Although top Indian politicians are no longer denouncing the United States daily for the arrest and strip search of the diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, 39, foreign service officials are not letting the matter drop. The continued hard feelings suggest that the dispute could have a long-term impact on a relationship both sides say is crucial.
“We are in touch with you,” Syed Akbaruddin, the spokesman for the Ministry of External Affairs, said in a lengthy interview Thursday, addressing his remarks to his American counterparts. “You pick up the phone all the time. You clearly knew this arrest was coming.
“After all, we have a strategic partnership and cooperate on a range of issues, yet you can’t tell us a thing while doing all this stuff behind our backs?”
Ms. Khobragade, the deputy consul general in New York, was arrested on Dec. 12 on charges that she fraudulently obtained a work visa for her housekeeper, forced her to work longer hours than agreed to and paid her far less than the minimum wage. Anger among Indians intensified after they learned that the United States had flown the maid’s husband and children out of India on visas meant for use in cases of human trafficking two days before Ms. Khobragade’s arrest, saying the family had been threatened.
The human-trafficking designation deeply offended Indian officials, who termed the threats exaggerated and said the Americans should have discussed the matter with them, particularly since they had informed their American counterparts repeatedly about their concerns after the maid, Sangeeta Richard, left Ms. Khobragade’s employment in June.
A spokesman for the United States Embassy in New Delhi refused to comment on Thursday.
Outrage in India’s tiny diplomatic corps is particularly acute because those who deal with the United States often feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of communications. India has just three senior diplomats on its North America desk, who deal with scores of counterparts from the United States and Canada. And the issue of the treatment of domestic help does not resonate in India as it does in the United States; nearly all officials in New Delhi have maids working dawn to dusk six or seven days a week, and generally earning even less than Ms. Richard did.
India has undertaken punitive measures that it believes puts American diplomats in India on par with Indian diplomats in the United States. It withdrew passes that allow American diplomats to meet important guests, like members of Congress, at airport gates, and canceled the diplomatic identity cards given to consular officials and their families, reissuing cards only to officials. The cards instruct police officers that the holder may be arrested for serious offenses.
In addition, India is investigating whether spouses and employees of American officials are paying taxes on earnings made in India, particularly at the American schools in New Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai. India has canceled the United States Embassy’s import privileges for food and alcohol. And security barriers that surrounded the embassy in New Delhi have been permanently removed. Indian officials say the barriers were unnecessary and in some cases impeded traffic.
“We would not do anything to adversely affect the security of the U.S. Embassy,” Mr. Akbaruddin said. “To suggest otherwise is unfair.”
There are 14 other Indian maids working for Indian diplomats in the United States, and India is negotiating over their status with the State Department. To India, these maids should be considered Indian government employees whose employment does not fall under American wage and hour laws.