By Katy Daigle
and Matthew Pennington
NEW DELHI: The United States said Friday it was withdrawing a diplomat from India in hopes it would end a bitter dispute that started with the arrest and strip search of an Indian diplomat in New York.
Washington’s announcement that it was complying with a demand from New Delhi for the expulsion of the U.S. official came hours after Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul general in New York, left the United States.
Khobragade, 39, is accused of exploiting her Indian-born housekeeper and nanny, allegedly having her work more than 100 hours a week for low pay and lying about it on a visa form. Khobragade has maintained her innocence, and Indian officials have described her treatment as barbaric.
In an apparent compromise, she was indicted by a federal grand jury but also granted immunity that allowed her to leave the United States. Khobragade arrived in New Delhi on Friday, where she was met at the airport by her father and a sister.
“She just said, ‘Papa, I love you,’ and that’s all. And she’s happy to be back, her father, Uttam Khobragade, told reporters. Khobragade left the airport separately through an exit that is not accessible to the public.
Many believed that Khobragade’s return to India would be enough to give both countries a way to save face. India, however, asked the United States on Friday to withdraw a diplomat from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, and the State Department said it was complying, although with “deep regret.”
“We expect and hope that this will now come to closure, and the Indians will now take significant steps with us to improve our relationship and return it to a more constructive place,” spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in Washington.
Requesting the recall of a diplomat is a serious — and fairly unusual — move that sends a message to Washington that India’s government doesn’t accept the legitimacy of the court action in New York. Given the strategic partnership between India and the United States and more than $100 billion in trade, any further escalation in the case would not be in the interest of either country, analysts said.
Psaki did not identify the U.S. diplomat but said it was the individual whose expulsion was sought by India. India’s Foreign Ministry described the person as of the same rank as Khobragade and somehow involved in the case, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.
Much of India’s outrage stems from the circumstances of Khobragade’s arrest, which were seen as unnecessarily humiliating. Khobragade was picked up Dec. 13 and then strip-searched while in custody, which the U.S. Marshals say is common practice.
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 case has also led to complaints in India that the U.S. is not treating it like a powerful nation on equal footing with Washington.
“The case goes beyond the dignity of one diplomat,” said 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 also unleashed a steady stream of retaliatory measures against U.S. diplomats. Some of the measures, such as preventing the American Center in New Delhi from screening movies, were seen by some observers as petty. But others raised alarm, including removing concrete traffic barriers around the U.S. Embassy and revoking diplomats’ ID cards.
A visit to India next week by U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has been canceled.
“It’s a shame this came to the fore over one individual,” said Lalit Mansingh, India’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2001 to 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.
The U.S. charges against Khobragade will remain pending until she can be brought to court, either through a waiver of immunity or her return to the U.S. without immunity status, according to the office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.
Khobragade’s lawyer, Daniel Arshack, said his client was “pleased to be returning to her country.”
“Her head is held high,” he said. “She knows she has done no wrong and she looks forward to assuring that the truth is known.”
The indictment paints a picture of Khobragade as a harsh employer who refused to allow her housekeeper, Sangeeta Richard, days off, even telling her “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 her. 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.
After about six months of working for Khobragade, Richard fled and sought help from a nonprofit group that works with human trafficking victims, according to the indictment.