A lone biker rides past the American embassy in New Delhi on Wednesday, a day after the barricades on Nyaya Marg were removed, leaving tell-tale white stains on the road; (bottom) cars ply on the 150-metre stretch. Pictures by Ramakant Kushwaha
New Delhi, Dec. 18: Pull out the flags, puff those chests. India may not have recovered Aksai Chin from the Chinese or a chunk of Kashmir grabbed by Pakistan 66 years back, but it has snatched back a piece of land — or road — from the mightiest of all, the United States.
India’s decision to remove barricades planted outside the US embassy yesterday has opened up a 150-metre long stretch in the heart of the capital’s diplomatic enclave that was inaccessible for vehicular commuters for the past 12 years.
The changes on Nyaya Marg are being claimed as reciprocal for America’s stout refusal to accept Indian security concerns for its diplomats in Washington after the US withdrew a diplomatic parking slot from the Indian embassy there this January.
But the timing — in the middle of a raging row over the arrest by US federal authorities of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade in New York last week — suggests public retaliation rare in ties between New Delhi and Washington.
And the muscular method – using bulldozers to lift aside barricades blocking Nyaya Marg and to prise out rubber and plastic speed bumps and rumble strips nailed into the road by US authorities — hints at an attempt to send a message to Washington, itself frequently accused of bulldozing tactics.
“Unfortunately, this is the only language the Americans understand,” a retired Indian diplomat who worked out of India’s mission in Washington told The Telegraph, requesting anonymity because he is still involved in back-channel diplomacy projects between India and the US.
Nyaya Marg houses the embassies of the US, France and China on one side, and the embassies of Switzerland and Sweden on the other. But none of these missions faces the US embassy.
In early 2002, India agreed to allow the US to block the 150m stretch of Nyaya Marg that stretches from the end of the French embassy compound to a roundabout where the road meets Panchsheel Marg.
Al Qaida had just carried out the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, and India — itself a victim of terror — was keen to demonstrate that it understood the challenges posed by modern terror groups.
Over the past decade, al Qaida and other terror groups — including the Pakistan Taliban and its offshoots — have on multiple occasions attacked strategic targets by ramming trucks or cars loaded with explosives into buildings and complexes.
The Indian embassy compound in Kabul has itself been a target of such an attack, and just this August, its consulate in Jalalabad was attacked by terrorists who drove up to the complex in a car, and attempted to force their way in.
The barricades and the speed bumps would slow down any such vehicular attack, allowing the six police pickets that also line this stretch to respond.
From 2002 till yesterday, only pedestrians could use the blocked stretch of road that has the entry gate to the visa application section of the US embassy — the most frequented part of the mission.
The removal of the speed barriers has triggered concerns both among US diplomats — one told this newspaper she thought the move “totally over the top” — and among sections in India.
“Security has to be above political/diplomatic scraps,” the Jammu and Kashmir chief minister tweeted. “I’m all for reciprocity but removal of US embassy security barriers is taking things too far.”
But India has asserted that it is not risking the security of the US embassy or its diplomats.
The diplomatic task force — a special Delhi police team tasked with securing the diplomatic enclave that houses most foreign missions — continues to monitor the threat perception for the US embassy, and provide adequate security, a security official confirmed.
Mobile Delhi police teams also roam around the enclave round-the-clock.
“Ensuring their safety and security is our responsibility, and we will fulfil our responsibility within the parameters of Indian law,” external affairs ministry spokesperson and joint secretary Syed Akbaruddin said today.
But India is also hurting from what it perceives as insensitivity by Washington to a demand earlier this year.
In January, Washington authorities took away a diplomatic parking slot in front of the Indian embassy there, converting it into a public space instead.
Indian ambassador Nirupama Rao complained to the state department, arguing that the move posed a threat to the safety and security of the Indian mission that, like American embassies, is also high on the target list of terror groups.
The ministry of external affairs also articulated its concerns to the US embassy in New Delhi, but the parking lot remains outside the Indian embassy’s space. Khobragade’s arrest gave India the excuse to strike back.