A guard outside the US embassy in Delhi.
NEW DELHI: India has ratcheted up the pressure on US diplomats in Delhi as the deadline nears for the indictment of an Indian envoy in New York charged with visa fraud and underpaying a maid.
The US has been told that commercial activities being undertaken from inside the American embassy premises in Delhi should be stopped by January 16, an indication that things are far from settled in the prolonged diplomatic row.
Cranking pressure on the US over the handcuffing and strip-search of its diplomat Devyani Khobragade, all US diplomatic vehicles flouting rules will also attract penalties.
According to government sources, several commercial activities were being undertaken under the aegis of the American Community Support Association (ACSA). The US embassy club is based in a vast compound located on embassy grounds in the centre of Delhi, and boasts a swimming pool, baseball pitch, stores selling imported US products and a number of restaurants. Along with the American Embassy School, it is central to the social life of families of many expatriate employees of US corporations in India.
“The US has been asked to provide the tax returns filed by it with Indian authorities for the commercial activities which are afforded through ACSA to non-diplomatic persons, including private American citizens and their families,” informed sources said, not wishing to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the issue.
Indian authorities have cited the provision of such commercial facilities to non-diplomats as a violation of Article 41(3) of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations 1961, which stipulates: “The premises of the mission must not be used in any manner incompatible with the functions of the mission as laid down in the present Convention or by other rules of general international law or by any special agreements in force between the sending and the receiving State. “
It a related development, it is also understood that US diplomatic vehicles will now attract penalties for all traffic related offenses such as unauthorised parking, not stopping at red light, dangerous driving etc, the sources added.
“Necessary action against Vehicles with AF (Applied for) number plates is also on the cards,” the sources added.
India has already withdrawn the airport passes given to US diplomats in India and the special diplomatic identity cards issued to them as part of reciprocal measures after the arrest of Khobragade.
The arrest last month of Devyani Khobragade, the Indian deputy consul general in New York, enraged Indians and has prompted the biggest crisis in relations between Delhi and Washington for many years.
Tensions rose further when the prosecutor handling the case in New York issued a hard-hitting statement accusing Delhi of turning a blind eye to exploitation of domestic workers serving its envoys overseas. The latest move is “simply in line with a policy of strict reciprocity”, a senior Indian official said.
Though John Kerry, the US secretary of state, has expressed his “regret” for the arrest, this falls far short of the full apology that India wants.
“The exact words aren’t important. But either this was a mistake or a clear indication of how little they value their relationship with India. If it was a mistake, they can say sorry and we can move on,” the official said.
Delhi has demanded that all charges be withdrawn and has transferred Khobragade, 39, to its mission at the United Nations. This theoretically gives her full diplomatic immunity, but also implies a change in immigration status which has to be allowed by the US state department.
Khobragade, 39, is accused of declaring on visa documents that she would pay the nanny she brought from India the minimum wage in New York, and then making her work long hours for a fraction of the agreed rate. Freed on payment of a $250,000 bond, she is due in court on January 13 and could face a maximum sentence of 10 years if convicted.
Her lawyer is believed to have applied for the date by which the diplomat has to be charged to be pushed back to allow discussions with prosecutors.
India had already curtailed privileges offered to US diplomats to bring them in line with the treatment of Indian envoys to the United States. Since December, the US ambassador in Delhi can be subjected to airport frisking and most consular staff have reduced levels of immunity.
Concrete security barriers were removed from a road near the embassy last month, apparently in retaliation for the loss of a parking spot for the Indian ambassador in Washington.
India is also preparing to take steps against the embassy school, which it suspects may be employing some staff in violation of visa requirements, government sources told Reuters.
There have been several previous incidents involving senior Indian diplomats in the US and domestic staff brought from India. In 2011 the Indian consul general, Prabhu Dayal, was accused by his maid of forced labour and sexual harassment, charges he called “complete nonsense” and that were later dropped.
A year earlier a US judge recommended that an Indian diplomat and her husband pay a maid nearly $1.5m in compensation for being forced to work without pay and suffering “barbaric treatment” in their luxury Manhattan apartment.
The outrage in India has been fuelled by politicians’ unwillingness to seem out of step with public mood with a general election only months away.
Relations between the US and India have long been rocky, though steadily improving since a nadir in the 1970s. Barack Obama received a warm welcome on his visit in 2010. However, there remains deep suspicion of Washington in Delhi, and in India more generally, and many US officials see India as a difficult partner.