New Delhi, Dec. 19: Sujatha Singh had summoned the American ambassador a day before but the foreign secretary was not expecting the 30 guests last Saturday who in three hours would help shape India’s unusually muscular response to the arrest of diplomat Devyani Khobragade.
India’s foreign policy establishment was planning to wait over the weekend for Washington to respond to Singh’s decision to summon ambassador Nancy Powell on Friday — its strongest protest in over a decade against the US.
Khobragade, arrested on Thursday morning, had been released the same day, and there appeared no immediate desperation to make additional public statements of displeasure.
But on Saturday, about 30 young Indian Foreign Service officers turned up at Singh’s Pandit Uma Shankar Dixit residence in New Delhi’s diplomatic enclave, around 2km from the US embassy.
They were hurt and angry at the arrest and mistreatment of their colleague by the US marshals in New York, and wanted to join the top echelons of the foreign ministry in planning a response.
Singh broke with the rigid rank-based barriers that define most Indian government departments, heard them out, and engaged with them in a rare three-hour brainstorming session over cups of tea and coffee that veteran diplomats are struggling to remember parallels to.
“And what you’ve seen over the past week has been a definite result of that session, one where we drew not just on our diplomatic sense but also on the ideas and pain of younger colleagues,” a senior official aware of the meeting and the conversations revealed to The Telegraph.
Bulldozers yanking away American embassy barricades, a stern threat to withdraw immunities and a willingness to put one of New Delhi’s most successful and cherished relationships on the line — India’s response to Khobragade’s arrest has surprised many.
But it was not only closed-door meetings involving national security adviser Shivshankar Menon, foreign secretary Singh, other top diplomats and their political bosses which forged India’s strategy that on Friday appeared to have started yielding results.
“Many of the best ideas we applied over this week came from that brainstorming session,” an official said. “It was expected to last perhaps an hour at the most, but it went on for three hours on Saturday.”
One of these ideas was the decision to move Khobragade to India’s permanent mission to the UN in New York to give her greater immunity from possible attempts to arrest her again, the officials said.
Singh was surprised, the officials said, by the number of IFS officers — in their 30s and 40s — who came to her on Saturday. “She and all of us were expecting about a dozen officers, but the fact that so many turned up shows the level of anger, hurt and a desire to proactively intervene that they felt,” an official said.
Young IFS officers who attended the meeting said the foreign secretary was herself hurt — and not just at the way Khobragade was treated.
She, officials said, was convinced that state department officials she met in Washington during a visit that ended the day the diplomat was arrested, knew about the charges against Khobragade, and possibly of the plans to arrest her, but never discussed the case with her.
Singh returned to India on December 12, the very day Khobragade was arrested.