Centre strips US diplomats of privileges in tit-for-tat reprisal

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India went on a diplomatic offensive on Tuesday, hitting out at the US by withdrawing the special privileges accorded to American diplomats for humiliating an Indian diplomat. Some in the government warned of more retaliatory steps unless there was an unconditional apology by the US.

On Tuesday, it emerged that diplomat Devyani Khobragade was even subjected to an embarrassing cavity search by the US authorities apart from a strip-search following her arrest and hand-cuffing late last week. Such treatment is normally accorded to criminals, whereas the charge against Devyani was of under-payment of wages to her housekeeper.

Nothing was more symbolic of the withdrawal of the special treatment that the US embassy enjoys than the sight of huge bulldozers moving in to remove the security barricades that had effectively converted a portion of what was once a public road into a private one with not even pedestrians allowed on it.

The road, Nyaya Marg, in the capital’s tony diplomatic enclave of Chanakyapuri, where the US embassy is located, was for years blocked to pedestrians and vehicular traffic on grounds of security for the mission.

With “reciprocity being the name of the game”, as an Indian diplomat put it, all employees of the American consulates as well as their families have been asked to immediately surrender the identity cards issued to them by the Indian government.

The US embassy has also been asked to provide the Indian government detailed information about the salaries it pays to the Indian employees — office staff, drivers, domestic help, cooks and gardeners.

India has also sought visa and other details of the staff working in the American embassy schools as well as bank account details and salaries paid to the Indian employees in these schools. “Since the US embassy and consulates are considered American territory, they should be paying their Indian employees the same wages as those given to the US nationals. The Indian employees too are being exploited,” a senior diplomat said.

The government has also asked all American diplomats to return their airport entry passes (AEPs) in the country (other than Delhi) by Thursday. The AEPs are meant to facilitate entry of US diplomats into airports to receive or see off dignitaries.

In yet another retaliatory measure, India has decided to stop all import clearances for liquor for the US embassy.

The heat was turned on against the US also by politicians and bureaucrats as they closed ranks to register strong protest against the humiliation meted out to the diplomat. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and Union home minister Sushilkumar Shinde cancelled their scheduled meetings with a US congressional delegation on Tuesday to register their disapproval of the maltreatment meted out to the Indian diplomat.

BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, also declined to meet the delegation. Civil aviation secretary KN Srivastava did not attend a farewell reception that had been organised in his honour by the Americans at the US embassy on Tuesday evening.

External affairs minister Salman Khurshid said what has happened is “completely

unacceptable” and India has conveyed its deep distress and sense of disquiet to the American government.

National security adviser Shivshankar Menon, himself a former diplomat, described the diplomat’s treatment as ‘despicable and barbaric’.

Parliamentary affairs minister Kamal Nath used strong words to condemn the diplomat’s treatment and demanded an unconditional apology from the US. The BJP demanded that the government strongly take up the matter with the US and even sought the arrest of the gay companions of American diplomats. Unconcerned about the humiliation of the Indian diplomat, the US state department continued to maintain on Tuesday that ‘standard procedures’ were followed during the arrest.

Deputy spokesperson Marie Harf did not deny that the diplomat had to undergo intrusive searches and said: “Diplomatic security, which is under the state department purview, followed standard procedures during her arrest.”

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