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 U.S. Embassy.
The diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, the deputy consul general in New York, was arrested 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.
Federal prosecutors say that the charges stem from a promise Khobragade made to U.S. 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.
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.
Indian officials said that Khobragade was arrested and handcuffed on the street as she was leaving 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 is the assertion that Khobragade, 39, was strip-searched after her arrest. Some Indian newspapers published reports claiming that she was subjected to repeated cavity searches. 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.” Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh summoned Nancy Powell, the U.S. ambassador to India, and lodged a strong protest at the “unacceptable treatment” of the diplomat.
In addition to removing the maze of concrete security barriers surrounding the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 Khobragade was strip-searched after her arrest.
At a briefing Monday in Washington, the State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters that the department’s diplomatic security personnel followed “standard procedures during the arrest” of Khobragade. “After her arrest, she was passed on to the U.S. marshals for intake and processing,” Harf said.