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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - The late-night departure of a diplomat who was indicted for lying about how much she paid her housekeeper might be enough to resolve the spat between the United States and India, observers said Friday.
India remains angry at the treatment of Devyani Khobragade, who was handcuffed and strip-searched in New York after being arrested on allegations she provided bogus information on her housekeeper’s visa application for entry into the U.S.
“No American diplomat would have been treated like that in India,” said Suhasini Haidar, host of a popular Indian cable television news show.
Khobragade was flying home Friday after a deal in which she was indicted but allowed to leave after being granted full diplomatic immunity. It means she cannot return to the U.S. - except in her diplomatic role as a member of the Indian mission to the United Nations – or she will face charges.
However, will that be enough to rebuild ties between Washington and New Delhi?
Khobragade ‘s case has caused outrage in India, where U.S. diplomats had their ID cards revoked in retaliation, and has dominated the headlines as the country prepares for an election. Her arrest, outside her daughter’s school, was denounced by the Indian government as "barbaric."
India retaliated once again Friday, asking the United States to withdraw a diplomat from its embassy in New Delhi. But few in India see any permanent damage in ties.
“Pragmatism kicked in,” said Nilim Dutta, executive director of the Strategic Research and Analysis Organization think tank in New Delhi. “It always happens when so much is at stake for such important countries. Some amount of posturing happened on both sides, but nations are not run on emotions alone. I don’t see this playing out for very long. “
Thursday’s 20-page indictment by U.S. prosecutors accuses Khobragade of creating a fake employment contract for her housekeeper and nanny Sangeet Richard that claimed she would be paid $9.75 an hour for 40 hours of work a week.
In reality, the grand jury found, Khobragade had negotiated a secret deal with the maid to pay her just $3.33 an hour and ended up paying her less than $2 an hour by making her work 90-plus hours a week with no days off, including sick time.
However, the manner of her arrest still angers many Indians. “She wasn’t treated like a diplomat,” said the TV host Haidar. “That triggered off a lot of outrage. The fact that she was an Indian woman, a mother, who was handcuffed and brought into court, after she was strip searched and thrown into a cell with drug dealers and prostitutes for a non-lethal crime, really broke things down.
“You cannot treat her as an ordinary person, because she’s not one.”
She added that the bitterness felt in India can be explained by a “cultural disconnect” between the two nations. “In India, the case was about the mistreated diplomat. In America, it was about the underpaid maid.”
This case had a dimension that went beyond foreign policy for both sides, Haider said. “On a personal level, it was hurtful for diplomats from both sides. That’s unique. When countries face off, their government-to-government ties are affected, but not personal ties. This was personal.”
Allowing Khobragade to return to India was a move that put diplomacy ahead of the law, said Dutta.
“Cool heads prevailed in the U.S., and much of it was thanks to John Kerry who was, unfortunately, traveling when this breakdown happened initially. The Americans have realized that they can’t just go legal here, they can’t keep on defining this issue based on strict legal interpretations," said Dutta. "They had to be more nuance, more diplomatic.”
Dutta said India’s recent purchase of 12 Boeing Poseidon military jets was a sign that Washington and New Delhi have “a special relationship.”
“This was a minor matter, at the end of the day,” said Dutta. “It doesn’t fit in the larger U.S.-Indian interest. If you look back, it’s amazing how these two, great countries were fighting over a housekeeper.”