New Delhi: Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid backed Indian Deputy Consul Devyani Khobragade saying she's not guilty of any charge. Speaking to CNN-IBN's Karan Thapar, Khurshid said Khobragade has not committed any infraction of the law.
Here is the full transcript of the interview:
Karan Thapar: Hello and welcome to a special Devil's Advocate interview with Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid, the day after Devyani khobragade returned to India hopefully concluding a sorry chapter in Indo-US relations. Foreign minister, lets start with Devyani Khobragade issue before we widen the discussion. Has it been satisfactorily resolved or has India been forced to climb down from its initial rigid position and seek a compromise deal.
Salman Khurshid: I don't want to get into words like compromise and deal and climb down and defeat and victory. It's an incident that shouldn't have happened for variety of reasons it happened, we have to find some resolution. I think we found at least immediate concerns of the energised and I think fairly in terms of the cooperation we had from the United States government but there are lot more still to do. But I think there is no reason one should get excited or concern. We will address things as they come along.
Karan Thapar: I certainly want to talk about the more that is left to do but let me first draw your attention to what you colleague Kamal Nath said on the 20th of December. He said that America will have to drop charges and apologise. Neither has happened - charges haven't been dropped, America hasn't apologised.
Salman Khurshid: Well I think he expressed feelings all of us had and in fact widely felt across the country. He articulated those feelings and he was good enough to touch pace with me having done that.
Karan Thapar: Except he ended up setting a very high standard and that high standard has clearly not been not achieved.
Salman Khurshid:I am not saying that today is the last day of the world. We are in conversation.
Karan Thapar: You mean you are still hopeful for an apology?
Salman Khurshid: I am just saying we are in conversation, we would like to clean up this thing completely to the satisfaction of both sides. Whatever I believe is necessary from our point of view in terms of assistance that we give to the United States and whatever we have an expectation of viz-a-viz them are all part of the conversation.
Karan Thapar: But here is the situation actually as follows. After the United States extended full diplomatic immunity to Devyani Khobragade they also asked you to withdraw that immunity so that they could press charges against, you refused and in turn the United States asked you to withdraw Khobragade. What you ended up with looks very much like a compromise deal between the two countries, not a clear win for India.
Salman Khurshid: As I said to you I don't use the words victory, win, defeat
Karan Thapar: Isn't that because you can't?
Salman Khurshid: No, that's the way I work and that's the way we are. These are matters on which there are standard procedures within the diplomatic relationships that we have and there are conventions for these. There is Vienna convention. So, there may be an issue about interpreting the Vienna convention for consular services and consular immunities but having set that, that's what the conversation about.
Karan Thapar: But look at the situation that you confront today. The charges that were brought against Devyani Khobragade have now been transformed into a formal indictment. So let me as Foreign Minister of India ask you is she guilty of visa fraud and deliberately misleading the United States of false statements?
Salman Khurshid: No, I have maintained throughout that that's not the case.
Karan Thapar: You are absolutely sure of that or you are simply saying because she is a foreign service officer?
Salman Khurshid: Not at all. I am saying this as a lawyer. My understanding of simple procedures of law is that she is not guilty.
Karan Thapar: Of either charge?
Salman Khurshid: Of either charge. But there is a system in the United States under which they have proceeded and I can't question the system. But if you are asking me for my opinion, I am giving you my frank opinion that I don't believe that she has committed any infraction of the law.
Karan Thapar: The indictment which is now known in public clearly says that Khobragade deliberately misled the US embassy in India with a fraudulent employment contract and secondly that she coached the maid Sangeeta Richard to lie at Sangeeta Richards interview for a visa.
Salman Khurshid: I am not sure that I want to go into specifics of something that is sub-judice. I have seen the form in which the application was made and I think the first simple premise is that the column would say salary. It's not clear to anyone. Even if I am filling the form I could have made a mistake. It's not clear whether the salary is of the employer or the employee.
Karan Thapar: Whose salary is $4500 a month?
Salman Khurshid: It's the employer's salary.
Karan Thapar: That's Khobragade's salary?
Salman Khurshid: Of course.
Karan Thapar: Khobragade earns $4500 a month?
Salman Khurshid: She must, I mean I am not an accountant .
Karan Thapar: When I asked officials of your ministry, they said she clearly doesn't.
Salman Khurshid: No. What she earns what she doesn't earn and who said what said I am not getting into it. But that is not as I understand and I was told that is not the salary of the employee. But that still get us anywhere. What is the salary of the employee is apparent on the various contracts that they have.
