The US has confirmed that one of its diplomats is being sent back from India in a tit-for-tat exchange designed at ending one of the most serious stand-offs between the two countries for many years.
An Indian envoy who has been at the centre of the bitter, simmering diplomatic row arrived back in Delhi on Friday night after she was ordered to leave the US as part of a deal brokered by the two countries. She was met by her father, to whom she said: “Papa, I love you.”
Officials in Delhi said on Friday morning that Devyani Khobragade, who was arrested and strip-searched after being accused of visa fraud, had left the US after India increased her level of diplomatic immunity. The US authorities said they could no longer proceed with a prosecution against her and she was expelled from the country.
“Devyani Khobragade given G1 visa with full diplomatic immunity on 8 Jan 2014. Airborne on way back to India,” Syed Akbarrudin, a spokesman for India’s foreign ministry, said in a statement posted on social media.
But in a sign that the dispute had not yet quite been defused, the Indian government yesterday asked the US to withdraw one of its senior diplomats from New Delhi in a gesture that is highly unusual in relations between such big allies.
Indian media reported that the American, Wayne May, is head of diplomatic security at the embassy. He and his wife, who is also a diplomat, were reportedly involved in the case and arranged for the family of the Indian envoy’s maid to travel to the US.
“We deeply regret that the Indian government felt it was necessary to expel one of our diplomatic personnel,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, without commenting on the diplomat’s identity.
“This has clearly been a challenging time in the US-India relationship. We expect and hope that this will now come to closure and the Indians will take significant steps with us to improve our relationship and return it to a more constructive place.”
The decision by the US to accede to India’s request to accredit Ms Khobragade to the United Nations - which enjoys broader immunity than she had as a consular official - appears to have been the outcome of days of high-level negotiations. Many observers believed the matter should have been dealt with much sooner and was starting to damage the broader relationship between the two democracies.
Ms Khobragade, 39, India’s deputy consul-general in New York, had originally been arrested on December 12 and charged with one count of visa fraud and one of making false statements about how much she paid a domestic worker.
Prosecutors said that Ms Khobragade had said on a form that she was going to pay her maid, Sangeeta Richards, $4,500 a month but only gave her a fraction of that and a sum that was below the US minimum wage. The indictment placed before the court claims Ms Richards often worked more than 100 hours a week and only received half-a-day off.
The US prosecutor, Preet Bharara, an Indian American, had insisted Ms Khobragade had broken the law and that her diplomatic status did not grant her immunity.
But in India the arrest of the diplomat triggered outrage and was seen as an insult to the entire country. For weeks, the matter has been the subject of often frenzied media attention with repeated demands that the Indian government take a solid stance on the issue.
Another factor is that the row has come as India is preparing for a general election and the Congress party-led government, already struggling, has not wanted to be seen as weak.
India had responded by withdrawing a number of privileges enjoyed by US diplomats in India and cancelling a series of visits, including one scheduled for next week by US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.
Ms Khobragade’s return to India came after she was formally charged on Thursday in New York before a federal grand jury.
However, according to the Associated Press, the US State Department had on Wednesday agreed to India’s request to accredit her to the UN, which enjoys higher diplomatic immunity.
In the next step of the diplomatic sarabande, the US asked India to waive Ms Khobragadeís diplomatic immunity. India then denied this request meaning the US was obliged to halt the prosecution. On Thursday afternoon, a judge in New York was informed that Ms Khobragade had been granted immunity and had been ordered to leave the US by the State Department.
In a statement, Ms Khobragade's lawyer, Daniel Arshack, said the diplomat would be leaving with her head “held high”. “She knows she has done no wrong and she looks forward to assuring that the truth is known,” he said.
The diplomat’s maid, Ms Richards, who has been granted permission to stay in the US with her family, issued her first public statement, saying she wanted to work for a few years before returning to India.
“I never thought that things would get so bad here, that I would work so much that I did not have time to sleep or eat or have time to myself,” she said in a statement released by the group Safe Horizon.
She added: “I would like to tell other domestic workers who are suffering as I did - you have rights and do not let anyone exploit you.”
India will claim the return of Ms Khobragade as a victory, even though prosecutors made clear that the two charges against her remain pending and she could be returned to court if her immunity were to be waived or if she visited the US without a diplomatic passport.
The twisting saga over the diplomat's arrest highlighted a number of differences between the two countries. Many US commentators said Ms Khobragade should have obeyed the law and should not have escaped prosecution.
In India, many accused the US of hypocrisy and pointed to cases such as that of CIA operative Raymond Davies who was eventually spirited out of Pakistan in 2011 even though he faced a double murder charges and was not a diplomat.
The US, which paid blood money to the victims' families, claimed Mr Davis enjoyed diplomatic immunity. Members of the US Congress also threatened to stop aid to Pakistan if he was not released.