US vies to move past 'isolated' diplomatic row with India


India's Deputy Consul General in New York, Devyani Khobragade, attends a Rutgers University event at India's Consulate General in New York, June 19, 2013. Photo - Reuters/Mohammed Jaffer/SnapsIndia

The United States 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 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 under-paying 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 stressed that the issue should not be allowed to derail a "vital relationship" -- a message amplified in a phone call Thursday by State Department number three Wendy Sherman to Indian Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh.

"What we're focused on now ... is working to move the relationship forward," 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 last Thursday's arrest of Khobragade, the deputy consul general at India's mission in New York, as she dropped her children off at school.

The 39-year-old, who is now free on bail, was detained over allegations that she paid the 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 has insisted Khobragade was arrested in the "most discreet" way possible and insisted 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."

But India's foreign ministry spokesman lashed out at Bharara's comments, saying "there is only one victim in this case (and) that victim is Devyani Khobragade."

India's Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid said he hoped the "valuable relationship" with Washington would soon return to an even keel.

But with a general election just months away, the ruling Congress party and the nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party are both 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 President Barack Obama's US administration is looking to bolster ties with New Delhi.

Khurshid reiterated 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 Thursday.

Responding to Kerry's olive branch, Indian Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath said "a mere regret won't make us happy."

"They must offer a clear apology and accept that they made a mistake, that is what we will be satisfied with."

The diplomat's father pressed for his daughter's unconditional freedom, saying he would go on hunger strike if action was not taken.

"No compensation is enough. We are not beggars," Uttam Khobragade said.

Khurshid confirmed that India was transferring Khobragade to its UN mission in New York to try to secure her full diplomatic immunity, instead of the partial immunity she currently has.

But the State Department must first be informed and give the green light.

And Harf noted that usually, a change in diplomatic immunity status "is not retroactive" and Khobragade would thus not enjoy immunity from the charges in the domestic worker case.

The dispute is the second diplomatic flare-up between India and a major Western nation this year.
India reacted furiously in March when Italy reneged on a promise to fly two marines back to New Delhi to face trial over a fatal shooting.

The marines did eventually return after India ordered immigration authorities to prevent Italy's ambassador from leaving the country.

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