Simmering tension between New Delhi and Washington over the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York escalated into a major row Tuesday with the boycott of a visiting U.S. Congressional delegation by India's political leaders.
Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi and federal home minister Sushilkumar Shinde refused to meet the visiting officials in protest against the "despicable and barbaric" treatment meted to the arrested diplomat Devyani Khobragade in New York.
The 39-year-old Indian diplomat was arrested on Thursday as she was dropping her daughter to school. She was handcuffed in public and later freed on $250,000 bail. U.S. police accuse Khobragade of lying in her visa application for the purposes of recruiting an Indian national who was employed as housekeeper at her home and was paid less than $4 an hour, which is lower than the U.S. minimum wage.
News of Khobragade being held in a prison cell in the company of drug addicts and being subject to a strip search have angered many in India's political class. The diplomat was also subject to a DNA swab.
As part of a series of retaliatory measures, all U.S. diplomats stationed in the country have been ordered to turn in their identity cards. Meanwhile, police barricades outside the U.S. embassy in New Delhi have been removed and access for U.S. diplomatic staff to airports curtailed.
The five-member U.S. delegation to New Delhi facing a general boycott, is led by Congressman George Holding, representative for North Carolina's 13th congressional district, who serves on the foreign affairs committee and judiciary committee. The four other Congressmen are Pete Olson, David Schweikert, Robert Woodall and Madeliene Bordallo.
The spat between the United States and India strikes a discordant note at a time when relationship between the two countries is otherwise on a high, especially in the last decade, which has seen unprecedented cooperation in various areas of civilian and defense sectors.
Reacting to the Khobragade's incarceration, India's national security adviser Shiv Shankar Menon described the treatment as "despicable and barbaric."
Media reports quoting Indian government sources said New Delhi is considering "reciprocal steps" later on Tuesday so as to "convey a clear message that this treatment of the diplomat is unacceptable."
On Monday, speaker of the lower house (Lok Sabha) of India's parliament Meira Kumar declined to meet the visiting U.S. congressional delegation.
Prior to the latest boycott of the visiting delegation, India had already registered its anger over events. Foreign secretary Sujatha Singh summoned the U.S. envoy in New Delhi, Nancy Powell, and protested the "unacceptable treatment" meted out to Khobragade, a senior consular officer.
But the U.S. has defended its actions saying its marshals followed standard procedures. Countering India's stand that the arrest flouted the Vienna convention governing diplomatic immunity, the U.S. said diplomats enjoyed immunity from their courts only in the exercise of their consular functions.
"We understand that this is a sensitive issue for many in India," said Marie Harf, State Department deputy spokeswoman. "Accordingly, we are looking into the intake procedures surrounding this arrest to ensure that all appropriate procedures were followed and every opportunity for courtesy was extended."
India has said even if a diplomat is arrested for a purported serious crime, all courtesies must be extended to the diplomat and not be treated like a common criminal.