The nasty faceoff between India and the US over the arrest of senior diplomat Devyani Khobragade has taken a crucial, perhaps irreversible, turn with Washington hardening its stand and refusing to drop charges against Khobragade as India has demanded.
The Indian government adopted a line of vigorous defence and strident criticism of the US after massive pan-India outrage erupted following the arrest and alleged ill-treatment of Khobragade, triggering an equally tough line from Washington, which has said the law of the land will take its course in the case.
Secretary of State John Kerry's conciliatory tone and expression of "regret" over the incident was earlier rejected by India, which said no more than a full apology and dropping of charges against Khobragade, India's deputy consul general in New York, was acceptable.
Tightening Legal Knots
The Indian media has reported that a US State Department spokesperson has rejected India's demand for dropping charges against the diplomat, calling it a "law enforcement issue".
Marie Harf, the spokesperson, also said the US has taken seriously the allegations that the maid's family was intimidated in India, which justified moving the family to the US before Khobragade was arrested.
The Indian foreign ministry had said this move smacked of conspiracy by US officials that led to the eventual arrest and alleged ill-treatment of the senior diplomat.
"The US has taken steps to re-unite the alleged victim with her family. We are aware of the existence of allegations that the family was intimidated in India, I can't confirm those but in general we take those allegations seriously," said Harf.
"We certainly take these types of allegations very seriously... We very clearly have said every year in diplomatic notes to every country that has diplomats here throughout the world that there are obligations they have for their staffs when they bring them to the United States. We make those obligations very clear and we take any allegations that they haven't done so very seriously," Harf added.
The stress placed by the US authorities on this aspect of the case would augur ill for the Indian diplomat as it shows the prosecutors are trying to build a solid case against her.
15-Year Prison Term if Convicted
If the prosecution goes ahead with the case and the US State Department does not approve of India's move to shift her to the country's Permanent Mission at the UN that would give her full diplomatic immunity, the process could lead to a lengthy trial. Under US laws, Khobragade could face a maximum prison term of 15 years if convicted.
Khobragade was arrested on 12 December, on charges that she committed fraud by fudging the visa application for her Indian maid, Sangeeta Richards, and that she was paying the maid less than the minimum wage stipulated under US visa requirements.
The prosecutors also alleged Khobragade had signed two contracts with the maid before she appeared for the visa interview, and instructed her not to reveal the second contract, which specified lower wages than what the US laws assured for domestic helps.
Preet Bharara, US Attorney for Manhattan, stressed this point and said the aggrieved party in this case is not the diplomat, but the maid who was paid less than what was offered.
Worsening of India-US Ties
The ugly row has no parallel in the history of Indo-US diplomacy, though allegations of ill-treatment of maids by Indian diplomats had surfaced even earlier as well.
While India believes the US should have adopted means other than public arrest and humiliation of one of its senior diplomats, the US prosecutors see this case as a normal one, and point out that the US has acted strongly in the past in cases involving diplomats, including those of Russia.
Though the Indian establishment strongly supports the diplomat, the widely held perception is that Khobragade was a sitting duck for Bharara, an activist attorney who has crusaded against the high and mighty irrespective of their status, nationality and wealth.
Analysts have pointed out that the diplomatic spat between the countries has the potential to drag bilateral relations to the lowest point in history, akin to the crisis of 1971 when the US sent warships to the region during the India-Pakistan war over Bangladesh's independence.
If the US sticks to its line of treating the case as just another criminal charge, and goes ahead with prosecution, it will be difficult to head off a serious crisis.
Reaction and Retribution
India had reacted swiftly and strongly in the wake of the arrest. New Delhi stripped US diplomats in the country of special privileges, took back their airport passes and ID cards and imposed controls over import supplies to the US embassy. It also removed a security layer around the US embassy in New Delhi, summoned the US ambassador and demanded an apology and withdrawal of the case.
Developments following the arrest initially suggested the US might have overplayed its hand in the case, but the legal weight has apparently swung in favour of the US officials with the officials of the US Marshalls Service explaining that the diplomat was not cavity-searched.
"In reference to the question about the cavity search the answer is no. Khobragade was subject to the same search procedures as other arrestees held within the general prisoner population in the Southern District of New York which in this case was a strip-search," a statement by the Marshalls Service said.
US Approval for Shifting Khobragade to UN Permanent Mission
After Khobragade was released on bail, India said she will be moved to its Permanent UN Mission in New York, making her eligible for full diplomatic immunity and avoid further detentions that were likely.
However, this move has to be approved by the US State Department and several processes are involved. Her visa application through the UN Secretariat will ultimately go to Foggy Bottom for approval.
However, it is not clear if the US would approve this move, which effectively means it has gone back on the stand that she had committed a grave crime and was liable for prosecution.