MUMBAI, India — The Indian official whose arrest last month in New York sparked a diplomatic crisis returned to her homeland Friday after the United States granted her immunity from charges that she falsified visa papers and lied about underpaying her housekeeper.
Devyani Khobragade, India's deputy consul general in New York, landed in New Delhi about 10 p.m. and was whisked wordlessly past throngs of shouting reporters, her head covered by a black shawl. Before she left the U.S., the 39-year-old diplomat "reiterated her innocence on charges filed against her," according to a statement by the Indian Foreign Ministry.
Her return capped a dramatic 24 hours in which Khobragade was indicted by a federal grand jury in New York but was granted immunity and allowed to leave the country. The State Department orchestrated the deal in an attempt to end a dispute that has badly damaged relations between the United States and India and resulted in a series of restrictions on American personnel in the Indian capital.
As Khobragade flew home, India expelled a U.S. official in New Delhi in a reciprocal diplomatic measure, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. "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," Psaki said.
Khobragade's case spilled into public view when she was arrested Dec. 12 on Manhattan's Upper West Side, after she had dropped her daughters off at school. The U.S. attorney in Manhattan, Preet Bharara, accused Khobragade of violating U.S. labor laws and said her arrest was handled appropriately. However, the story sparked outrage in India after it was reported that U.S. marshals strip-searched her and placed her in detention along with other criminal suspects.
Many Indians regarded such treatment as highly disrespectful to a diplomat, particularly a woman, and officials in New Delhi complained that the issue was made public instead of being handled quietly between the two governments.
"The people of India have always believed that she has not done anything wrong," Uttam Khobragade, her father, said Friday in a phone interview.
India responded to her arrest by removing traffic barricades outside the U.S. Embassy, revoking American diplomats' licenses to import alcohol duty-free and barring non-diplomats from using the embassy's social club, whose swimming pool, beauty salon, tennis court and other facilities are popular among American expatriates.
The U.S. called off visits to India by Nisha Desai Biswal, the assistant secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, and Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz.
The affair laid bare the underlying mistrust that still characterizes the U.S.-India relationship despite years of efforts to nurture closer ties between the world's two biggest democracies. Since a landmark bilateral partnership on nuclear energy was signed in 2008, stumbling blocks have arisen on various issues, including intellectual property rights and visas for Indian high-tech workers.
Retired Indian diplomats — who came of age during the Cold War, when India and the Soviet Union were allies — say the relationship still is marked by mutual suspicion. Naresh Chandra, who served as India's ambassador to Washington in the late 1990s, said this episode could fester for years.
"The manner in which this whole thing was conducted will never be forgiven by India," he said.
State Department officials privately expressed frustration that Bharara's office seemed to want to make an example of Khobragade, but they also were baffled by how quickly the issue appeared to spin out of control in India. Analysts said both countries would welcome the chance to reset the relationship, especially because the U.S. wants India's cooperation in ending the war in Afghanistan, managing China's military rise and other crucial policy issues.
"Although both sides have reason to be unhappy with the resolution, the agreement does allow them both to claim victory to their respective domestic audiences," said Milan Vaishnav, an expert on India at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "India's politicians can claim that they protected the 'honor' of one of their own, while the Obama administration can claim to have upheld the rule of law."
Ending the affair required a diplomatic pas de deux. The State Department first acceded to an Indian request to accredit Khobragade — a mid-ranking consular official — to its permanent mission in New York under a higher-grade visa that affords full diplomatic immunity. U.S. officials then asked India to waive that immunity, but India refused as expected and transferred Khobragade to New Delhi, spiriting her home hours after the indictment was announced.
The indictment accused Khobragade of creating a false contract stating that she would pay her housekeeper, an Indian national, $9.75 per hour in order to obtain a visa for the housekeeper to accompany her to the United States.
Khobragade allegedly then had the housekeeper sign a true contract for a far lower wage that equated to about $1.42 per hour, owing to workweeks that often exceeded 100 hours, according to the indictment.
Indian officials accused the United States of hypocrisy, saying that American officials routinely demand immunity for their own nationals in foreign postings for more serious offenses. Many invoked the example of Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor who gunned down two people in the Pakistani city of Lahore in 2011, and whom U.S. officials belatedly labeled a diplomat to keep him from facing murder charges.
"His diplomatic status hadn't been notified to the Pakistani government until after he had killed two people," said Husain Haqqani, who was Pakistan's ambassador to Washington at the time of the incident. "And yet the U.S. demanded that Pakistan extend diplomatic immunity to him."
Davis eventually was spared prosecution and allowed to leave Pakistan after the victims' families were paid blood money, a common practice under Islamic law.
Uttam Khobragade, who described his daughter as a doting mother, said her children remained in the United States but would rejoin her in India after a few months, along with her husband, a U.S. citizen.
He shrugged off the indictment, saying she could continue her diplomatic career away from the United States.
"America is not the only country where people can go," he said. "There are more civilized countries."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times