New Delhi: The United States said on Friday it would withdraw one of its diplomats from New Delhi at India`s request after Washington effectively expelled an Indian envoy at the centre of a dispute between the allies.
Devyani Khobragade, 39, who was India`s deputy consul-general in New York, was arrested in December on charges of visa fraud and lying to US authorities about what she paid her housekeeper. Khobragade`s arrest and subsequent strip-search enraged New Delhi, led to protests and dealt a serious blow to US efforts to strengthen ties with India.
Khobragade arrived in New Delhi on Friday night and was met by her father, Uttam Khobragade. "I want to thank my nation for the support they have given me," she said.
Shortly after Khobragade`s return home, the US State Department said it would recall a US diplomat, whom it did not identify, at India`s request.
"This has clearly been a challenging time in the US-India relationship," department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in Washington. "We expect and hope that this will now come to closure and the Indians will take significant steps with us to improve our relationship and return it to a more constructive place."
But the continued presence in the United States of Khobragade`s Indian housekeeper, Sangeeta Richard, could pose a challenge to Washington as it seeks to repair its relationship with New Delhi, an important US ally in Asia.
India has asked US authorities to arrest Richard over the Indian government`s allegations that she stole cash, a mobile phone and documents from Khobragade. Richard has denied the charges.
The United States has so far rebuffed those requests and went even further in spiriting Richard`s family out of India for safety reasons, a move that also infuriated New Delhi.
The monthlong dispute set off reprisals against American diplomats in New Delhi and the postponement of visits to India by US officials and another by a US business delegation.
Incensed by the treatment of Khobragade, India removed some security barriers near the US Embassy and reduced the number of embassy staff with diplomatic immunity. On Wednesday, it ordered the embassy to close a club frequented by American expatriates and other foreign residents.
The deal allowing Khobragade to return to India had been expected to help mend the rift, but there was no sign, in the short term at least, that India was ready to forgive and forget.
"We called the US mission to withdraw an officer of similar rank of Devyani as reciprocal action," said an Indian official with knowledge of the decision.
The official told reporters the government believed the US diplomat had a role in the Khobragade case. The official did not give more details.
It will take time to dispel the bad feelings built up between New Delhi and Washington. With national elections due in India by May, political parties have seized on the case and labeled it an attack on national sovereignty.
During the crisis, both New Delhi and Washington repeatedly stressed the importance of their partnership, which includes $100 billion of annual trade.
Seven-day work week
US prosecutors announced on Thursday that a federal grand jury in New York had indicted Khobragade for visa fraud and lying about how much she paid her housekeeper. Khobragade had already been transferred to India`s UN mission and granted a higher level of diplomatic immunity.
The indictment accused Khobragade of making Richard work 100-hour, seven-day weeks for a salary of little over $1 an hour and refusing her sick days and holidays. The legal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.
Khobragade denies all charges. Khobragade`s lawyer Daniel Arshack said on Thursday she was leaving with her head "held high."
Many Indians felt the case was an example of the United States taking its friendship with India for granted and they supported the government`s tough stand. Middle-class Indians sympathized more with Khobragade than with her housekeeper.
Indian political circles are calling Khobragade a hero, with one party in her home state of Maharashtra saying it would talk to her about running for parliament.
Her father, Uttam Khobragade, said she rejected a plea bargain to be allowed to stay in the United States. If the diplomat had reached a settlement with her housekeeper, he said, the charges would have been dropped, but she decided against it.
"Devyani said this amounts to compromising the sovereignty of the country," Uttam Khobragade said, noting that the dispute with the housekeeper was being dealt with by Indian courts.
Khobragade risks arrest if she returns to the United States. Her husband and children, who are US citizens, are expected to follow her to India shortly, Uttam Khobragade said.