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Gotcha! Barricades, gays & poll position

New Delhi, Dec. 17: India today sent bulldozers to the domestic base of the mightiest country on the planet and a politician asked police to keep a gimlet eye on the bedrooms of American diplomats.

The outrage over the arrest of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade in New York has exploded on the diplomatic and political firmaments in unparalleled ways.

India threatened to strip American diplomats and missions here of privileges and immunity they enjoy, deployed bulldozers to remove barricades that regulated traffic in front of the embassy in Delhi and asked Americans to furnish details of pay in their establishments and schools.

The strikeback soon took a life of its own and transformed itself into a competitive sport in retaliation. Among those who refused to meet a US Congress delegation were Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi.

BJP leader and former foreign minister Yashwant Sinha suggested that “companions” of US officials should be booked for “same sex” in the light of the recent Supreme Court order.

Behind the bellicose posturing in an election season in which the government is keen to shed the image of weakness, India’s foreign policy establishment is also coming around to dealing with questionable practices exposed by the visa fraud charges against its colleague.

The external affairs ministry asked the US embassy and its consulates in Calcutta, Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad to return the official identity cards of all their diplomats, the first step in a review of their privileges.

Of those privileges, India has already decided to revoke exemption on customs duties and scrutiny of imported goods for US diplomats that all foreign envoys enjoy under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, unless Washington apologises, the officials said.

“We have put in motion what we believe would be an effective way of addressing the issue but also such steps that need to be taken to protect her dignity,” external affairs minister Salman Khurshid said.

Devyani was arrested on Thursday morning while dropping her daughter to school on charges of paying an Indian nanny, Sangeeta Richard, less than minimum wages, and far lower than the salary claimed on the help’s visa application that the Indian diplomat submitted.

But what has surprised India more than her arrest is how the US has responded to India’s protests.

India, the US, and most nations turn to the Vienna convention to argue for immunity from criminal prosecution when their diplomats face charges overseas. The US claimed immunity for CIA contractor Raymond Allen Davis in Pakistan in 2011 when he was accused of murdering two men in Lahore. Davis eventually left Pakistan after the US paid $2.4 million to the families of the men he killed.

On Friday, when foreign secretary Sujatha Singh summoned US ambassador Nancy Powell to register India’s protest, New Delhi had expected Washington to come out with a statement terming Devyani’s arrest, at the very least, “unfortunate”.

“That would have given us a face-saver and allowed for the amicable resolution of the case,” an official said.

Instead, the US state department last evening asserted that Washington had not violated the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and consular ties, contending that it only granted immunity from prosecution over acts committed by diplomats in their line of duty.

Within hours of the state department statement, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s office approved the decision to review privileges and immunities early this morning, officials said.

Delhi police removed barricades that were placed outside the US embassy in the capital’s diplomatic enclave to slow down any vehicles laden with explosives that may attack the mission.

But officials asserted that India continues to provide the US mission security in the form of a Delhi police check post just outside the embassy. US missions in Asia are known to be high on the target list of terror groups and the responsibility for a mission’s safety and security lies with the host nation —India in this case — under the Vienna convention.

India is acting under the Diplomatic Relations (Vienna Convention) Act that Parliament passed in 1972 to allow New Delhi to enforce the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

“We are clear that the US authorities violated the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, and if they don’t see their treatment of Devyani Khobragade as a violation, we are prepared to extend the same level or courtesy — or discourtesy — to them,” the official said.

Indian officials have long suspected — but looked away from — possible violations of visa norms by teachers and other employees at the American schools run by US missions in India.

Today, the foreign ministry asked the US embassy to submit salary slips and visa documents of all these school employees.

Away from this tit-for-tat treatment of American diplomats here, Indian officials have also begun evaluating how to contain practices that allegedly led to Devyani’s arrest but that are common among Indian diplomats posted in the West.

It is well accepted within the foreign policy establishment that it is not uncommon for Indian diplomats to take housemaids and nannies with them to foreign postings, especially in the West, and pay them far lower than what they claim on the visa applications of the domestic hands.

Devyani claimed in the nanny’s visa application that she would pay her $4,500 a month — closer to or higher than what the diplomat herself earns.

“We are expected to host dinners, for which we need Indian cooks, but we simply cannot afford to pay them American salaries,” an official said, clarifying that he personally chose not to take an Indian help with him during his foreign postings to the West because he was aware of possible violations. “It’s the same when it comes to household helps or nannies.”

But officials recognise that the embarrassment that follows allegations like the ones against Devyani tarnish the image of the nation’s diplomatic corps.

By this morning though, the dispute evolved into a political match between the ruling Congress and the Opposition BJP, with both trying to convey a harder stance against the US.

Congress vice-president Rahul and home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde refused to meet a US Congress team visiting India, a day after Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar and the national security adviser skipped planned meetings with the delegation in protest.

The BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, denied a visa by the US, also tweeted that he “refused to meet the visiting USA delegation in solidarity with our nation”.