Karan Thapar: Preet Bharara, the prosecuting attorney has very clearly said that in the indictment that figure $4500 is neither the salary of Sangeeta Richard or she was paid is hugely less than that and he also seriously questions whether it is the salary of Khobragade as well. Therefore, I put it to you whose salary is that?
Salman Khurshid: Let's just put it like this that I am not here to respond to the gentlemen that you have mentioned. My job is to respond to the states department.
Karan Thapar: Respond to me, whose salary is $4500?
Salman Khurshid: No, why should I respond to you? Because this is a matter that is sub-judice even if the trial does not takes place. It is a matter that is sub-judice and I am sure when we do a re-briefing with our diplomat we will come up with all the details that we advisedly can put out in the public.
Karan Thapar: In other words you have to find out from Khobragade whose salary was it referred to when she wrote $4500?
Salman Khurshid: I don't have to find out. I am saying a re-briefing after an incident like this must take place, it will take place and then what needs to be put in the public domain, we will put in public domain.
Karan Thapar: The problem that you face in the moment is this. A diplomat whom you believe is innocent faces criminal charges in America which hasn't been dropped. What do you gonna do about that?
Salman Khurshid: Well, they can wait 30 years. I mean she may not go back to the US for 30 years. I don't think this is something on which I need to speculate. I think we will have as I said continuing conversation about this thing, there will be lot of other things to sort out and in the conversation about lot of other things perhaps we will discuss something about dropping of charges as well.
Karan Thapar: But this is not just a question of relationships between India and America or the situation concerning a Indian foreign service officer. It is actually a personal problem for Khobragade because her husband and children are American citizens and she can't go to that country.
Salman Khurshid: Of course it is. I think for USA they must also keep in mind that her children, her family, her husband are American citizens. They must also keep that in mind humanitarian concerns.
Karan Thapar: Preet Bharara certainly has made it clear whenever she is coming without immunity he will prosecute her.
Salman Khurshid: He may not be there. Lets not talk about an individual who believes is doing his duty, other people may have a different opinion about him, but I am not going to engage with the gentlemen you have mentioned.
Karan Thapar: You are hoping that the American system will sort out the problem for you both with the passage of time and perhaps with some wisdom with hindsight?
Salman Khurshid: That's one way of looking at it. I think why one should not be hopeful?
Karan Thapar: Are you not being too optimistic?
Salman Khurshid: No, I am just being hopeful. You just asked me are you hopeful and I said yes. Are you talking about being optimistic I don't think it's fair to be optimistic. Optimistic I can be in personal terms but in terms of being professional responsibility I can at best be hopeful.
Karan Thapar: Lets widen the discussion. Lets move to the under specifics to what happened to the Khobragade issue and let me put this to you. Today with hindsight do you believe that over the last three weeks the Indian government acted and behaved properly, incorrectly or can you accept that perhaps certain mistakes of judgment were made?
Salman Khurshid: Rest on my impression and if I were to come to a conclusion that there were judgmental mistakes made, I would correct them, but that's not my impression.
Karan Thapar: No judgemental mistakes at all?
Salman Khurshid: Well I am not able to come to any such conclusion
Karan Thapar: Let me tell you why I asked that question. In an interview to the 'Times of India' in December, Nisha Biswas the new American Assistant Secretary of state made it clear that as far back as September, the state department in writing had informed the Indian Embassy in Washington that there were serious allegations against Devyani Khobragade and that action under the American law was likely an imminent. Should you not have withdrawn her at that stage?
Salman Khurshid: No, why should we withdrawn unless they tell us that it's appropriate to withdraw. After all they said us now.
Karan Thapar: But if they are saying action under law is imminent, do you want diplomat to face action?
Salman Khurshid: You can say action is imminent and the other person can assume that the action that is imminent cannot be executed because there is immunity particularly if you are in conversation. Let's not forget when lot of these incidents happened our foreign secretary was in the USA actually consulting and engaging in dialogue with the States department.
Karan Thapar: You said two very important things that I want to take out. First of all you are saying that even though you had been informed that action was imminent you didn't believe that the action would involve the sort of steps America took.
Salman Khurshid: Absolutely.
Karan Thapar: Wasn't that a wrong judgment on your part?
Salman Khurshid: Not a wrong judgment at all. If there was a wrong judgement why would I heard secretary Kerry say that he regretted what has happened.
Karan Thapar: Regret is not an apologising.
Salman Khurshid: I am not getting into apology. I am just saying why would somebody in a position like his said that I regret this happened. Now I am not regretting, he's regretting. Now if that's the case you can't say that judgmental errors are on our side.
Karan Thapar: He may have simply meant when he said I regret what happened that I regret the situation reached this point whether this sort of action became inevitable.
Salman Khurshid: Well I didn't regret.
