Battle of the burger: India targets US ex-pat club with ban as diplomatic row escalates

 

Nothing hurts an American like going after his Budweiser and burgers.

This, at least, appears to be the calculation taken by the Indian authorities as a simmering diplomatic row between Delhi and Washington took a new, unlikely turn. In a move designed to hit where it hurts, India is acting to prevent non-diplomats from using a social club located at the US embassy in the heart of Delhi.

The club, which has a bar, swimming pool, gym and restaurant and which is a haven for countless expatriates during the vicious heat of summer, has been here for decades. But Indian officials have told their US counterparts that to allow non-diplomats to visit the facility would be a breach of the Vienna Convention because of the club's tax-free status.

The US officials have reportedly been told they must cease all commercial activities benefiting non-diplomatic staff on its premises by January 16. Hundreds of expatriates, both US and other nationalities, use the club. Whether it could survive without their custom is unclear.

The development is the latest twist in a row between the US and India that has escalated since the December 12 arrest, handcuffing and strip-search of female senior Indian diplomat in New York. Devyani Khobragade, 39, India's deputy consul in the city, has been accused by US prosecutors of underpaying her nanny and lying on a visa application form.

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Indian activists protest outside the US consulate in Mumbai over the arrest of Indian consular Devyani Khobragade in New York, arrested and strip-searched for allegedly forcing her maid to work for little pay

Most observers believe it is remarkable that something so relatively modest has triggered a stand-off that has turned into perhaps the most bitter row between the two countries for several years.

Most Indians are furious that someone representing the country could be arrested in public and strip-searched over an allegation relating to an alleged visa fraud. It is almost inconceivable it would happen in India. The US prosecutor heading the case, Preet Bharara, an Indian American, has insisted that no-one should be above the law.

India has already taken a number of retaliatory measures and is now stepping up the pressure on Washington ahead of a court appearance by the diplomat due to take place on January 13. Already, the row has started to affect the wider relationship between the two countries. A US delegation was snubbed late last year and the Reuters news agency reported that a visit scheduled for next week by US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz is now looking doubtful.

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Devyani Khobragade, India's Deputy Consul General, was allegedly handcuffed and strip-searched on her arrest

Syed Akbarrudin, a spokesman for the Indian ministry of external affairs, confirmed that the authorities had written to the US embassy. He also dismissed a suggestion that India was being churlish. "All we are saying is there has to be reciprocity between the way we treat their diplomats and the way they treat our diplomats," he told The Independent.

A spokesman for the US embassy, Peter Vrooman, said he had no public comment to make. There was no immediate response from the US state department.

India had already curtailed privileges offered to US diplomats to bring them in line with the treatment of Indian envoys to the United States. Since December, the US ambassador in Delhi can be subjected to airport searches and most consular staff have reduced levels of immunity.

Yet the move that most concerned US officials - at least until the threat to restrict access to the social club - was last month's removal of concrete security barriers from a road next to the embassy. That move was also condemned by a number of Indian commentators.

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India's consulate general in New York

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