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American diplomats unlikely to get back their privileges soon

Washington/New Delhi, Jan 13 (IANS) Commercial activities inside the US embassy premises in Delhi are set to cease from Thursday. And although the Indo-US diplomatic row may have abated, these facilities are unlikely to be restored soon.

American diplomats in India enjoy exceptional privileges and have been allowed to run a club, a duty-free liquor shop and other goods and leisure activities from the premises of their embassy.

Indian authorities have for long adopted what in diplomatic parlance is known as a reciprocal wink-and-nod policy.

India has informed the US that the commercial activities undertaken from inside the embassy premises should cease by Jan 16.

Although the bitter India-US row over an Indian diplomat may have been defused for now, Americans in Delhi are unlikely to get the swimming pool, hamburgers, bowling, booze and beauty parlour back anytime soon.

This is more so because the US is loathe to accept the principle of reciprocity in the matter of diplomatic privileges and, those in the know here say, expect one-sided gestures.

Several commercial activities are undertaken under the aegis of the American Community Support Association (ACSA).

These include a restaurant/bar, video club, bowling alley, swimming pool, sports field beauty parlour and gym.

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 expatriate American citizens and their families as well as well-connected Indians close to the embassy.

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.

This stipulates that “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…”

It is also understood that US diplomatic vehicles will now attract penalties for all traffic related offences such as unauthorized parking, red light jumping and dangerous driving.

The Americans are “generous” in interpreting international conventions when it relates to them and very “stingy” when it comes to others, said a diplomatic source familiar with the chain of events related to former US-based Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade.

India’s then deputy consul general in New York was arrested Dec 12 when she went to drop her child to school. She was strip-searched and accused of visa fraud.

It was only after weeks of hardball diplomacy by India did the US agree to send her back home and not prosecute her.

In retaliation, New Delhi expelled an American diplomat.

India has neither been “petty” nor “irresponsible” in “a vindictive campaign against US diplomats in New Delhi”, as the Washington Post said in a recent editorial, a diplomatic source said, noting that diplomatic privileges cannot be a one-way street.

Sridharan Madhusudhanan, press counsellor at the Indian embassy in Washington, said in a letter to the Post that US “officials posted in consulates have been issued identity cards with stipulations similar to those their Indian counterparts receive in the US.

“Securing immunities and privileges for US officials abroad is best done by respecting international conventions and according entitled courtesies in the US,” he wrote.

India has demanded that Indian diplomats be afforded “the same immunities and courtesies under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations that the US government seeks for its officials posted abroad.”

“Immunity is the fundamental concept on which diplomats operate,” another diplomatic source said.

“The US is very reluctant to commit and very quick to ask,” the source said, taking a look back at the Khobragade affair that has threatened to derail one of “the most important relationships” for both nations.

In choosing to criminalise “a wage dispute with a domestic employee”, the US had ignored a pre-existing legal case in India with Khobragade as the first complainant against her housekeeper and nanny Sangeeta Richard.

The Indian embassy has reached out to lawmakers to make its position understood on the Capitol Hill.

India’s new ambassador, S. Jaishankar, met key members of the India Caucus and House and Senate foreign affairs panels.

The overwhelming opinion on the Hill, according to officials in the know, was that “this should not have happened” and the US officials who chose to act the way they did were “apparently not in the business of thinking how the next day’s newspaper would look like”.

Now that the crisis has been defused with Khobragade’s return to India, the expectation is that “everybody realises the importance of the India-US relations” and steps are initiated to put the relationship back on track in the weeks ahead.

As the Americans in Delhi pine for their booze, burgers and bowling after Jan 16, they would hopefully remember a lesson learnt that it takes two to make diplomacy work, say diplomatic officials, including diplomats from other countries who support the Indian action.

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