Karan Thapar: Regret mean we are someway sorry for that.
Salman Khurshid: I am not saying whether he meant sorry or he didn't mean sorry. When I meet him, I am sure we will have a chance to talk about this, but at least he did say that he regretted it.
Karan Thapar: Or you may be over interpreting the word regret?
Salman Khurshid: No, not at all. I am just happy that he used the word regret.
Karan Thapar: Lets come back to this question of judgment call. It seems to me that when you concede you were informed in writing that action under American law was imminent. The belief that this action would not be of the sort that happened, was in fact a mistake you should have envisioned that there will be something serious?
Salman Khurshid: Let me just talk here. To say that you were informed, action was imminent etc is perhaps reading too much into information that you have. We have a series of conversations with them. There are a lot of exchanges that took place for them and on the basis of all those exchanges I don't think that we could in any reasonable way have come to a conclusion that this is what would happen.
Karan Thapar: A second thing that was inherent in you earlier answer was the fact that your Foreign Secretary was in America 24 hours before this issue happened. This wasn't made something clear to her.
Salman Khurshid: Was not even mentioned.
Karan Thapar: Therefore did that made you to believe that Americans didn't intend anything seriously. Therefore, this wasn't a problem we were waiting to happen.
Salman Khurshid: We had no reasons to even reflect upon it because when you have foreign secretary level talks and if there is something of a serious nature and this I would have imagine everyone would think is of a serious nature, its brought up. It is brought up.
Karan Thapar: Do you feel Americans should have forewarned Sujatha Singh when she was in America?
Salman Khurshid: Well I think it would have been appropriate for this reason that whatever we have done today and we have done today this today not in an clandestine manner, we have done this today because the Americans have very explicitly cooperated. The same thing could have been done three months ago.
Karan Thapar: In other words you feel Americans themselves are responsible for not handling this properly, they are responsible for poor judgment?
Salman Khurshid: They must judge whether it was a poor judgment or a good judgment. For the two countries that have invested so much in a relationship that is extremely valuable relationship describe it as a strategic partnership, I think that if you have a inkling or a sense that something like this will unfold, you should take the quickest steps that you can to ensure that it doesn't happen.
Karan Thapar: If the Americans had taken those steps when Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh was in Washington, would India at that stage have heard them and perhaps voluntarily withdrawn Khobradage?
Salman Khurshid: Perhaps that happens all the time. All the time when you have two friendly countries find something is becoming untenable then you cooperate with each other. And that's not a big thing to ask somebody if there's an untenable situation to ask somebody to move from there. But if a larger principle is involved and the larger principle still needs to be discussed and still needs to be resolved
Karan Thapar: I will come to the larger principle in moments, but you are saying something very important. You are saying that the Americans had forewarned you and given you an opportunity to withdraw Khobradage you might have done it; they didn't, they precipitated a crisis as a result of which this problem happened.
Salman Khurshid:It's obvious, I mean that's what happened. But whether they had facted a scene or whether they are actually reflected, whether they had at that moment sense that this might happen, this might unfold in this manner
b>Karan Thapar: They too did not realise how far the situation could go.
Salman Khurshid: Perhaps they did not.
Karan Thapar: That's the second possible misjudgment on their part?
Salman Khurshid: Ya, perhaps.
Karan Thapar: Lets come to the retaliatory action you took the US embassy and US diplomats in this country. Security barricades outside the embassy removed.
Salman Khurshid: We did not remove any barricade security because the security is paramount. We did not remove security barricades but there are other conveniences that inconveniences to ourselves.
Karan Thapar: You took a whole lot of action. Even if you are disputing the removal of security barricades, you certainly placed restrictions on their import privileges, you strip them off the airport clearances, you did demand cheques on commercial activity.
Salman Khurshid: We did what really is the formal procedures that applies to everybody.
Karan Thapar: I am not disputing on with you on what you did.
Salman Khurshid: If they were friends taking extra concessions, those extra concessions may have been discretionary given to them from time to time. When you take stalk of what are entitlements and what are your obligations at times it becomes important that you put everything in line
Karan Thapar: Lets not quarrel over what you did and did not do. I want to put two specific questions to you. Firstly, many in India felt that insight you have overdone, that you had overreacted. With hindsight would you accept that perhaps your retaliation was too strong?
Salman Khurshid: No, it wasn't retaliation. I think it's an appropriate response not retaliation. It was a response. A response was to do a quick housekeeping account of what are our obligations and what are our concessions and discretions that we have for each other.
Karan Thapar: Can I quote you what the 'Indian Express' said the day after your retaliation was announced? The absolute abandonment of sovereignty reason and responsibility in reacting to charges against Khobradage speaks very poorly of India's foreign services.
