New Delhi - India angrily brushed aside fresh efforts on Friday by the United States to defuse a row over the arrest and strip-search of one of its diplomats, warning Washington that “times have changed”.
Diplomatic sources said Nancy Powell, the US ambassador to New Delhi, was holding talks with senior foreign ministry officials as part of efforts to resolve the crisis sparked by the December 12 arrest of Devyani Khobragade, India's deputy consul general at its mission in New York.
Powell's olive branch comes after top State Department officials called their Indian counterparts for the third time in two days to try to draw a line under the controversy over Khobragade's arrest over accusations that she underpaid her maid in New York.
Subsequent revelations that Khobragade was stripped by US Marshals and subjected to an invasive body search have caused outrage in India, whose government wants Washington to drop the case and offer an apology.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has expressed “regret” and stressed that the issue should not be allowed to derail a “vital relationship” - a message amplified in a phone call on Thursday by State Department number three Wendy Sherman to Indian Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh.
“What we're focused on now ... is working to move the relationship forward,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters after the call, in which she said “both parties affirmed our intent to keep working through this complex issue”.
But there was no sign on Friday that India had been placated by the calls, with a senior minister reiterating demands for Washington to say sorry.
“They should tender a clear apology. We will not accept this conduct against India under any circumstances,” Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath told reporters.
“The US has to understand that the world has changed, times have changed and India has changed.
“The conduct and attitude that (the) US has shown regarding the Devyani issue is a matter of concern not only for India but also for all countries and everyone should raise their voice,” Nath added.
Keen to project a muscular image ahead of a general election due in May, the ruling Congress party has taken a strikingly hard line in the dispute.
The vice-president of the Hindu nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is expected to win the election, also warned that India expected a full apology rather than expressions of regret.
“The US will have to apologise,” Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi was quoted as saying by the Press Trust of India news agency.
“This is an extraordinary event and not about the US and India alone. It is an example for the whole world that no diplomat can feel secure in such circumstances.”
The 39-year-old, who is now free on bail, was detained over allegations that she paid the domestic worker a small fraction of New York's minimum wage and lied about the employee's salary in a visa application.
US federal prosecutor Preet Bharara has insisted Khobragade was arrested in the “most discreet” way possible and insisted his sole motivation was to uphold the rule of law, protect victims and hold accountable anyone who breaks the law “no matter how powerful, rich or connected they are”.
India is trying secure full diplomatic immunity for Khobragade by shifting her to its UN mission in New York, although such a move needs State Department approval.
A spokeswoman for the State Department made clear in a briefing on Thursday that the United States could not simply drop the case, as demanded by India, as “the judicial process is independent” of the government.
The dispute is the second diplomatic flare-up between India and a major Western nation this year.
India reacted furiously in March when Italy reneged on a promise to fly two marines back to New Delhi to face trial over a fatal shooting.
The marines did eventually return after India ordered immigration authorities to prevent Italy's ambassador from leaving the country. - AFP