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Tit-for-tat stirs Calcutta ‘spy’ memories

New Delhi, Jan. 12: India may have been retaliating to the US decision to ask Devyani Khobragade to leave the country when it decided to expel American diplomat Wayne May on Friday.

But the tit-for-tat action that has brought a temporary break to the public spat between India and the US has rekindled memories in New Delhi’s diplomatic circles of a similar episode 33 years ago, when the nations enjoyed nothing like the grand strategic partnership they now boast.

Then, the boot was on the other foot, and the spat had its roots in Calcutta.

The US had appointed George G.B. Griffin as a political counsellor at its embassy here in 1981, but the foreign ministry under P.V. Narasimha Rao refused to accept his application — or the immunities that come with the post he was to join.

India’s concerns over Griffin, who had just finished a term as deputy chief of mission in the US embassy in Kabul, were far deeper than the anger with May, the officer who issued T-visas to the family of Sangeeta Richard, Khobragade’s former help.

The T-visas issued to the family of Richard, whose complaint to the US state department formed the basis of the action against the Indian diplomat, are awarded only to family members of trafficking victims — and the visas effectively accused Khobragade of human trafficking.

But the allegations against Griffin were more serious — they impacted national security, retired diplomats who were serving at the time told The Telegraph.

Griffin had served at the American consulate in Calcutta 10 years earlier, in 1971, during the war with Pakistan when the US had threatened to attack India.

“We were convinced that he played an intelligence role while at the consulate, and there was simply no way we could welcome someone who had tried to threaten the security of India while she was at war,” recalled a diplomat who had just returned from an overseas posting to a role at the external affairs ministry headquarters here. “There was anger that the US had even tried to suggest posting Griffin here — they were needling us.”

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi made a public statement in response to questions, confirming that India had refused to accept Griffin’s posting because of his “intelligence role” during the 1971 war.

Indira, known for her strong positions against perceived US bullying, was also close to the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev.

The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan just two years earlier, in 1979, and had identified Griffin as an operative of the Central Intelligence Agency — a charge the US denied.

Indian officials insist New Delhi’s decision on Griffin was based solely on its own concerns, and that they were not prodded by the Soviet Union.

“But it helped Mrs Gandhi secure her position as strong in the face of perceived US bullying, while at the same time making her allies in Moscow happy,” an official conceded.

Predictably, the US retaliated, refusing to accept the appointment of Prabhakar Menon, posted by India that year as a political officer at the Washington embassy.