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India, US using diplomacy in bid to end envoy row

Publication Date : 22-12-2013


India and the United States are continuing to work the diplomatic channels to resolve a stand-off over the arrest and strip-search of a diplomat in New York for allegedly underpaying her maid.

India's Commerce Minister Anand Sharma said the relationship with the US was too important to "disengage", while External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid said talks were still going on.

"The US is a valuable partner, and it must understand the value of the partnership," he told reporters in New Delhi. "Conversation at different levels is on to resolve the issue."

"I believe people in both countries wouldn't want the old ties we share to get unsettled by this one incident," he said in remarks milder than on Friday, when he called the 48-hour detention of Dr Devyani Khobragade, 39, by US marshals "hurtful" and "unacceptable".

New Delhi applied to the United Nations for Dr Khobragade after transferring her from India's New York Consulate to its UN Permanent Mission on Tuesday.

But the US has warned that such immunity would not be retroactive to the current charges against her, even though it would shield her from future arrests.

Khobragade faces charges of fraud and making false statements for allegedly paying her maid, Sangeeta Richard, less than New York's minimum wage after submitting a visa application promising to abide by the state's salary requirements.

News that Dr Khobragade was strip-searched after her December 12 arrest outraged India.

In Mumbai, protesters ransacked Domino's Pizza, a US outlet, to protest against the treatment of Khobragade. In Hyderabad, two dozen activists of the Democratic Youth Federation of India, a left-wing youth outfit, protested for her in front of the US Consulate.

In the US, however, there was backlash. Domestic workers protested outside the Indian Consulate in New York on Friday over the alleged mistreatment of the maid. "Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Slavery has to go!" chanted a group of more than 30 domestic workers.

Richard, an Indian national, had been working for Khobragade for seven months in the US, when she went "missing" on June 23.

An attempt to locate her by the Indian mission proved fruitless and her husband, Philip Richard, refused to lodge a missing person's report back in India.

US prosecutors say Khobragade had promised to pay US$9.75 per hour, the minimum wage in New York, for not more than 40 hours per week in the maid's visa application.

Instead, US prosecutors said Richard was made to sign a second contract, which paid her less than $3.31 an hour and required that she work much longer hours.

India's Ministry of External Affairs, in turn, accused the maid of "blackmailing" Khobragade to enable her to emigrate to the US illegally on the grounds of mistreatment.

The episode has also raised a debate in India on minimum wages and the treatment of domestic workers.

Editorials in Indian newspapers and magazines have slammed the culture of underpaid maids and one that frowns on the notion of them looking for better careers.

There are no laws in India covering domestic workers, and maids often work long hours for little pay.

"This issue has brought into the forefront the issue of maids and wages. People are talking, so one day maybe we can see law spelling out a national minimum wage," said Rishi Kant of non-profit Shakti Vahini.

There is also a move under way to change rules so that maids are taken on government contracts, meaning they would be employed by the government instead of by individual diplomats.


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