NEW DELHI — In a move that could cool a smoldering diplomatic dispute, an Indian envoy was allowed to fly home to India on Friday after being indicted by a U.S. federal grand jury, giving both countries a way to claim victory.
The case has caused a serious rift between the United States and India, where officials have described last month’s arrest and strip search of Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul general in New York, as outrageous and barbaric.
Khobragade, a 39-year-old mother of two, was accused of exploiting her Indian-born housekeeper and nanny, allegedly forcing the woman to work more than 100 hours a week for low pay and lying about it on a visa form. She has maintained her innocence.
She flew out of New York late Thursday after securing broad diplomatic immunity, one of her key demands. In a televised news conference Friday, Khobragade’s father described the outcome of the case as a national triumph.
“Devyani today left the U.S. with full diplomatic immunity, vindicating the stand that whatever dispute being raised in the U.S. is a prerogative of a sovereign country, India, and only can be adjudicated by Indian courts,” said her father, Uttam Khobragade, a retired bureaucrat.
India’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Khobragade had been given immunity and was returning to India, but made no mention of the indictment in the U.S.
Much of the outrage over the case in India stems from the circumstances of Khobragade’s arrest, which were seen as unnecessarily humiliating — something that resonates deeply in India. Khobragade was picked up Dec. 13 and then strip-searched in custody, which the U.S. Marshals say is common practice.
But in India, the process was seen as a brutal affront to a middle-class, educated woman, and a violation of courtesies afforded to diplomats the world over.
The furor over the case has underlined a sentiment in India that the United States is not treating the country like a powerful nation on equal footing with Washington.
“The case goes beyond the dignity of one diplomat,” said political analyst Sreeram Chaulia, an international affairs expert at Jindal School of International Affairs in New Delhi. “India made its point, which is that you can’t take India for granted.”
India’s government, facing general elections this year, lashed out at the U.S. and vowed to secure Khobragade’s release. Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid told Parliament last week that he would not return to the chamber until he brought her home and restored her dignity.
India also unleashed a steady stream of retaliatory measures against U.S. diplomats. Some of the moves, such as preventing the American Center in New Delhi from screening movies, were seen by some observers as petty. But other actions have raised alarm, including the removal of concrete traffic barriers around the U.S. Embassy and revoking diplomats’ ID cards.
One high-level visit to India, scheduled by U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz for next week, has been canceled, the Energy Department said.
“It’s a shame this came to the fore over one individual,” said Lalit Mansingh, India’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2001-2004. “It sends the message that we’re touchy about personal integrity, rather than about issues of global importance.”
Ties with the U.S. have chilled in recent years over several serious policy issues, including India’s delays in enacting more business-friendly reforms and the U.S. National Security Agency’s alleged spying on New Delhi and other foreign governments.
It remains to be seen whether Khobragade’s return to India defuses the situation entirely. But any further escalation would not be in the interest of either country, analysts say. India and the United States have a strategic partnership and more than $100 billion in trade, and hundreds of Indians apply for U.S. visas every day.
The indictment paints a picture of Khobragade as a harsh employer who refused to allow her housekeeper, Sangeeta Richard, to have vacation time or days off, even telling the woman “not to get sick because it was expensive.”
U.S. prosecutors say Khobragade claimed to pay Richard $4,500 per month in order to obtain a visa for Richard to work as her housekeeper and nanny in New York. But they say Khobragade actually paid Richard $573 per month and often forced her to work more than 100 hours a week without a single full day off. The long hours meant Richard was earning an actual wage of $1.42 or less per hour, the indictment said.
After about six months of working for Khobragade, Richard fled and sought help from a nonprofit group that works with victims of human trafficking because Khobragade refused to hand over her passport and allow her to return home, according to the indictment.
It also alleges that after the housekeeper fled, Khobragade and a relative tried to intimidate Richard’s family back in India by demanding they reveal Richard’s whereabouts. Khobragade also launched a legal complaint against Richard in India.
The issue of immunity has been a key aspect of the case. Federal officials initially argued that Khobragade’s immunity applied only to acts performed in the exercise of consular functions. But on Thursday, the U.S. accepted India’s request to accredit her to the United Nations, which confers broader immunity. It would have been almost unprecedented for the U.S. to deny such a request unless she posed a national security risk.
The United States then asked India to waive the newly granted immunity so it could prosecute Khobragade, but the Indians refused. As a result, the U.S. “requested her departure” from the country, said one American government official, who wasn’t authorized to speak about the case publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.