The US on Thursday pointed to the broad sweep of its relationship with India as it tried to move past a row over the strip-searching of an Indian diplomat, but stopped short of the apology demanded by New Delhi.
Top US State Department officials called their Indian counterparts for the third time in two days to try to draw a line under the controversy over the female diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, who is accused by US prosecutors of underpaying her Indian maid in New York.
Subsequent revelations that Khobragade was stripped by US Marshals and subjected to an invasive body search have caused outrage in India, whose government wants Washington to drop the case and offer an apology.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has expressed “regret” and said that the issue should not be allowed to derail a “vital relationship” — a message amplified in a telephone call on Thursday by US State Department No. 3 Wendy Sherman to Indian Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh.
“What we’re focused on now ... is working to move the relationship forward,” US State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters after the call, in which she said “both parties affirmed our intent to keep working through this complex issue.”
Harf stressed that the “isolated episode” was “certainly not indicative of our broad and deep and vital bilateral relationship.”
“We work together on a host of issues, whether it’s economic issues, trade, Afghanistan [or] other issues, and that is only going to continue to increase,” the spokeswoman said.
The row was sparked by Khobragade’s arrest on Dec. 12, the deputy consul-general at India’s mission in New York, as she dropped her children off at school.
The 39-year-old, who has been released on bail, was detained over allegations that she paid her domestic worker a small fraction of New York’s minimum wage and lied about the employee’s salary in a visa application.
US federal prosecutor Preet Bharara said Khobragade was arrested in the “most discreet” way possible and added that his sole motivation was to uphold the rule of law, protect victims and hold accountable anyone who breaks the law “no matter how powerful, rich or connected they are.”
India’s foreign ministry spokesman responded to Bharara’s comments, saying “there is only one victim in this case [and] that victim is Devyani Khobragade.”
Indian Minister of Foreign Affairs Salman Khurshid said he hoped the “valuable relationship” with Washington would soon return to an even keel.
With a general election months away in India, the Indian Congress Party and the nationalist opposition, Bharatiya Janata Party, are keen to demonstrate willingness to take a tough diplomatic line.
In an interview with Indian television, Khurshid acknowledged there was “a sense of hurt” over the treatment of the diplomat at a time when US President Barack Obama’s administration is looking to bolster ties with New Delhi.
Khurshid repeated calls for the case against the diplomat to be withdrawn and branded her treatment as “terrible.”
“I cannot believe if a US senator was arrested, he would be put through this behavior... I would rather not prejudge. Let us allow the American government to respond,” he said on Thursday.
Responding to Kerry’s olive branch, Indian Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath said “a mere regret won’t make us happy.”