NEW DELHI: India vowed on Wednesday to bring one of its diplomats home at any price after her arrest in New York, as she told how she broke down in tears after being stripped and cavity-searched.
As a leading daily hailed the government for “taking on Uncle Sam”, Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid pledged to “restore the dignity” of the diplomat—whose treatment at the hands of a superpower has touched a raw nerve in India.
Khurshid’s promise came a day after India announced a series of reprisals and despite an overnight plea by the US State Department not to allow the row to damage relations.
“It is my duty to bring the lady back,” Khurshid told lawmakers.
“We have to restore her dignity and I will do it at any cost,” he added in the highest-level intervention by an Indian official since deputy consul general Devyani Khobragade was arrested last Thursday.
“Today, our paramount concern, interest and determination is to be able to intervene effectively and specifically to ensure the dignity of our officer is absolutely preserved.”
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh then further stoked the furore by calling her arrest “deplorable” in brief comments reported by the Press Trust of India.
The US Marshals Service confirmed on Tuesday that Khobragade, 39, had been strip-searched like other prisoners after being detained while dropping her two children off at school.
US authorities say she not only paid a domestic servant a fraction of the minimum wage but also lied in a visa application for the employee, an Indian national who has since absconded.
In an email to colleagues published Wednesday, Khobragade said she told arresting authorities that she had diplomatic immunity—only to suffer repeated searches and to be jailed with “common criminals”.
“I must admit that I broke down many times as the indignities of repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches, swabbing, in a hold-up with common criminals and drug addicts were all being imposed upon me despite my incessant assertions of immunity,” she said in the email.
“I got the strength to regain composure and remain dignified, thinking that I must represent all of my colleagues and my country with confidence and pride.”
The revelation that a high-ranking diplomat could be subjected to such treatment while on a posting to the United States has caused huge offence in a country that sees itself as an emerging world power.
India was locked in a furious row with Italy earlier this year when the Rome government initially 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.
With a general election just months away, the ruling Congress and the nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are both keen to be seen as standing up to the United States over the issue.
Yashwant Sinha, a former BJP foreign minister, said Tuesday that India should now arrest American gays who were in India after a ruling last week that upheld a colonial-era ban on homosexuality.
“India takes on Uncle Sam,” read the front-page headline of The Hindustan Times, while the Mail Today splashed with “Bulldozer Diplomacy” on top of a picture of a digger dragging away concrete barricades outside the US embassy on Tuesday.
US consular officials have also been told to return identity cards that speed up travel into and through India. Import clearances for them, including for alcohol, have been suspended.
The ultra-nationalist Shiv Sena organization staged an anti-US protest on Wednesday, shouting slogans such as “Down with Barack Obama!”
“The way America has tortured our diplomat is wrong. They stripped her down and humiliated an Indian woman, an Indian representative and we will not tolerate that,” said Jaiprakash Baghal, one of the protesters.
Another could be seen naked except for an American flag wrapped around his waist and a mask of US President Barack Obama as the demonstrators marched towards the American embassy.
State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf admitted the arrest was a “sensitive issue” but insisted it was a “separate and isolated incident” which should not be allowed to affect broader ties.
Harf added that as a consular official, Khobragade does not have full diplomatic immunity but has consular immunity applicable only to her professional duties.
Khobragade is alleged to have paid her worker just $3.31 an hour despite signing a contract to pay her some three times that amount.
Pay and conditions for servants is kept mostly private in India but there have been a number of high-level cases in the US about their treatment.
In New York in 2011, an Indian diplomat was accused of treating his domestic helper as a “slave” by forcing her to work long hours for $300 a month, confiscating her passport and making her sleep in a closet.
India backed the diplomat and expressed disappointment over his treatment.