WASHINGTON: The row between India and the United States over the Devyani Khobragade episode is set to go all the way up to the White House. Secretary of state John Kerry is due to meet President Obama on Wednesday evening, even as bureaucracies on both sides have dug in their heels, leading to an impasse in the bitter face-off that has become more toxic with each passing day.
It is clear that political intervention at the highest level will be needed to break the deadlock. The opening comes on Wednesday when the President and the secretary have their first meeting after they repaired for holidays before Christmas. President Obama returned from Hawaii on Monday by which time Kerry had left for the Middle East.
Although no agenda is set for the 4.20pm meeting, Kerry will call on Obama soon after the swearing of Gregg Starr, assistant secretary for diplomatic security, who is one of the principals of the ongoing row.
It was at the instance of the bureau of diplomatic security, primed by the US embassy in New Delhi, that the case was initiated against Devyani Khobragade, ignoring the diplomat’s own legal initiative through courts in India to bring her housekeeper Sangeeta Richard, who was on the lam with an official Indian passport, to book.
The US insists that the diplomat broke its laws with false declarations in securing a visa for the housekeeper and underpaying her in New York and its laws should apply because as a consular official, she does not have full diplomatic immunity.
India maintains that the housekeeper is in effect an India government employee, under the charge of the diplomat. The wage dispute between the two is not a matter for the US to intervene since she is not taxed under US laws. Besides, New Delhi has argued belatedly, the diplomat had full diplomatic immunity at the arrest.
The case has now become incredibly complex, with questions not only over diplomatic immunity, jurisdiction, precedence etc, but also on social and cultural norms and differences between the two countries. The spat has virtually brought bilateral ties to a standstill with key visits, including that of US assistant secretary of state Nisha Desai Biswal and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, both due in New Delhi in January, now on hold.
President Obama has not spoken to the issue directly even once, although the White House has made some anodyne remarks about the importance of the relationship etc. The battle has now been joined in editorial columns of newspapers amid reports from New Delhi about punitive reprisals against the US embassy and missions in India, which India maintains are withdrawal of unilateral concessions that have not been reciprocated by Washington. This includes shutting down commercial activity by the US embassy in New Delhi.
The US media has been scathing about New Delhi’s response. “India is responding with investigations and administrative actions directed by the government for political ends — a tactic common in authoritarian states such as Russia or China but unworthy of a democracy,” Washington Post said in an editorial on Wednesday.
“Its bullying measures have ranged from the petty — withdrawing the US embassy’s permit to import alcohol — to the irresponsible — removing security barricades from the street in front of the facility,” it further said.