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India unleashes bulldozer on US
Hitback after diplomat arrest

New Delhi, Dec. 17: India has threatened to strip American diplomats and missions here of privileges and immunity they enjoy, in retaliation to the arrest of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade in New York that has triggered tensions unseen in over a decade between the strategic allies.

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

The ministry of external affairs today 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, senior officials here told The Telegraph.

Of those privileges, India has already decided to revoke an 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 and also such steps that need to be taken to protect her dignity,” external affairs minister Salman Khurshid said.

Khobragade 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. She was released on a bail bond of US$ 250,000 paid by the Indian mission in New York, but India has described her arrest as “humiliation” that is “unacceptable”.

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 diplomatic 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.

Instead, the US state department on Monday evening asserted that Washington had not violated the Vienna convention, arguing that it only grants 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 to slow down any vehicles laden with explosives that may attack the mission. Also, the foreign ministry asked the US embassy to submit salary slips and visa documents of all employees of schools run by the US mission.

But behind this tit-for-tat harassment of American diplomats here, Indian officials have also begun evaluating how to contain practices that allegedly led to Khobragade’s arrest, but that are common among Indian diplomats posted in the west.

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 helps.

Khobragade claimed in the nanny’s visa application that she would pay her US$ 4,500 a month — higher than her own salary, closer to US$ 4,000.

“We are expected to host dinners, for which we need Indian cooks, but we simply cannot afford to pay them American salaries,” another official said.