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Strip-searched Indian diplomat from family of achievers

Publication Date : 19-12-2013


Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade – at the centre of of the worst diplomatic row between India and the United States in recent times – is a doctor turned diplomat described by her colleagues as “hardworking” and “forthright”.

On December 12, the 39-year-old diplomat was arrested while taking her daughters to school in New York, handcuffed in public, subjected to a cavity search, and thrown into jail with drug addicts. Her alleged offence? Underpaying her domestic servant.

US authorities said she not only paid her maid a fraction of the minimum wage, but lied in a visa application for the employee, an Indian national. Dr Khobragade was released after six hours.

In e-mail messages sent to her foreign service colleagues earlier this week, she admitted to breaking down several times during the ordeal.

“I got the strength to maintain composure thinking that I must represent all of my colleagues and my country with dignity,” she wrote.

In a message sent on December 18, Dr Khobragade said she was “overwhelmed” by the support of the Indian government and people back in India.

The diplomat, who comes from a family of achievers, is a Dalit, once known as India’s untouchables.

Her father Uttam Khobragade is a civil servant while her uncle Dr Ajay M Gondane is also from the elite foreign service. Her younger sister is an MBA graduate working in a private firm in Mumbai.

Her father has been meeting the Indian leadership to seek government support in bringing his daughter back to India. She faces 15 years in a US jail if convicted of fraud and making false statements.

He described his eldest as a brave officer.

“She is very bold. She opted to go to Pakistan when no one else wanted to go and stayed there for three years,” Khobragade told The Straits Times.

“She is okay and she is attending office. In fact her career will be brighter.”

Born and brought up in Mumbai, India's financial capital, Dr Khobragade attended St Joseph's convent school and later studied medicine at Seth GS medical college and KEM hospital in Mumbai.

But she did not pursue a career in medicine and opted for the Foreign Service.

In an interview with a local television channel in the US early this year, Dr Khobragade, whose husband is an academic, explained why she became a diplomat.

“I wanted to travel and experience different cultures yet wanted to be connected to my country,” she said.

She has also talked about contributing to the Dalit community and gender equality.

“She is very forthright and very committed to the service and patriotic,” said a colleague who did not want to be named.

An association of Indian foreign service officials in Delhi on Tuesday evening passed a resolution condemning the US action and praising the Indian response.

But the Indian diplomat's name featured in at least one earlier controversy. Indian media reports said she owned a flat in the Adarsh cooperative housing society, a apartment complex in an upmarket place in Mumbai. The apartments were meant for Kargil war hero families but was instead allotted to top bureaucrats, defence officers and politicians.

No action was taken against her.

Now the mother to two daughters, aged 3 and 6, is in an uncertain position in the US.

She is alleged to have paid her maid – who was also her housekeeper and nanny – US$3.31 an hour despite signing a contract to pay her some three times that amount.

The US so far maintained that she does not enjoy diplomatic immunity and may be prosecuted.


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