The arrest and alleged strip search of an Indian diplomat in New York City escalated into a major row yesterday as India’s national security adviser called treatment of the woman “despicable and barbaric”.
Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul general in New York, is accused of submitting false documents to obtain a work visa for her Manhattan housekeeper.
Indian officials said the diplomat was arrested and handcuffed on Thursday as she dropped off her daughter at school, and kept in a cell with drug addicts before paying $250,000 (£154,000) bail.
A senior Indian official said she was also strip-searched, which has been portrayed in India as the most offensive part of the arrest. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.
India was preparing to retaliate against American diplomats in India by threatening to downgrade privileges and demanding information about how much they pay their Indian household staff, according to the Press Trust of India (PTI) news agency.
Indian workers also removed the traffic barricades near the US embassy in New Delhi that had been erected as a safety measure. PTI said the removal was in retaliation for Ms Khobragade’s treatment.
“We got orders to remove the concrete barriers,” said Amardeep Sehgal, station house officer of the Chanakyapuri police station, the one nearest the embassy. “They were obstructing traffic on the road.”
He refused to say who had given the orders.
National security adviser Shivshankar Menon condemned Ms Khobragade’s treatment in New York. “It is despicable and barbaric,” he said.
Prosecutors in New York say Ms Khobragade, 39, claimed she paid her Indian maid $4,500 a month but actually paid her less than the US minimum wage.
Salaries for many workers in India, particularly for domestic help, are far lower than what they would earn for similar work in the United States.
Ms Khobragade has pleaded not guilty and plans to challenge the arrest on grounds of diplomatic immunity.
If convicted, she faces a maximum sentence of ten years for visa fraud and five years for making a false declaration.
The case touches on a string of issues that strike deeply in India, where the fear of public humiliation resonates strongly and heavy-handed treatment by the police is normally reserved for the poor. For an educated, middle-class woman to face public arrest and a strip search is almost unimaginable, except if suspected of a brutal crime.
Far less serious protocol complaints have become big issues. Standard security checks in the US are regularly front-page news in India when they involve visiting Indian dignitaries, who are largely exempt from friskings while at home.
Indian foreign secretary Sujata Singh summoned US ambassador Nancy Powell to register a complaint.
In Washington, US state department spokeswoman Marie Harf said that standard procedures were followed during Ms Khobragade’s arrest.
Ms Khobragade’s father, Uttam, told the TimesNow TV news channel yesterday that his daughter’s treatment was “absolutely obnoxious”.
“I feel hurt, our entire family is traumatised,” he said.
Indian external affairs minister Salman Khurshid said there were “larger issues” involved in the case, but did not elaborate.
“We will deal with them in good time,” he said.