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Devyani to stay grounded in low-profile slot

New Delhi, March 13: Devyani Khobragade may have won relief from a Manhattan court that yesterday quashed an indictment against her, but the diplomat whose arrest last December sparked a rare public spat between India and the US is not going back to the West anytime soon.

India’s foreign policy establishment has effectively grounded the 1999-batch Indian Foreign Service officer at its headquarters in South Block, and has no plans to post her overseas in the foreseeable future — even after Wednesday’s reprieve in New York.

Khobragade will instead continue in a low-profile role that she was assigned — temporarily at that stage — when she was flown out of New York in late January, a day after she received United Nations immunity from arrest, senior government officials told The Telegraph.

“No one is going to touch the way things are with Devyani right now,” an official said. “She will stay at headquarters.”

Khobragade was serving as India’s deputy consul-general in New York when she was arrested by federal marshals on December 12 last year, accused of violating immigration and visa norms by underpaying her Indian maid Sangeeta Richard.

She was released on bail, and India immediately applied to the UN seeking to transfer her to India’s mission there — a position that carries enhanced immunity from arrest.

But the day after she received full accreditation and immunity from the UN on January 8, Manhattan’s US attorney Preet Bharara brought an indictment against her at a federal court in New York.

Khobragade’s immunity meant she couldn’t be arrested and India flew her out on January 10, back to New Delhi. There, she was posted as a director-level officer in the Development Partnership Administration (DPA) — India’s foreign aid agency that was created in January 2012 along the lines of America’s USAID or Britain’s DFID.

India questioned the arrest and demanded that the charges against Khobragade be dropped — but the US refused, sending a relationship President Barack Obama has frequently described as a “natural partnership” into its biggest chill since India tested nuclear bombs in 1998.

Over the past month, the two nations have slowly worked at a thaw in ties that enabled visits by senior US state department official Nisha Desai Biswal and then US energy secretary Ernest Moniz — officials Indian counterparts had refused to meet in the immediate aftermath of Khobragade’s arrest.

But India’s demand that the charges against Khobragade be dropped was finally accepted by a Manhattan court when it yesterday dismissed the indictment against her brought by Bharara.

“We welcome this ruling,” Syed Akbaruddin, ministry of external affairs spokesperson and joint secretary, said.

But the ruling will not help Khobragade fly out from New Delhi soon, officials said, because it leaves the opportunity open for Bharara or other federal US agencies to press a fresh indictment against the diplomat.

“This is what we call a lingering sore,” an official said. “They can reinitiate proceedings against her again at any stage they choose — either because they want to send us a message, or because of overenthusiastic officials. This is not the kind of closure we need before we can expose Devyani or ourselves again.”

Because of the clout the US enjoys with the security agencies of most western nations, and growing mistrust for Khobragade within India’s own foreign office, the diplomat will stay isolated from official work with developed nations.

The diplomat held back from the foreign office the fact that her daughters hold dual Indian and American passports — her husband is also an American citizen who has applied for an Indian passport.