Outrage in India Over Female Diplomat’s Arrest in New York
BANGALORE, India — The way an Indian diplomat was treated by law enforcement officials in New York last week has touched off a furor in India, where politicians from across the political spectrum expressed outrage and the New Delhi police retaliated by removing security barriers that were meant to protect the American Embassy.
The diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, the deputy consul general in New York, was arrested last Thursday and accused of submitting false documents to obtain a work visa for her housekeeper and paying the housekeeper far less than the minimum legal wage. Indian officials said that Ms. Khobragade was arrested and handcuffed on the street as she was dropping her daughter at school, and that she was kept in a holding cell with drug addicts before she was released on $250,000 bail.
By far the most troubling part of the episode for Indians are assertions that Ms. Khobragade, who is 39, was strip-searched after her arrest. Some Indian newspapers published reports claiming that she was subject to repeated cavity searches. The Indian national security adviser, Shivshankar Menon, has called such treatment “despicable” and “barbaric.”
The Indian government issued a statement the day after the arrest saying it was “shocked and appalled at the manner in which she has been humiliated by the U.S authorities.” The foreign secretary, Sujatha Singh, summoned the American ambassador to India, Nancy Powell, and lodged a strong protest at the “unacceptable treatment” of the diplomat.
In addition to removing the maze of concrete security barriers surrounding the American Embassy compound, Indian news reports said, officials demanded that the embassy provide details about all the Indians it employs, as well as the names and salaries of teachers at the American Embassy School; that the embassy commissary stop importing liquor; and that diplomatic identification cards for consular staff members and their families be returned.
Officials at the embassy in New Delhi refused to comment on the matter, or say whether Ms. Khobragade was in fact strip-searched after her arrest.
At a briefing Monday in Washington, the State Department’s deputy spokeswoman, Marie Harf, told reporters that the department’s diplomatic security personnel followed “standard procedures during the arrest” of Ms. Khobragade. “After her arrest, she was passed on to the U.S. marshals for intake and processing,” Ms. Harf said.
Federal prosecutors say that the charges stem from a promise Ms. Khobragade made to American authorities that she would pay her housekeeper $4,500 a month. The prosecutors said she actually paid the housekeeper just $573 a month and made her work far more than 40 hours a week.
Ms. Khobragade’s lawyer said last week that she had pleaded not guilty and planned to challenge the arrest on grounds of diplomatic immunity. The charges against her carry maximum sentences of 10 years for visa fraud and five years for making a false declaration.
It is not unusual in India for domestic staff to be paid poorly and required to work more than 60 hours a week; they are sometimes treated abominably. Reports of maids being imprisoned or abused by their employers are frequent.
But the idea of a middle-class woman being arrested and ordered to disrobe is seen as shocking. Airport security procedures in India provide separate lines for women, and any pat-down searches are performed behind curtains.
Top Indian officials are exempt from security screenings here, and long lists of officials who are permitted to bypass the screenings are posted at many Indian airports. When those officials are required to pass through security screenings in the United States and elsewhere, that fact often makes headlines in India, and is seen by some as an insult to the country.
Some leading Indian politicians have called for much more extensive retaliation for the arrest of Ms. Khobragade. Yashwant Sinha, India’s former finance minister and a leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, said that some openly gay American diplomats are posted to India, where homosexuality is illegal. “So why doesn’t the government of India go ahead and arrest all of them?” he said.