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Hint of divide in Xmas breather flip-flop

Devyani Khobragade

New Delhi, Dec. 24: India today decided against Christmas relief to American diplomats here from strict new norms and reduced immunity declared after the arrest of diplomat Devyani Khobragade, a day after officials had said these would be held back for a few days.

US ambassador Nancy Powell had yesterday requested New Delhi for an extension to its December 23 deadline for US consular staff to return identity cards that define their diplomatic immunities and for all American diplomats to submit details of their staff and spouses.

Senior officials had yesterday told this correspondent that India would extend the December 23 deadline it had set for US consular staff to return identity cards that define their diplomatic immunities, and that import subsidies they were eligible for would be allowed over Christmas.

The Hindu, another newspaper, quoted external affairs minister Salman Khurshid as telling them that the deadline for submitting identity cards would be extended by three days.

But India today said only those American diplomats who had spent less than six months in this country so far would be allowed import benefits. And India will not give the US any extension on the submission of identity cards.

New Delhi’s apparent about turn, and its decision to reject Powell’s request despite the US state department accepting some key demands laid down by India in the aftermath of Khobragade’s arrest, suggests that deep tensions between the allies continue to simmer.

American diplomats at consular missions in Calcutta, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad will only receive the immunity provided by the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations from now on, officials said.

They till now enjoyed the greater immunity offered by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations that bars arrests under any circumstances. India had argued immunity for Khobragade, arrested on December 12 on charges of visa fraud, under this agreement.

But US authorities had rejected this demand claiming that as deputy consul general at India’s New York mission, she only enjoyed the immunity granted by the pact on consular relations.

“We have some fundamental questions to the Americans, and till those are answered satisfactorily, we aren’t in a position to consider any concessions,” an official told The Telegraph late this evening.

Those “fundamental questions” include why the US state department recognised Khobragade’s nanny Sangeeta Richard — who approached law enforcement officials accusing the diplomat of visa fraud — as a victim of human trafficking.

India is also seeking an explanation for the US decision to “evacuate” Richard’s husband and two children from New Delhi on an Air India flight on December 10, two days before Khobragade was arrested.

Finally, Indian officials say they have not yet received any clear assurance from their US counterparts on their demand that the charges against Khobragade be dropped. The diplomat is accused of falsifying the salary she would pay Richard on the nanny’s visa application, and then paying her much less than even minimum wages in New York.

But today’s decision also hints at a divide within the Indian government on how to proceed with the US after signals from Washington that it is willing to work towards a thaw.

“There’s a very strong view within the government that while we must be reciprocal in our approach to the US, and not give them any benefits our diplomats and consular staff there don’t enjoy, we could give them a three-day extension over Christmas as courtesy,” an official said today. “Extending such courtesies isn’t being soft, especially when things are finally improving.”

The US state department has told India that it will not challenge its demand to exempt Khobragade from personal appearances in court and from future fingerprinting tests.

Khobragade has also received United Nations accreditation for her fresh post — as counsellor in charge of political affairs at India’s permanent mission to the global body in New York, with tacit US support. Khurshid has over the past few days also repeatedly said that he is confident that talks would resolve the dispute.

But sections within the government, and — crucially — the ruling Congress are unhappy with any steps that political rivals like the BJP could use to accuse them of being soft with the US ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

As with other key foreign policy plans in this election year — like the Prime Minister’s proposed visit to Sri Lanka that was called off under pressure from Tamil parties earlier this year — political concerns appear to have won the day on Christmas Eve too, officials conceded.

The ministry of external affairs will issue fresh identity cards to all US diplomats in its four consulates in India that will be “exact replicas of cards provided to Indian consulate officials in the US,” an official said.

Till now, India was issuing these diplomatic cards to the family members of American diplomats posted here. That will now stop, the official said.

The foreign ministry is also evaluating details of staff working at American schools in India, provided by the US embassy.