Jason Burke in Delhi and Dan Roberts in Washington
theguardian.com, Friday 10 January 2014 08.20 GMT
A serious row between Washington and India appeared to move towards conclusion on Thursday after a high-tension drama resulted in the effective expulsion of a diplomat from the US hours after she was granted immunity from charges of visa fraud and underpaying her maid.
The arrest of Khobragade, who was India's deputy consul general in New York, caused outrage in her home country and prompted a range of retaliatory measures in Delhi against US diplomats in the Indian capital.
Though John Kerry, the US secretary of state, expressed regret shortly after the incident, this fell short of the apology demanded by Indians.
Khobragade's father, Uttam Khobragade, a retired bureaucrat, said: "Devyani today left the US with full diplomatic immunity, vindicating the stand that whatever dispute being raised in the US is a prerogative of [the] sovereign country, India, and only can be adjudicated by Indian courts."
With the always complex relationship between Washington and Delhi under serious strain, senior US officials have postponed trips to India while Indian officials have continued to express their “deep disappointment” against a background of continuing public anger.
However hours after a grand jury in New York indicted Khobragade for visa fraud and making multiple false statements, and with a court appearance due next week, a series of dramatic last-minute developments saw the US first grant a crucial visa confirming full immunity to the diplomat, then ask India to waive that immunity and finally ask the 39-year-old to leave the country.
Indian official sources said they had applied for the visa, normally a formality, about three weeks ago. Khobragade flew out of the US on Thursday night, according to her lawyer, with “her head held high”.
"She looks forward to assuring that the truth is known," the lawyer said. An Indian official in Delhi said: "We will take this one day at a time. Today we are focused on bringing her back and then we will decide. But we have a relationship with the US which is broad."
Officials in India have not directly denied US prosecutors' claims that she lied to visa officials about the salary she would pay her maid, who had been flown over from India, but say the charges are a "grey area open to interpretation".
The indictment claims she said she would pay her Indian maid $4,500 per month but actually gave her far less than the US minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
“The worst that can be said about her is that she did not comply with the amount that was supposed to be paid under the law,” Salman Khurshid, India’s foreign minister, told the Guardian last month.
If found guilty she would have faced up to a 10-year jail sentence.
Indian authorities had shifted Khobragade to their mission at the UN after her arrest, a move that should have guaranteed full diplomatic immunity rather than the limited immunity that comes with a consular post. However without the crucial visa from US authorities the possibility remained that Khobragade could still have been open to prosecution.
One sticking point in the deal, according to Indian officials, was Devyani's own demand that she be allowed to return to the US in the future. Her husband is a US citizen. It does not appear that this demand has been met.
"Upon her departure a warrant may be issued for her arrest and should she seek to enter the United States she could be arrested," said a diplomatic note issued by the US mission to the UN.
While both New Delhi and Washington stressed the importance of their bilateral relationship during the crisis, it took weeks of complex wrangling to find a workable solution both sides could live with.
Earlier this week Indian authorities ordered the US embassy to close a club for expatriate Americans there. Security barriers outside the embassy were removed in the days after the arrest of Khobragade in “a spirit of strict recipocity", said one Indian official with direct knowledge of the case.
A trip to India next week by the US energy secretary, Ernest Moniz, was postponed around the same time. The US assistant secretary of state for south Asia, Nisha Desai Biswal, delayed her first visit to the country to avoid the trip becoming embroiled in the dispute.
Khobragade's departure would remove the focus of current friction between New Delhi and Washington but it is unclear how long it will take the anger to subside in the run-up to national elections in India in May.
The outrage in India has been fuelled by politicians' unwillingness to seem out of step with public mood. The treatment of Khobragade – who was briefly detained with other criminal defendants and strip-searched – caused particular anger.
"We have the support of the entire Indian society on this. We are a country of a billion people with a reputation for being independent in our world view but we believe in our relationship with the US and that is why we are genuinely shocked," one Indian official said earlier this week.
Relations between the US and India have long been rocky, though steadily improving since a nadir in the 1970s. Barack Obama received a warm welcome on his visit in 2010 when he described the two countries shared interests as the foundations of "a defining partnership for the 21st century". However there remains deep suspicion of Washington in Delhi, and in India more generally, and many US officials see India as a difficult partner.
Critics accuse Obama of failing to pay sufficient attention to ties with a country viewed as a key strategic counterbalance to China and an engine to boost the US economy, while American hopes of building a more robust business relationship with India have run into bureaucratic hurdles.
Frustration has grown among the US corporate lobby. Indian sourcing rules for retail, information technology, medicine and clean energy products are contentious and US firms complain about "unfair" imports from India of everything from shrimp to steel pipes. In June more than 170 US lawmakers signed a letter to Obama about Indian policies they said threatened American jobs.
Earlier this week Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, cited a 2008 deal with the US on civil nuclear power as one of the major achievements of his nine-year tenure. However implementation of the deal was blocked when Indian lawmakers passed crucial legislation affecting the liability of overseas firms investing in nuclear power in the south Asian country.
The arrest of Khobragade touches a range of sensitivities in India. Almost all middle-class households in India employ at least one, and often several, members of staff who will undertake tasks from cleaning and cooking to childcare and driving.
With few Indian diplomats paid wages that would allow them to legally employ local staff to perform such functions in postings in the west, the practice has long been for Indian workers to be flown out and paid rates that, if illegal in the US and elsewhere, would be generous at home.
Preet Bharara, the prosecutor in Khobragade's case, said last month: "In fact the Indian government itself has been aware of this legal issue and that its diplomats and consular officers were at risk of violating the law. The question then may be asked: is it for US prosecutors to look the other way, ignore the law and the civil rights of victims … or is it the responsibility of the diplomats and consular officers and their government to make sure the law is observed?"
There have been several previous incidents involving senior Indian diplomats in the US and domestic staff brought from India. In 2011 the Indian consul general, Prabhu Dayal, was accused by his maid of forced labour and sexual harassment, charges he called "complete nonsense" and that were later dropped.
A year earlier a US judge recommended that an Indian diplomat and her husband pay a maid nearly $1.5m in compensation for being forced to work without pay and suffering "barbaric treatment" in their luxury Manhattan apartment.
The US attorney handling the case, Preet Bharara, made the highly unusual move of issuing a lengthy statement addressing the arrest and issues not in a criminal complaint. He said Khobragade was afforded courtesies most Americans would not get, such as being allowed to make phone calls for two hours to arrange childcare and sort out personal matters, after she was arrested by state department agents outside the school that her children attend in Manhattan.
Bharara, who was born in India but moved with his family to New Jersey, defended his case. "One wonders whether any government would not take action regarding false documents being submitted to it in order to bring immigrants into the country," he said. "And one wonders why there is so much outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian national accused of perpetrating these acts, but precious little outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian victim and her spouse?"
Khobragade will now take up a post in Delhi, a statement from the Indian ministry of external affairs said.
"At the time of her departure for India, Counsellor Khobragade reiterated her innocence on charges filed against her. She affirmed her gratitude to the government of India, in particular to the external affairs minister, and the people of India, as also the media, for their strong and sustained support during this period," it said.