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$4500 question (fill your curses here)

New Delhi, Dec. 27: The brightest minds of the foreign policy establishment in India and the US can be trusted to find a way out of the nanny mess and ensure that Devyani Khobragade’s “full diplomatic immunity” that preceded her arrest is not undermined.

But countless Indians are still trying to figure out one question: did the super-smart Americans misread the figure of $4,500 in the visa form of the housekeeper, Sangeeta Richard, as her salary while it was that of the Indian diplomat?

The issue goes to the heart of a key section of the US visa application that tens of thousands of Indians travelling to America for work fill each year.

The Telegraph tries to find out what happened, given incessant form-filling is a national sport that few Indians can avoid playing if they want to be part of the system.

What is this $4,500 all about?

Indian diplomat Devyani’s arrest was ordered by Manhattan’s US attorney Preet Bharara on the basis of investigations by Mark Smith, a special agent with the Bureau of Diplomatic Security of the US state department.

Smith had accused Devyani of claiming in Sangeeta’s DS-160 — the US visa application form — that the nanny would receive a monthly salary of $4,500 (Rs 2.35 lakh at last year’s exchange rate) when she paid her only Rs 30,000 (about $560).

But earlier this week, Devyani’s lawyer Daniel Arshack told the Associated Press that Smith had “erroneously and disastrously” mistaken the Indian diplomat’s base salary of $4,500 for what she intended to pay Sangeeta. “It’s incredibly unsexy kind of information, but it does go right to the heart of what this is about,” Arshack was quoted as saying.

Indian officials backed up Arshack’s claim, pointing to a screenshot of a document that shows some details of Sangeeta’s visa application form for a temporary work visa.

What does the document show?

The Indian officials have pointed to the second sentence in the introduction: “Provide the following information concerning your employer”.

At the bottom of the screen shot — after boxes for name, address and phone number — comes a field that says: “Enter monthly income in USD.” (See chart)

Since the top of the page mentions “your employer”, the monthly income must refer to that of the employer, according to the Indian officials. Under this interpretation, Devyani’s salary of $4,500, not that of Sangeeta, was punched in, they said.

The Americans goofed up, right?

Not necessarily. Not if you go by what the US has said in frequently asked questions on a website and what several others familiar with the visa application process say.

The website of the US embassy in Japan — one of many publicly available resources detailing how to fill in the DS-160 and accessed by this correspondent in New Delhi — explains that the “monthly salary” question must be responded to by filling in the “fee in US dollars which will be paid by the US employer”. (See chart)

“The sponsor’s details are sought in a different part of the form,” said Pratima Bhardwaj of Delhi Visas and Consultancy Services, a firm that helps individuals, families and companies navigate the visa application process for multiple countries.

This is rarely a source of confusion, US officials assert, because most applicants intend to work with companies or organisations.

From India, most temporary work visa applicants fill in the names of IT companies they work for — firms that earn revenue and profits and usually keep quarterly or annual figures, but certainly no “monthly income” that a visa applicant is expected to fill in, US officials said.

“Can you imagine if someone is applying for the temporary work visa to work for, say Google? Could he or she imagine that we would expect him to fill in Google’s monthly income?” a US official asked.

Couldn’t the Americans have kept it simple?

Good question. A simple “the employee’s monthly salary” would have been most helpful, instead of an open-ended “monthly income” which is not the same as “salary”.

Many Indians who get stuck at the column “relationship” in forms, trying to figure out whose relationship — a son’s to his father or the father’s to his son — will empathise with Devyani’s plight.

But wasn’t it Sangeeta’s form? Why is Devyani in the dock?

The US visa application asks whether the applicant has sought assistance in filling in the form. Sangeeta’s form mentions Devyani, and the IP address of the computer used to file the form matches that of the Indian diplomat, according to US officials.

Could it have been an honest mistake?

Yes, if Devyani did assist Sangeeta in filling in the form, the diplomat could have genuinely been confused by the wording of the visa application form. But a mistake is no legal defence.

What are Indian officials saying?

Indian officials are pointing to the apparent violation of international immunity norms by the US to argue that the case against Devyani will not hold and should have been handled differently.

“Even if she made a mistake, it’s clear that it’s a confusing form and that this is not an open-and-shut case, as the US violation of her diplomatic immunity shows,” a senior Indian official said. “It could have all been resolved and clarified had they just approached us instead of rushing ahead and arresting Devyani.”

What are US officials saying?

Unofficially, American officials concede that some sections of the DS-160, like many forms, may appear confusing. But Devyani, as a diplomat at the ministry of external affairs, should have clarified any doubts while filling up her nanny’s form.

What do other applicants do?

Applicants for the varying kinds of temporary work visas — for skilled, agricultural, household and other employment — fill in the monthly salary that is also shown in the supporting documents they bring with them, for their visa interviews.

The supporting document — usually a contract or equivalent statement — in Devyani’s and Sangeeta’s case suggested that the diplomat would pay the nanny $1,560 a month.

Shouldn’t the US embassy official have spotted the discrepancy?

Yes, the US embassy official who interviewed Sangeeta should have spotted the discrepancy between the $1,560 Devyani promised in the contract and the $4,500 shown in the DS-160. But the fault of the official doesn’t minimise the charge against Devyani.

Isn’t the US making a big deal out of what could have been an honest error?

It’s not only about a possible error in the DS-160. Even if the state department had misread Sangeeta’s visa application form, as Devyani’s lawyer has claimed, she would still need to explain the $1,000 gap between the wages she promised in her contract ($1,560) with the nanny and what was actually paid ($560).

Indian officials say the salary of Rs 30,000 ($560) a month was determined in a second contract that Sangeeta had herself sought to help her unemployed husband Philip who lived in New Delhi. But the Americans say they will go by what is in the visa form.

What about the food, lodging and other expenses of Sangeeta that Devyani paid for?

Devyani’s family says she bore the entire cost for Sangeeta’s food, stay and phone bills, and the nanny enjoyed the same medical benefits and care available to Indian diplomats. She was also entitled to one fully paid trip back home during her stint in the US. Sangeeta also received occasional cash — at times with receipts.

The Indian officials have said these benefits should be monetised and counted along with the Rs 30,000 a month to calculate Sangeeta’s true salary. They say it will then cross $1,560 a month.

But the complaint filed by agent Smith points out that in March 2011, the state department decided against allowing lodging, medical care, insurance or travel to be deducted from the salary promised on visa applications in calculating the amount to be paid.

In April 2012, the state department started barring even the cost of food from being deducted from the promised salary. By the time Devyani and Sangeeta reached New York in November 2012, it was no longer legal for the diplomat to claim that these benefits were a part of the $1,560.

What is the lesson for me who is not backed by either the might of the Indian or American governments?

Do your homework as thoroughly as possible when you go to a foreign country. Speak to as many people as possible who are in the same profession as you and live there.

Don’t take anything for granted, don’t take short cuts and don’t think that you can always cut corners. “Connections” need not work, or by the time they kick in, you may have already been strip-searched.

When in doubt, check. Never assume or presume.

If you still want to go to the US, get in touch with the helplines at the embassy in Delhi or consulates in Calcutta, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Chennai. The numbers are on their websites.