Salman Khurshid:I am feeling exactly the same way about the 'Indian Express' by the way.
Karan Thapar: And that's all you going to say?
Salman Khurshid: Ya.
Karan Thapar: Or it a sort of tit for tat between the two of you?
Salman Khurshid: Between me and the express? No, I think 'Indian Express' has earned itself this description.
Karan Thapar: But the Express is not the only paper to be critical, the 'Hindu' has been critical, the 'Times of India' has been critical
Salman Khurshid: May be so. You just brought some words to my attention and I am so grateful that I didn't have to exert myself to find those words. Those words expressed very well what my impression is about the 'Indian Express'.
Karan Thapar: Today, when people believe that some sort of resolution has come to the Khobragade issue. Are you prepared to restore the privileges you revoked from the American Embassy and the diplomat?
Salman Khurshid: Why you call them privileges? These are standard procedures that are available to diplomats and all diplomats. I don't think that we should be seen at showing more favour to one or less favour to another.
Karan Thapar: So you are saying that the privileges that you revoked won't be handed back?
Salman Khurshid: Whatever we will do will be within the four walls and the four corners of our diplomatic policies based on the reciprocity and on mutual respects for other fairly countries.
Karan Thapar: If I read you correctly then you are saying that here after the relationship in terms of privileges, perks and immunities granted to Americans will be a) on the basis of reciprocity, they will get in India what we get in Washington. Secondly, they won't get anything more than what is given to other diplomats of other countries.
Salman Khurshid: Well I can only speak for myself that I can only be fair. I can't show favour to one over another. I must be fair if something in accounting appears us to be excessive or going beyond what are standard procedures, then obviously we need to ensure that we fall in line.
Karan Thapar: How much damage has the Khobragade issue has done to Indo- US relationship?
Salman Khurshid: None I hope, but you know there is always a taste in mouth of our relationship.
Karan Thapar: It is a very bad taste at the moment.
Salman Khurshid: Well, if it is, we need to get something to change the taste and I think that will happen because the content of our relationship and the basic core of our relationship is very-very strong and it is strong because there is a mutual commitment to the relationship. And I have emphasized this throughout this mini crisis, might call it a mini crisis, that I have emphasized throughout that the overwhelming concern is that our relationship remains intact because we value it, cherish it, and we believe it to be a very-very important relationship.
Karan Thapar: Isn't there a contradiction in your answer? First of all you say there is no damage to the relationship and then you say there is a mini crisis. How can a mini crisis not have damaged the relationship?
Salman Khurshid: That's the art of diplomacy when there is crisis.
Karan Thapar: Or the art of denial?
Salman Khurshid: No, diplomacy includes an art denial by the way.
Karan Thapar: So are you denying in public that there is a damage even though damage has been done?
Salman Khurshid: I am being diplomatic and I don't believe, but I will be fair with you and honest with you that I don't believe damage has been done.
Karan Thapar: You don't believe?
Salman Khurshid: I don't believe damage has been done and I do believe that if at all there is a sense of damage we must address it right away.
Karan Thapar: Let me quote Nirupama Rao, India's Ambassador in Washington when the Khobragade issue was first developing and she was right there up till November. She has tweeted, 'This incident has created a deep crater in the bilateral relationship'. She believes that damage has been done.
Salman Khurshid: She is not the foreign minister, she is somebody on the ground who felt.
Karan Thapar: She was your chief representative in November.
Salman Khurshid: Of course of course, who must have felt having seen an outstanding two years in which she served as our ambassador, outstanding two years why are we now having to see this, and therefore it must have from where she was, it must have got magnified and looked much larger. But I think we put everything in perspective and see it with a cool head, you can contain this crater as a little pimpo and then cover it because we do believe that on both sides there is very strong commitment to ensure that we get back on track, business as usual and that if anything we enhance our relationship to our levels.
Karan Thapar: My last question and I am going to pick up on that last thought. What is that you Salman Khurshid as Foreign Minister and you may have only three months more in that job can do to restore the relationship to the position it was at before the Khobragade issue brought it tumbling down?
Salman Khurshid: Well lets see, I mean I think we need to analyse what exactly has happened what more needs to be done. I am sure the Americans will come back with some ideas, some suggestions and we will respond positively. I can assure you that the intense and the commitment is very positive.
Karan Thapar: So Salman Khurshid, the Foreign Minister is determined to restore the relationship to whatever high level it was at before this problem happened.
Salman Khurshid: To sustain it, I don't think that I will use the word restore is necessary. I think to sustain it is what's important.
Salman Khurshid, a pleasure talking to you.