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India takes nanny battle to the streets
- US envoys lose immunity from traffic violations, embassy told to stop commercial activities

New Delhi, Jan. 8: The bulldozers came first. Now, the Union government has asked Delhi police to deploy tow trucks to demonstrate their street might against cars belonging to the US embassy that violate traffic rules or park illegally in the capital.

India today pressed with making life in New Delhi difficult for US diplomats as a strategy to pressure Washington into dropping charges against diplomat Devyani Khobragade, who was arrested on charges of visa fraud last month and faces indictment proceedings on January 13.

It asked the US embassy here to stop all commercial activities at the American Support Community Association club on the mission’s premises that include a bar, restaurant, snooker table and a swimming pool by January 16.

The club — set up by family members of American diplomats here — never had a permit to earn revenue by charging guests, but India had so far ignored the legal violation.

India had also allowed diplomatic vehicles from all nations, including the US, exemption from traffic rules.

But with back-channel negotiations failing so far to yield any resolution that would make the charges against Khobragade ineffective, India has decided to single out US embassy vehicles.

All diplomatic number plates in India are blue, with the letters CD — for diplomatic corps — marking vehicles of embassies and their staff; CC — for consular corps — marking cars of consulates and their officers; and UN, indicating vehicles servicing United Nations missions.

A number that follows these letters on the number plates indicates the rank of the diplomat travelling in the vehicle — the plate on every ambassador’s car ends with CD 01.

But it is the number that precedes the letters on diplomatic number plates that Delhi’s traffic police will now keep a special watch on. That number is a pointer to the country of the mission that the car serves.

In the case of the US in India, the telltale number is 77.

“All 77 CD cars are fair game now for traffic police if they violate laws,” an official said.

Cars with diplomatic number plates routinely park in no-parking zones in central Delhi — including those around popular markets like Khan Market.

A Russian diplomat gasped on hearing about today’s decision to end this immunity for US mission cars in New Delhi.

“You know how difficult it is to find legal parking in central Delhi or places like Khan Market,” the diplomat said. “They may as well bar the Americans from these spots — they would need to wait in long queues for normal parking if they want to go to a restaurant or bar in these markets, and that’s something diplomats are just not used to.”

But American diplomats may have little choice but to wait in these queues for a meal or a drink because India has also decided it will no longer look away from commercial activities carried out at the embassy club without a permit.

The restaurant, bar and other facilities at the club were originally meant only for members — essentially, the family of American diplomats serving here.

But the club’s popularity attracted diplomats from other missions and non-diplomats who were slowly allowed to attend as guests — and had to pay in US dollars for food and services.

That, Indian officials said, violates India’s tax laws because the club does not have a licence to sell food or drink commercially. The tax exemptions accorded to establishments like the club that are attached to diplomatic missions under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations extend only for services provided to diplomats of that mission and their families, officials said.

The steps taken today follow a series of moves that India insists are reciprocal but are timed in a manner that make them appear more like retribution against Khobragade’s arrest on December 12.

On December 17, India sent bulldozers to the US embassy to lift away barricades placed outside the mission 12 years back after the September 11, 2001 attacks. The barricades had blocked Nyaya Marg, a road that also houses the French and Swedish embassies, from vehicular traffic for over a decade.

India also withdrew special privileges it had allowed to US officers at its consulates in Mumbai, Calcutta, Hyderabad and Chennai including immunity at par with that enjoyed by diplomats at the US embassy here.

New Delhi withdrew the waiver on import duties that it had indefinitely extended to all American diplomats in India. It has also asked the American Center here to stop screening films or get a licence to broadcast movies.

“If India’s idea is to tell American diplomats to get the hell out of here,” an American diplomat told this correspondent today, “it’s doing a pretty good job of it.”