New Delhi, Dec. 19: India has formally told the US that it must unconditionally drop all charges against Devyani Khobragade if it wants to restore normality in relations hit by the 39-year-old diplomat’s arrest last week.
National security adviser Shivshankar Menon told US secretary of state John Kerry last night that India demanded the closure of any case against Khobragade to resolve the dispute, top officials aware of the conversation have told The Telegraph.
Kerry had called Menon to express regret for the manner in which Khobragade, a mother of two young daughters, was allegedly treated after her arrest, referring to his own daughters to articulate that he “empathises” with the Indian diplomat.
But Menon told Kerry that while India acknowledges his call to express regret that alone will not suffice to restore relations to the elevated rhetoric used by both nations in recent years, summed up by President Barack Obama’s description of a “defining partnership for the 21st century”.
“This was made very clear by the NSA to the secretary of state in their phone conversation last night,” a senior official said. “And that remains our position — regret is good, but is not close to enough.”
Foreign minister Salman Khurshid is expected to iterate India’s demand that all charges against Khobragade be dropped in a phone conversation he is expected to have soon with Kerry. The US secretary of state, who is on a tour of Asia-Pacific nations, had yesterday wanted to speak with Khurshid, his counterpart, but the Indian minister, officials said, was not available.
“Our relationship has a lot of investment, it is not an irreversible matter and we have to deal with it sensibly,” Khurshid said today. “We have already indicated that the charges are unfounded and must be dropped. I want this reversed quickly.”
A definite indication of whether the US administration — President Barack Obama and the state department headed by Kerry — intends to further de-escalate tensions with India may come within a few days.
India has moved Khobragade, who was arrested on December 12 on charges of defrauding US immigration officials by claiming to pay her Indian nanny more than she actually did, from its New York consulate to its permanent UN mission in the same city.
Khobragade, who was deputy consul-general at the New York mission, will enjoy higher level of immunity under the Vienna Convention for Diplomatic Relations at the UN mission that expressly bars any arrest or detention.
But her accreditation to the UN mission — which India is working on — needs an approval from the state department.
“It’s a tricky choice for them,” another official here, who has previously served in the US, said. “On the one hand, they have to consider the fact that there is a case against her and they are effectively granting her immunity from any action they can take against her.
“But on the other hand, there’s this realisation we want to bring upon them that they could seriously derail the India-US relationship if they deny her clearance,” the official said.
Manhattan’s US attorney Preet Bharara, who is pursuing the case against Khobragade, said in a fresh statement that he stands by his decision to arrest the diplomat, and indicated he had no plans to drop charges against her.
But Bharara’s statement added another layer to the dispute because he confirmed that the US flew out the husband and daughters of Sangeeta Richard, the Indian nanny who is absconding since June 23, because of fears that they would be persecuted in India.
“Legal process was started in India against the victim, attempting to silence her, and attempts were made to compel her to return to India. Further, the victim’s family reportedly was confronted in numerous ways regarding this case,” Bharara said in his statement. “Some focus should perhaps be put on why it was necessary to evacuate the family and what actions were taken in India vis-à-vis them.”
Richard’s husband Philip and their daughters flew to New York from New Delhi on December 10, two days before Khobragade’s arrest.
Bharara’s statement implicitly questions the credibility and fairness of “the Indian legal system and Indian law enforcement authorities,” external affairs ministry spokesperson and joint secretary Syed Akbaruddin said in a stiff retort.
“It needs to be asked what right a foreign government has to ‘evacuate’ Indian citizens from India while cases are pending against them in the Indian legal system,” Akbaruddin said. “The implication of this remarkable admission needs to be considered very carefully with regard to the implicit comment it makes about the responsibility that legal officials of a foreign government (the US) seem to arrogate upon themselves with regard to the nationals of another country.”