By Arun Kumar
Washington, Dec 19 (IANS) In a first sign of thaw in the India-US standoff over the arrest of an Indian diplomat, Secretary of State John Kerry called India’s National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon Wednesday to express his “regret” over the messy situation.
In a damage control exercise, Kerry also expressed his concern that this “unfortunate public issue” of the arrest and strip search of Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul general in New York, should not be allowed to hurt “close and vital” India-US ties.
Making the call from his plane on way to Honolulu, Kerry “expressed his regret, as well as his concern that we not allow this unfortunate public issue to hurt our close and vital relationship with India,” State Department Spokesperson Marie Harf said in a readout of the conversation Wednesday.
But far from an “unconditional apology” demanded by India, the spokesperson told reporters Kerry’s “regret” was not just for how Khobragade was treated, but also India’s retaliatory response.
“Regret on the situation at large, I would say both, honestly. He certainly expressed regret about what happened with this case at large, sort of how this has all played out,” she said.
Kerry also stood US ground on the enforcement of US laws while acknowledging the importance of according “respect and dignity” to foreign diplomats just it expected its own diplomats to receive overseas.
“The Secretary understands very deeply the importance of enforcing our laws and protecting victims, and, like all officials in positions of responsibility inside the US Government, expects that laws will be followed by everyone here in our country,” she said.
“It is also particularly important to Secretary Kerry that foreign diplomats serving in the United States are accorded respect and dignity just as we expect our own diplomats should receive overseas,” Harf said.
“As a father of two daughters about the same age as Devyani Khobragade, the Secretary empathizes with the sensitivities we are hearing from India about the events that unfolded after Ms. Khobragade’s arrest,” she added.
From his “positive” discussion with Menon, Kerry walked away “squarely focused on where we go from here in moving the relationship forward,” Harf said. “Obviously, we don’t want this to negatively further impact our bilateral relationship.
“Secretary Kerry wanted to directly engage on this with the Indian Government, and I think that’s how I would describe what he walked away from it with, and we have no reason to believe that they didn’t as well.”
Earlier, in its first reaction on the issue White House Wednesday offered to review the procedures that were followed in Khobragade’s arrest on charges of visa fraud.
“We’re looking into the intake procedures surrounding this arrest to ensure that all standard procedures were followed and that every opportunity for courtesy was afforded,” to Khobragade White House spokesperson Jay Carney said.
President Barack Obama has been briefed on the issue, Carney said stressing that an “isolated episode” should not be allowed to cloud a “broad and deep friendship” and an “important relationship” with India.
But “the safety and security of our diplomats and consular officials in the field is a top priority” he said when asked about the removal of security barricades from the US embassy India.
Meanwhile, moving to bail out Khobragade from her predicament, India Wednesday transferred her from the consulate to India’s Permanent mission to the UN where she would get full diplomatic immunity instead of her present limited consular immunity.
But Harf pointed out that as the host nation US will have to sign off on the change in her visa status from “A1” for those accredited to the US government to “G1” for world bodies.
She was also not sure how Khobragade’s transfer to the UN would alter her immunity status. But “I’ve been very clear about what her diplomatic status was at the time of the arrest and currently is, which is, of course, consular immunity.”
(Arun Kumar can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)