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Some in India counsel calm in strip-search controversy

Photo Mohammed Jaffer, AP

The furor in India over the arrest and strip-search of an Indian diplomat in New York City continued to heat up Thursday, but some cautionary voices also were being heard.

The website of The Hindu, an English-language national newspaper in India, on Thursday gave big play to Indian officials blasting the U.S. prosecutor’s explanation for the treatment of Devyani Khobragade, who was arrested Dec. 12 on visa fraud charges involving the immigration and treatment of a nanny.

An editorial on the Hindu website, however, counseled caution.

“Never known for taking on the U.S. on substantive policy issues, the government’s unusually aggressive reactions — and those of political parties too — on behalf of a diplomat, smell of political considerations ahead of an election,” the Hindu opined. “In the furor, it has been all but forgotten that there are serious charges against the diplomat, and that the domestic worker is also an Indian.”

The editorial suggests that the two countries find “a mutually acceptable way to defuse the controversy — often in such cases, the issue is closed by withdrawing the diplomat.”

The Times of India, in an editorial that falls on the side of the diplomat, also asks for calm. The editorial begins: “Take a deep breath and slowly count to 10. This is always good advice. It applies even more in the escalating diplomatic spat between India and the United States. Before things spiral out of control, both sides should remind themselves that the relationship is far more important than the thrill of nailing a diplomat for breach of contract or denying an entire embassy privileges or security.”

Khobragade, 39, is accused of lying on the visa application for Sangeeta Richard, paying her little more than $3 an hour — far less than minimum wage — and forcing her to work for more than 40 hours a week.

Khobragade, who was arrested in front of her daughter’s Manhattan school, claims she was subjected to cavity- and strip-searches. She is free on $250,000 bail. Her lawyer claims she is entitled to diplomatic immunity and should face no charges at all.

On Thursday, Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid expressed his agreement, demanding that U.S. officials drop the charges and accusing the housekeeper of blackmail.

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who was born in India, had issued a statement Wednesday defending the arrest.

“It is alleged not merely that she sought to evade the law, but that she affirmatively created false documents and went ahead with lying to the U.S. government about what she was doing,” Bharara said in a statement. “One wonders whether any government would not take action regarding false documents being submitted to it in order to bring immigrants into the country. … And one wonders why there is so much outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian national accused of perpetrating these acts, but precious little outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian victim and her spouse?”

The statement stressed that Khobragade was never handcuffed but acknowledged that she was “fully searched by a female deputy marshal — in a private setting — when she was brought into the U.S. Marshals’ custody, but this is standard practice for every defendant, rich or poor, American or not.”

That search, of course, is the root of the controversy. And Bharara’s statement has been mostly dismissed in India as “post facto rationalization.” Bharara has pretty much become public enemy No. 1 in India, where the case continues to draw outrage and retaliation. Concrete barricades were removed from around the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, airport passes for U.S. Consulate and Embassy vehicles were revoked, and on Tuesday several government officials refused to meet with a visiting U.S. congressional delegation.

And threats have grown hotter.

“We have issued visas to a number of U.S. diplomats’ companions. ‘Companions’ means that they are of the same sex,” said Yashwant Sinha, leader of India’s largest opposition party. “It is completely illegal in our country, just as paying less wages was illegal in the U.S.. So, why does not the government of India go ahead and arrest them and punish them?

Secretary of State John Kerry, in a call Wednesday to Indian national security adviser Shivsankar Menon, expressed his regret over the incident as well as “his concern that we not allow this unfortunate public issue to hurt our close and vital relationship with India.”

John Bacon, USA TODAY

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