India says U.S. ties ‘very strong’ as it seeks to cool row

The arrest and strip-search of and Indian female diplomat gave rise to tension between the United States and India

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India sought to tamp down Saturday a furor over the arrest and strip-search of one of its diplomats in New York, insisting the episode should not be allowed to derail “strong” ties with the United States.

Foreign minister Salman Khurshid said a dialogue with Washington was under way to defuse the crisis sparked by the 48-hour detention of deputy consular general Devyani Khobragade on Dec. 12.

“Our relationship is that of partners. Our mutual relations are very strong,” Khurshid told reporters in New Delhi.

“I believe people in both the countries wouldn’t want the old ties we share to get unsettled by this one incident,” he said.

“That is why the dialogue going on between us should be allowed to continue.”

Khurshid’s tone was milder than on Friday when he termed the treatment of 39-year-old Khobragade by U.S. Marshals “hurtful” and “unacceptable.”

The two countries’ ties have warmed considerably since they were on opposite sides of the fence during the Cold War. They now participate in joint security exercises and Washington sees India as a valuable strategic partner in the troubled region.

But the world’s two largest democracies have been at loggerheads since the arrest of Khobragade, who said she was handcuffed and subjected to an invasive body search.

The diplomat, a mother of two, now free on bail, was arrested over accusations that she lied about the salary she was paying her Indian servant in a U.S. visa application.

According to New York authorities, she was paying the domestic worker a third of the figure mentioned in the visa application.

But her treatment has caused outrage in India, with the government urging Washington to drop the case and apologise.

India is trying to secure stronger diplomatic immunity for Khobragade by shifting her to its U.N. mission in New York, although such a move needs State Department approval.

The Press Trust of India reported Saturday the U.N. had received a notice from India to register Khobragade as a member of the Permanent Mission, adding the request would be processed according to “standard procedures.”

However, a spokeswoman for the State Department made clear in a briefing late this week that there could be no retroactive immunity for Khobragade.

“If there’s a change in immunity... because of a different diplomatic status, that immunity would start on the date it’s conferred,” Marie Harf said.

The government and opposition parties have taken a tough stand over the issue as they gear up for a general election next year.

Delhi has made a series of moves against the United States, bulldozing security barricades around the U.S. embassy and snubbing a visiting U.S. delegation.

US federal prosecutor Preet Bharara has insisted Khobragade was arrested in the “most discreet” way.

He said his sole motivation was to hold accountable anyone who breaks the law “no matter how powerful, rich or connected”.

Indian trade minister Anand Sharma, also speaking on Saturday, said the two countries should not allow the issue to “cast a long shadow” on their bilateral ties.

“We are not disengaging (from the United States). This engagement will grow stronger and issues (such as these) will not be allowed to cast a long shadow,” he said.

But anger in India over the issue was still visible Saturday with dozens of protesters in New Delhi demanding justice for Khobragade and shouting slogans against the United States.

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