CHARU SUDAN KASTURI
New Delhi, Dec. 13: India today summoned US ambassador Nancy Powell to register its strongest protest against America in several years after New York police arrested a 39-year-old Indian diplomat posted there.
Devyani Khobragade was arrested on Thursday morning while she was dropping her daughter to school, handcuffed in court and released on bail only hours later on a bond of $250,000 (Rs 1.55 crore at current exchange rates).
Khobragade, the deputy chief of mission at the Indian consulate in New York, has been in the US for less than a year, and is accused by Manhattan’s Indian-American US attorney Preet Bharara of furnishing fake documents to obtain a visa for an Indian nanny.
Sangeeta Richard, the nanny who is absconding since July but has complained to the police against Khobragade, went to the US on an Indian government official passport as an employee of a diplomat, officials here said.
The judge ordered Khobragade, who pleaded not guilty, not to leave the US and set the next hearing for January 13.
A criminal complaint in the Manhattan court alleged that though the minimum US hourly wage in the area then (2012) was $7.25 (around Rs 398 at the then exchange rates), the housekeeper was paid only $3.31 (around Rs 182) an hour, PTI reported.
The complaint claimed that the visa application said the housekeeper would be paid $4,500 (Rs 2.47 lakh) a month or $28 (Rs 1,540) an hour. But the diplomat allegedly reached an agreement to pay the housekeeper Rs 30,000 a month. At 40 hours a week, it was equivalent to $573.07 a month or $3.31 an hour at the exchange rates prevailing then. (The maid was supposed to begin working in November 2012.)
The diplomat faces up to 15 years in jail if convicted on two counts.
It is usual for nannies and housemaids travelling with diplomats to get official visas. But it also means in this case that the charges against Khobragade, if proven, will raise questions on negligence — at the least — on the part of the Indian government in allowing fraud to be committed in seeking official visas.
“We are shocked and appalled at the manner in which she has been humiliated by the US authorities,” ministry of external affairs joint secretary and spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said.
“There is nothing, nothing that entails the humiliation of a young woman diplomat with two children publicly,” the foreign ministry spokesperson added.
Taranjit Singh Sandhu, India’s charge d’affairs at its embassy in Washington, has also “forcefully” communicated India’s objections to Nisha Desai Biswal, nominated this year as assistance secretary of state in charge of south and central Asia by President Barack Obama, officials said.
India’s reaction in Khobragade’s case is unlike anything New Delhi has displayed in recent years.
Summoning diplomats of a foreign nation is a standard mechanism used by nations to articulate concerns. India, Akbaruddin said, had told the US embassy in New Delhi in “no uncertain terms” that Khobragade’s arrest was “absolutely unacceptable.”
Officials confirmed to The Telegraph that India has not summoned a US ambassador to its foreign office in several years — not for protests against personal humiliation and not to articulate concerns over policies.
Foreign secretary Sujatha Singh’s rare decision to summon Powell on Friday was driven by key arguments that officials said make Khobragade’s arrest distinct from other recent disputes with the US and other countries.
First, officials said, India is convinced that New York law enforcement officials severely overreached in arresting Khobragade. The diplomat had in September obtained an order from Delhi High Court restraining Richard, the nanny, from instituting any actions and proceedings against her outside India.
US authorities were made aware of the high court order, and so had “no business” arresting her, an official said. The nanny’s official visa has also been scrapped, the official said.
Under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, local police can arrest foreign diplomats on their land in serious cases of crime — but only after a series of procedures that include reaching out to the country’s mission.
Bharara’s office, officials here said, never contacted the Indian embassy in Washington, consulate in New York, or Khobragade herself, before arresting her.
“She wasn’t running away anywhere,” an official said. “They could have told the mission head that they have concerns and need to question her, instead of publicly humiliating her when she was dropping her daughter to school.”
Second, India recognises that an indictment for Khobragade would mean an embarrassment to the country — not just because she is an Indian diplomat but because India could be accused of overlooking immigration fraud committed on an official passport.
In Mumbai, Uttam Khobragade, the father of Devyani, lashed out at the US for the diplomat’s “unwarranted” arrest and demanded an apology.
“They have no powers to arrest her like this when her husband is away in Beirut for a conference and she is alone with two small daughters. They arrested her in a public place like a school, and without lady police. Where is their jurisdiction when the matter is clearly a civil case between two Indian citizens?” said the retired IAS officer whose name had cropped up in the Adarsh Housing Society scam probe. Devyani owns a flat in the Colaba highrise.
Khobragade, who retired in 2011, continued: “Can we pay Rs 5 lakh in India? She (the domestic help) was paid handsome money. If she is not happy with her pay, she should stop working and return to India.”
Asked if he had spoken to Devyani after the incident, he said: “Yes. She is composed. She is more brave than me. She has resumed work.”
Khobragade was among 15 of Maharashtra’s IAS officials whose kin were allotted flats in the 31-storey Adarsh society. In 2012, father and daughter had deposed before the two-member judicial commission probing the Adarsh scam and denied wrongdoing.