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Indian school ensnared in US diplomatic row

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Indian school ensnared in US diplomatic row
Indian school ensnared in US diplomatic row

New Delhi –  A handout for new teachers at this city’s exclusive American Embassy School, an academic oasis for children of U.S. diplomats and other expatriates, offers some unusual guidance to female teachers whose husbands will also be teaching at the school.

“The female spouse should not state that she will be working,” the handout states, instructing spouses to list their occupation on visa applications as “housewife,” adding that “no sexism is intended on our part.”

That advice, which top Indian officials say is illegal, has ensnared the American school, a cherished institution among foreigners living here, in a growing diplomatic spat between India and the United States that began last month with the arrest in New York of Devyani Khobragade, an Indian consular official, on charges of visa fraud and making false statements in connection with her employment of a domestic worker.

The arrest and her resulting strip-search shocked the Indian diplomatic corps and generated about as much outraged commentary in the Indian news media as the beheading last year of an Indian soldier on a disputed border with Pakistan.

Since the arrest, Indian diplomats have peppered U.S. officials here with a blizzard of questions and demands in the hope of uncovering similar violations by U.S. diplomats. The police removed security barriers in front of the U.S. Embassy here and stopped many diplomats’ cars and cited them for minor traffic violations such as having tinted windows. Many of the moves and queries have been quietly shrugged off by U.S. officials.

But questions about the school have sent a deep shudder through the expatriate community here. The school, which is next to the U.S. Embassy on land owned by the U.S. government, has a swimming pool, tennis courts and vast athletic fields. Its stone classroom buildings and generous libraries could grace an Ivy League campus. Its price tag – around $20,000 a year – rivals that of some of New York City’s top private schools. A small army of uniformed security men patrol its perimeter.

Paul Chmelik, the school’s top administrator, refused to comment Tuesday about the visa issue with the Indian government. Expecting an article in The New York Times, Chmelik emailed parents Wednesday warning that “there could be a goodly number of members of the media present around the perimeter of the school during the course of the school day today and Thursday and Friday.”

“So you know,” he continued, “the article will most likely focus on the degree to which the school has complied with various government regulations.”

Hours earlier, the State Department in Washington released a statement that the deputy secretary of state, William J. Burns, had hosted the Indian ambassador, S. Jaishankar, for a lunch meeting at which they discussed “the variety of issues raised by the Ministry of External Affairs via diplomatic note, including alleged issues with the American Embassy School.”

“Deputy Secretary Burns conveyed that we take their concerns very seriously and will continue to address them via appropriate diplomatic channels,” the statement said.

False rumors have swirled through the school in recent days of vast teacher dismissals, and Nancy J. Powell, the U.S. ambassador to India, addressed a special meeting Tuesday afternoon of school faculty and staff members. About a third of the school’s nearly 1,500 students are from the United States, another 20 percent are from South Korea and the rest come from dozens of other countries. The students include many children of foreign diplomats, executives and journalists.

Syed Akbaruddin, a spokesman for the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, said the visa instructions listed on the teachers’ handout were “clearly a violation of tax law.”

The handout notes that India has placed restrictions on the number of tax-free visas available to school employees. “So, if you are a teaching couple,” the handout says, “we usually have the male spouse apply for the ’employment’ visa and the female spouse be noted as ‘housewife’ on the visa application.”

One reason the Delhi school is widely admired is that it has a veteran and respected staff of teachers recruited in part by generous pay packages, including tax benefits.

A senior Indian official estimated that the American Embassy School had at least 16 teachers working illegally, and that smaller U.S. schools in Mumbai and Chennai probably had several more. Schools are not alone in this: Many tax laws in India are at best fitfully enforced and often widely ignored.

Last February, the country’s finance minister, P. Chidambaram, announced that just 42,800 people reported earning at least $162,000 a year. In a country of 1.2 billion, where some 25,000 luxury automobiles are sold every year, the actual number is almost certainly much higher.

Khobragade’s arrest has plucked at deep sensitivity over how India is portrayed, and the news media and the public have searched for examples of U.S. diplomats’ misbehaving. This has led to headlines and a dedicated website in recent days listing some of the Facebook posts of Wayne and Alicia Muller May, the U.S. diplomats who were expelled from India over the weekend in retaliation for the U.S. insistence that Khobragade leave the country after she refused to settle the charges against her in exchange for a modest fine.

“One week in country and I already miss STEAK,” Wayne May, head of embassy security in Delhi, stated in one post among many that caused outrage. Cows are venerated by Indian Hindus, and slaughtering cows is illegal in many places. In another, Alicia May, the embassy’s community liaison officer, responded to an article that claimed nonvegetarians were more prone to violence. “It’s the vegetarians that are doing the raping, not the meat eaters – this place is just so bizarre,” she wrote.

In a briefing Monday, a spokeswoman for the State Department, Marie Harf, said that these posts “absolutely do not reflect U.S. government policy, nor were they made on any official U.S. government social media account.”

Neither officials in Washington nor New Delhi have publicly identified the Mays as the expelled diplomats, but their identity has been widely reported.

On Tuesday, Khobragade was welcomed by nearly 60 people at the Mumbai airport as she arrived home after a weekend in New Delhi. The crowd, fired up by the fierce patriotism her arrest has provoked in India, shouted “Down with America, down with Barack Obama” and other slogans. When Khobragade finally appeared, she was swarmed by TV cameras and supporters.

“I am thankful to my city, Mumbai, for the love and support,” she said.

Khobragade’s husband and children are U.S. citizens and remain in New York. She said she was not sure when she would see them again since U.S. officials had promised to press charges against her if she returned.

Indian officials are negotiating with the United States on the status of at least 14 other maids of diplomats in the United States. Indian diplomats have proposed to the Finance Ministry that the government pay the maids’ salaries, which would make them immune to U.S. wage-and-hour laws. But in an editorial Tuesday, The Hindustan Times argued that the Finance Ministry should reject the request as “there is no argument in favor of the Indian taxpayer paying for household help for its officers.”

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