Devyani arrest: A row that roiled Indo-US relations

By Himanshu Kapoor | Updated: Jan 11, 2014, 21:32 PM IST

Himanshu Kapoor

Devyani Khobragade, the Indian diplomat accused of giving false information to obtain a visa for her housekeeper and underpaying her, has finally returned home from the US and in a retaliatory move India expelled a same ranked US diplomat giving him 48 hours to leave the country. Both Devyani and the Indian government, however, after the indictment maintained that the charges against her were untrue and baseless. The whole incident in the imagination of the Indian public became sort of an issue of national pride little which the US would have anticipated.

Although the Indian diplomat was permitted to leave, the month-long fiasco has roiled relations between the two countries that were once called as one of the defining and indispensable of the 21st century by US President Barack Obama. Even as the US, with the expulsion - throwing her out in a way - made it clear that Devyani won’t be given a visa or allowed to enter the country again, her return to Indian shores might have brought a relieving end to a raging diplomatic row. But it cannot be cast as a victory for the Indian diplomacy as the dispute, which erupted after reports that she was strip-searched, has definitely put a cloud over the India and US ties.

But the first signs for the strain in the ties came when India demonstrated its displeasure over the issue by small reprisals, like removing security barriers at the US Embassy in New Delhi and ordering the American Center for US cultural programs in the national capital, to halt its activities. And the US countered India’s move by postponing anticipated visits to India by Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who was to lead an energy dialogue between the two nations aimed at making significant progress in energy co-operation. In fact, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, while virtually announcing his retirement, recently had described his greatest achievement as the deal with the US that allowed the nation to import the nuclear technology.

And yesterday, the US made a move which shocked the Indian officials. It waived off the immunity to the diplomat so that the prosecution could go ahead, hence the indictment of Devyani for the charges leveled against, then in a humiliating way and the one that was least expected by India of all the outcomes she was asked to leave for her country, leaving her two children behind. The US then later stated that as the felony charges stand and if sentenced she will face arrest if she returns to the US in future under non-immune status.

Notably, the current Indo-US diplomatic spat is not the first time India and the US have had tensions over such an issue. Going back to 1981, in a similar tit-for-tat row, India had refused to accept US diplomat George GB Griffin in view of his intelligence connections and in retaliation the US barred the appointment of Prabhakar Menon, a career diplomat, as India`s political officer at its embassy in the US. But Devyani’s arrest row came to public eye as an insult to Indians and escalated in a manner which the both sides could not have anticipated.

Her departure may have resolved a diplomatic row that was threatening to jeopardise a growing economic relationship which is nearly $100 billion in annual trade in goods and services between the two countries, and both nations having high stakes in strong ties, there is need to restore trust to bilateral relations which however is surely going to take some time after this month-long episode which saw withdrawal of special privileges to US diplomats in India, postponement of a visit, shock and embarrassment.