India freezes duty-free alcohol for US envoys as diplomatic row escalates

Wednesday 18 December 2013 22.29
The Consulate General of India building in New York where Devyani Khobragade was employed
The Consulate General of India building in New York where Devyani Khobragade was employed

India has announced retaliatory measures against the US, including revising work conditions of Indians employed in US consulates and a freeze on duty-free alcohol, in an escalating row over the arrest of a diplomat in New York.

The move came a day after police removed security barricades from the US embassy in New Delhi in reprisal against the arrest.

Heavy machinery dragged away concrete barriers that restricted traffic movement around the embassy.

The dispute was triggered by the 12 December arrest of Devyani Khobragade, a deputy consul general at the Indian Consulate in New York, on charges of visa fraud and making false statements about how much she paid her housekeeper, an Indian national.

India has responded furiously to what it considers the degrading treatment of a senior diplomat by the US, a country it considers a close friend.

"It is no longer about an individual, it is about our sense of self as a nation and our place in the world," Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid told parliament.

The parliament's usually fractious members showed rare unity on the issue ahead of elections due to be held by May next year.

Many Indians are outraged at what they see as heavy-handed treatment of Ms Khobragade, who her lawyer says was handcuffed in the street.

The US Justice Department confirmed she was then strip-searched.

Mr Khurshid said work conditions of Indians employed in US consulates in major Indian cities would be revised, to root out any violations of labour laws, and there would be a freeze on the duty free import of alcohol and food for consulate staff.

Several politicians argue that India provides too many unilateral perks to US diplomatic staff.

Mr Khurshid reined in some of these, saying passes giving consulate staff access to airport lounges had to turned in by tomorrow.

Supporters of a right-wing opposition party held a small protest close to the embassy in Delhi.

Around 30 demonstrators, some wearing makeshift Barack Obama masks and sarongs made from the US flag, demanded an apology.

The US State Department said it had told the Indian government it expects it to protect its embassy and stressed it did not want the incident with the Indian diplomat to hurt ties.

The embassy did not respond to repeated requests for information about what action would be taken to replace the barriers.

The compound has several other layers of security and is protected by a high wall.