New Delhi: The United States, on Friday said that it was withdrawing a diplomat from India in hopes it would end a bitter dispute that started with the arrest and strip search of an Indian diplomat in New York.
Washington's announcement that it was complying with a demand from New Delhi for the expulsion of the US official came hours after Devyani Khobragade, India's deputy consul general in New York, left the US.
Khobragade, 39, is accused of exploiting her Indian-born housekeeper and nanny, allegedly having her work more than 100 hours a week for low pay and lying about it on a visa form. Khobragade has maintained her innocence, and Indian officials have described her treatment as barbaric.
In an apparent compromise, she was indicted by a federal grand jury but also granted immunity that allowed her to leave the United States. Khobragade arrived in New Delhi on Friday, where she was met at the airport by her father and a sister.
"She just said, 'Papa, I love you' and that's all. And she's happy to be back," her father, Uttam Khobragade, told reporters. Khobragade left the airport separately through an exit that is not accessible to the public.
Many believed that Khobragade's return to India would be enough to give both countries a way to save face. India, however, asked the United States on Friday to withdraw a diplomat from the US embassy in New Delhi, and the state department said it was complying, although with "deep regret".
"We expect and hope that this will now come to closure, and the Indians will now take significant steps with us to improve our relationship and return it to a more constructive place," spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington.
Requesting the recall of a diplomat is a serious and fairly unusual move that sends a message to Washington that India's government doesn't accept the legitimacy of the court action in New York.
Given the strategic partnership between India and the US and more than $100 billion in trade, any further escalation in the case would not be in the interest of either country, analysts said.
Psaki did not identify the US diplomat but said it was the individual whose expulsion was sought by India. India's foreign ministry described the person as of the same rank as Khobragade and somehow involved in the case, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.
Much of India's outrage stems from the circumstances of Khobragade's arrest, which were seen as unnecessarily humiliating. Khobragade was picked up on December 13 and then strip-searched while in custody, which the US Marshals say is common practice.
In India, the process was seen as a brutal affront to a middle-class, educated woman, and a violation of courtesies afforded to diplomats the world over. The case has also led to complaints in India that the United States is not treating it like a powerful nation on equal footing with Washington.
"The case goes beyond the dignity of one diplomat," said Sreeram Chaulia, an international affairs expert at Jindal School of International Affairs in New Delhi. "India made its point, which is that you can't take India for granted."
India also unleashed a steady stream of retaliatory measures against US diplomats. Some of the measures, such as preventing the American Center in New Delhi from screening movies, were seen by some observers as petty. But others raised alarm, including removing concrete traffic barriers around the US embassy and revoking diplomats' ID cards.
A visit to India next week by US energy secretary Ernest Moniz has been cancelled.
"It's a shame this came to the fore over one individual," said Lalit Mansingh, India's ambassador to the US from 2001 to 2004. "It sends the message that we're touchy about personal integrity, rather than about issues of global importance."
Ties with the United States have chilled in recent years over several serious policy issues, including India's delays in enacting more business-friendly reforms and the US National Security Agency's alleged spying on New Delhi and other foreign governments.
The US charges against Khobragade will remain pending until she can be brought to court, either through a waiver of immunity or her return to the US without immunity status, according to the office of US attorney Preet Bharara.
Khobragade's lawyer, Daniel Arshack, said his client was "pleased to be returning to her country".
"Her head is held high," he said. "She knows she has done no wrong and she looks forward to assuring that the truth is known."
The indictment paints a picture of Khobragade as a harsh employer who refused to allow her housekeeper, Sangeeta Richard, days off, even telling her "not to get sick because it was expensive".
US prosecutors say Khobragade claimed to pay Richard $4,500 per month in order to obtain a visa for her. But they say Khobragade actually paid Richard $573 per month and often forced her to work more than 100 hours a week without a single full day off. The long hours meant Richard was earning $1.42 or less per hour, the indictment says.
After about six months of working for Khobragade, Richard fled and sought help from a nonprofit group that works with human trafficking victims because Khobragade refused to hand over her passport and allow her to return home, according to the indictment.
It also alleges that after the housekeeper fled, Khobragade and a relative tried to intimidate Richard's family in India by demanding they reveal Richard's whereabouts. Khobragade also launched a legal complaint against Richard in India.
In her first public comments, Richard, on Thursday said that she had planned to work for a few years in the US to support her family and then return to India.
"I never thought that things would get so bad here, that I would work so much that I did not have time to sleep or eat or have time to myself," she said in a statement released by the anti-trafficking group Safe Horizon.
She said she tried to return to India but her request was denied.
"I would like to tell other domestic workers who are suffering as I did — you have rights and do not let anyone exploit you," said Richard, who has been vilified in India and accused of blackmailing her employer.
The issue of immunity has been a key aspect of the case. Federal officials initially argued that Khobragade's immunity was limited to acts performed in the exercise of consular functions. But on Thursday, the US accepted India's request to accredit her to the United Nations, which confers broader immunity. It would have been almost unprecedented for the US to deny such a request unless she posed a national security risk.
The United States then asked India to waive the newly granted immunity so it could prosecute Khobragade, but the Indians refused. As a result, the US requested her to leave the US.
Psaki said the charges against Khobragade "are not wiped", and before her departure she was told she's not permitted to return to the United States except to submit to the jurisdiction of the court.
Khobragade's name would be placed in visa and immigration lookout systems to prevent the routine issuance of any future visa, and upon her departure a warrant may be issued for her arrest, Psaki added. But James Margolin, a spokesman for US attorney Preet Bharara, said the office cannot comment on whether a warrant will be issued.