New Delhi: A diplomatic war reminiscent of cold war days has broken out between India and the United States of America. It is now threatening the warm relationship developed between two countries over the past 10-15 years. In a strong response to the arrest of a young Indian woman diplomat Devyani Khobragade in New York, India is now even refusing to entertain a high level visiting US Congress delegation. In an unprecedented move, India has even asked all US diplomats serving in India to surrender their Identity Cards.
India is describing the arrest as an insult to the country's sovereignty. The strip searching and handcuffing of Devyani added fuel to the fire.
But the US administration is maintaining that the action was necessary due to nature of the crime allegedly committed by Devyani. It says as per the US laws, submitting false papers is a very serious crime and the offender faces up to 15 years behind bars.
Devyani Khobragade, a mid-ranking, young diplomat currently posted as Deputy Consul General for Political, Economic, Commercial and Women's Affairs was arrested by the New York police on Thursday. The US authorities accused her of helping the Indian nanny in submitting fake documents to the US State Department saying that she was paying $4,500 per month, when in reality, the nanny or the domestic help got only $573 a month. Devyani had hired the nanny in 2012 and she was working as a babysitter and domestic help at her house in the upscale Manhattan area of New York till last June.
According to New York Times the diplomat is accused of telling the woman to lie on her visa application to get to the United States and say she was going to be paid the higher amount. Then, Khobragade allegedly had the woman sign a second, under-the-radar contract that noted the nanny's monthly salary including overtime - the much smaller amount. The nanny and her husband, who were not named, are serving as witnesses in the case.
As per the US laws which are extremely hard on human exploitation and human trafficking, Devyani has committed a very serious crime. The Manhattan US Attorney of Indian origin Preet Barara who has ordered the arrest of Devyani terms the charges as very serious. Talking to the media he said, "This type of fraud on the USA and exploitation of an individual will not be tolerated."
According to him she has been charged with one count each of visa fraud and making false statements. Devyani is now out on bail. Her lawyer Daniel Arshack claims that she enjoys diplomatic immunity and she can't be prosecuted under the US law.
But US authorities are maintaining that she does not enjoy diplomatic immunity and the judiciary is independent like India. It is denying that the proper procedure was not followed the arrest.
"Our Diplomatic Security folks followed our standard procedures, which I'm assuming are standard for diplomats because that's who our Diplomatic Security deals with," a US State Department spokesman said.
According to a US news agency report the US spokesman added that under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, the Indian Deputy Consul General enjoys immunity from the jurisdiction of US courts only with respect to acts performed in the exercise of consular functions.
"There are different kinds of immunity. This isn't just in the US; it's all around the world. So in this case, she fell under that specific kind of immunity, and would be liable to arrest pending trial pursuant a felony arrest warrant," says US State department complicating the matters for India.
Devyani's arrest has rattled the Indian Diplomatic Corps. It is forcing the government to hit back at the US. According to Indian diplomats serving in the Western countries, paying lesser than what is actually on official papers is a common practice among the Indian diplomats. They claim that the salary fixed by the US government is too high for the Indian diplomats.
They argue that they can't afford to pay $4500 (approximately Rs 2.80 lakh per month) to a domestic help or a nanny as the salary of most of the diplomats is around Rs 3 lakh per month. Devyani herself is getting not more than Rs 4 lakh per month. They are demanding that the US State department should not apply such illogical rules to Indian diplomats.
A serving diplomat on the condition of anonymity said, "These US laws are stupid. How can a mid-ranking diplomat pay Rs 2.5-3 lakh to her nanny? We don't get paid millions of dollars. Our government must make it clear to the US government or it should pay the salary stipulated by the US."
According to experts, in the US, the judiciary is independent and the government interference is not tolerated. Moreover, Attorney Preet Barara wants to prove that he is more American than the original Americans by taking on Indians accused of committing a crime. They even mention the Rajat Gupta incident.
Legally speaking, as per the US laws Devyani is in a big trouble. India can't do much as it concerns the US laws, which is paramount for the host country. She can escape from the clutches of the US laws, only if the Indian government forces the American government to extend diplomatic immunity to her. Even if she survives, chances of her continuing to work there or going back to the US again look bleak.
The collateral damage of the whole row is Indo-US relations.