’s largest democracy is an increasingly crucial partner to Washington in a part of the world occupied by more unknown quantities like Pakistan and China, particularly as regional security gets ready to enter a new phase as when most foreign troops withdraw from Afghanistan this year. In a New Year’s message, U.S. Ambassador to India Nancy Powell ticked off the ways the nations have gotten along in recent years, while acknowledging ties have been “jolted by very different reactions to issues involving one of your consular officers and her domestic worker.” Like Kerry, Powell also expressed “regret” over the incident.

Will Washington and New Delhi dig their heels further into the sand, or find, as it were, a diplomatic solution? At this juncture, it’s hard to say. But some here argue that, pragmatically, India may not have a choice. “We bend over backwards for the U.S. in India and we expect the U.S. [to do the same],” says Mohan Guruswamy, founder and chairman of New Delhi think tank Centre for Policy Alternatives. That’s not going to happen, he says. “They are asking for reciprocity they won’t get.”

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