In what seems like one is to ten diplomatic retaliation by New Delhi, India-US relations have hit an unprecedented low over the arrest of an Indian diplomat on charges of visa fraud.
The Indian response to the arrest of the New York-based Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade last Thursday has been so sweeping that the State Department might take a while to fully process it. Khobragade was arrested just as she was dropping her daughter at her school. In what is being described by the U.S. authorities as standard procedures (they are), the 39-year-old Khobragade was handcuffed and taken away. She was lodged with common criminals and reportedly subjected to strip-search and DNA swabbing. I have not been able to confirm the last two assertions, particularly the DNA swabbing.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose Indian origin is extraneous to the matter at hand, has accused Khobragade of visa fraud and exploiting her babysitter by paying less than minimum wage. The specifics of the charges are that Khobragade, who is the Deputy Consul General for Political, Economic, Commercial and Women’s Affairs at the Consulate General of India in New York, “allegedly caused a materially false and fraudulent document to be presented, and materially false and fraudulent statements to be made, to the United States Department of State in support of a visa application for an Indian national employed as a babysitter and housekeeper.”
“Foreign nationals brought to the United States to serve as domestic workers are entitled to the same protections against exploitation as those afforded to United States citizens. The false statements and fraud alleged to have occurred here were designed to circumvent those protections so that a visa would issue for a domestic worker who was promised far less than a fair wage. This type of fraud on the United States and exploitation of an individual will not be tolerated,” Bharara, who enjoys a particularly high public profile, said.
In an unprecedented demonstration of outrage and protest New Delhi has gone all out against the U.S. diplomatic staff in India. From removing police barriers around the U.S. embassy in New Delhi to revoking identity cards that all U.S. diplomats and their family members special privileges and from seeking salary details of the Indian staff employed at the various US missions to cancelling meetings with visiting U.S. dignitaries the Indian response has been uncharacteristically dramatic. It seems almost as if the Khobragade’s arrest came as a trigger to unload much accumulated and unrelated displeasure. I say that because I cannot recall such sweeping reciprocal response.
In fact, India’s Foreign Minister Salman Khursheed and National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon have been particularly sharp in their reaction. Khursheed has been quoted as saying that “it is completely unacceptable… We have put in motion what we believe will be an effective way to address this issue and protect her dignity… Everything that can be done, will be done." Menon was said to have called Khobragade’s arrest as "despicable and barbaric."
A five-member U.S. Congressional on a visit to New Delhi found their high-level meetings, including with Rahul Gandhi, the likely prime ministerial candidate for the governing Congress Party, and Parliament Speaker Merira Kumar canceled.
While the U.S. continues to defend its action saying it had followed all the standard procedures, India insists that Khobragade’s diplomatic, guaranteed under the Vienna Convention, was violated.
For the benefit of my readers I have quoted below verbatim from the official statement of Bharara’s office.
“DEVYANI KHOBRAGADE prepared and electronically submitted an application for an A-3 visa (the “Visa Application”) through the website for the U.S. Department of State’s Consular Electronic Application Center for an Indian national (“Witness-1”), who was to be the personal employee of KHOBRAGADE beginning in November 2012 at an address in New York, New York. The Visa Application stated that Witness-1 was to be paid $4,500 per month in U.S. dollars. KHOBRAGADE and Witness-1 also signed an employment contract (the “First Employment Contract”) for Witness-1 to bring to Witness-1’s interview at the U.S. Embassy in India in connection with the Visa Application, which Witness-1 did at KHOBRAGADE’s direction. The First Employment Contract stated, among other things, that KHOBRAGADE would pay Witness-1 the prevailing or minimum wage, whichever is greater, resulting in an hourly salary of $9.75.
KHOBRAGADE knew that the First Employment Contract that KHOBRAGADE caused Witness-1 to submit to the U.S. State Department in connection with Witness-1’s Visa Application contained materially false and fraudulent statements about, among other things, Witness-1’s hourly wage and hours worked. Prior to the signing of the First Employment Contract, KHOBRAGADE and Witness-1 had agreed that KHOBRAGADE would pay 30,000 rupees per month, which at the time was equivalent to $573.07 U.S. At 40 hours per week, with approximately 4.3 weeks in a month, $573.07 equates to a rate of $3.31 per hour. However, KHOBRAGADE instructed Witness-1 to say that she would be paid $9.75 per hour, and not to say anything about being paid 30,000 rupees per month. KHOBRAGADE also instructed Witness-1 to say that Witness-1 would work 40 hours per week, and that Witness-1’s duty hours would be 7 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. She told Witness-1 that the First Employment Contract was a formality to get the visa.
After the First Employment Contract was submitted to the United States Department of State, KHOBRAGADE told Witness-1 that Witness-1 needed to sign another employment contract (the “Second Employment Contract”). KHOBRAGADE and Witness-1 signed the Second Employment Contract, which provided that Witness-1’s maximum salary per month including overtime allowance will not exceed 30,000 rupees per month. The Second Employment Contract does not contain any provision about the normal number of working hours per week or month.
Witness-1 worked for KHOBRAGADE as a household employee in New York, New York, from approximately November 2012 through approximately June 2013. Notwithstanding the terms of the First Employment Contract, Witness-1 worked far more than 40 hours per week, and Witness-1 was paid less than $9.75 per hour by KHOBRAGADE. In fact, notwithstanding the terms of the oral agreement between KHOBRAGADE and Witness-1 and the terms of the Second Employment Contract, Witness-1 was paid less than 30,000 rupees per month, or $3.31 per hour.”