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New Indian Ambassador arrives, efforts pick up to defuse row

S. Jaishankar

Washington, Dec 24 (IANS) With the arrival of the new Indian ambassador in Washington, efforts to defuse the India-US diplomatic row over the arrest and strip search of an Indian diplomat are gaining momentum.

While S Jaishankar, who served as the Indian ambassador in China for the last four years, may be able to present his credentials to President Barack Obama, away on a family holiday in Hawaii, only in the New Year, he is expected to plunge into the crisis solving mode straight away.

The new ambassador, who played key role in negotiating the landmark India-US civil nuclear deal and other initiatives, is a familiar face to the Washington bureaucracy dealing with South Asia. Jaishankar, son of India’s leading strategic thinker, the late K Subrahmanyam, is expected to get the process moving with meetings with Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Nisha Desai Biswal and other US officials after the Christmas break.

Meanwhile, diplomats engaged in talks to resolve the diplomatic row, got a two week window to defuse the crisis with Devyani Khobragade Monday getting a waiver from personal appearance at pre-trial processes related to the case.

Khobragade is scheduled to appear before a Manhattan court to face charges of visa fraud and underpaying her housekeeper and babysitter, on Jan 13. “The exemption is important but not significant. Nothing has moved forward and I don’t see any significant progress during the holidays,” said Khobragade’s lawyer Daniel Arshack.

India’s bid to get fuller “diplomatic immunity” for Khobragade, also moved a step forward Monday with the UN processing the Indian government’s request to register her as a member of its permanent mission. However, the UN spokesman’s office said Monday the State Department must approve the transfer of Khobragade from her job as deputy consul general in New York to her new job as counsellor at the UN mission.

It’s only after State Department approval, she will get full “diplomatic immunity” as opposed to limited “consular immunity” for actions related to her official work, but the current charges against her will remain on the book, as State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki has made clear.

Khobragade could still be prosecuted once she leaves the UN job unless the US prosecutors agree to drop all charges against her as demanded by India. The US has so far declined to do so saying “We take law enforcement seriously”.

If Khobragade, who was released on a $250,000 bond after her Dec 12 arrest, is allowed to leave the country after she gets her diplomatic immunity with the case continuing, she would find it difficult to ever return to the US. Therein lies the rub as the diplomat’s husband Aakash Singh Rathore, a wine expert and philosophy professor, is a US citizen.

Meanwhile, a group of Indian-Americans has initiated an online petition to the Obama administration to “Immediately drop all charges against Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade.”

Protesting “the manner of detention” of Khobragade, the petition created Dec 18 on White House’s “We the People” forum, describes her as “one of the faces of Indian government for the Indian community in the United States.”

“Her public humiliation injures the sentiments of the Indian American community. Such incidents are bound to strain the Indo-US relations,” it says.

To date 476 persons have signed the petition. It needs to get a total of 100,000 signatures by Jan 17 to get a response from the White House.

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