Ahead of Nancy Powell’s resignation, India warned US ties could be hit

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NEW DELHI: Ahead of US ambassador Nancy Powell’s resignation, India had officially and specifically communicated to Washington that any further consequential steps after the re-indictment of diplomat Devyani Khobragade was going to seriously hurt bilateral ties.

The disclosure shows how desperately India has been looking at the US to address the issue at the political level. It didn’t, however, directly question the role of Powell despite reservations about the conduct of the US embassy in the Devyani affair and also subsequent investigations into alleged tax violations by American Embassy School (AES) here.

The gist of the message conveyed diplomatically, according to officials here, was not very different from a statement issued earlier by the foreign ministry about how relations between the two countries could be impacted. It followed US prosecutors’ decision to again indict Khobragade despite a court ruling that the visa fraud charges against her didn’t hold in the face of her diplomatic immunity.

It is no secret that the government developed an intense disdain for the embassy after it realized how Khobragade’s maid Sangeeta Richard’s family was flown to New York by US officials based here just before the diplomat was arrested and strip-searched.

Despite being in a damage control mode after the uproar here, the embassy under Powell apparently didn’t do enough to address India’s concerns, especially over New Delhi’s demand for more transparency into the functioning of the prestigious American Embassy School (AES).

India put the school under tax scrutiny allegedly in retaliation to the Khobragade episode and after discovering that the school violated tax laws by asking female spouses of teachers to not disclose in their visa applications that they planned to work with AES. New York Times has now reported that as many as 20 teachers may have left the school because of the investigations.

According to Indian officials, the embassy has continued to evade tax queries. It is here that the government believes Powell could have done more to address India’s concerns.

“The US embassy continues to refrain from responding to queries about the visa status and the tax status of the AES staff despite passage of more than three months. This obviously has led to a standstill on the issue even though we think that this is a matter that can and should be expeditiously resolved so that we can address other issues,” said an official here, adding that Powell’s decision to retire was not going to impact the investigations in any way.

According to PTI, New York Times has said in a report that administrators at the American Embassy School have “quietly admitted” that the school undertook a variety of tax-avoidance schemes for years, including one in which they instructed some female teachers whose husbands also worked at the school to list their occupations on visa applications as “housewife”.

Given the revelations about the school, Indian officials are refusing to renew teacher visas till the case is resolved, it said.

The report said that unless the issue is resolved, nearly a quarter of the school’s teaching staff could be forced to leave before classes end in June. “If the controversy remains unsettled into the fall, the school widely considered one of the best international schools in the world and a key recruiting tool here could close,” it added.

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