22 December 2013

Being an Indian Citizen who counts: Devyani Khobragade

The case of Devyani Khobragade clearly demonstrates who the Indian State considers important. Compare the response by our External Affairs Ministry to a falsely accused Sea Captain Sunil James, who was left to rot in jail for eleven months in Togo, to that of Ms Khobragade, who at least on paper appears to have violated US laws. The sea Captain was a regular citizen, wielding no privileges, while Ms Khobragade's father, belonging to a powerful clique of civil servants was immediately allowed access to the Minister of External Affairs.

The diplomatic furore that has surrounded the actions of the US law enforcement agents focuses only on what happened to Ms Khobragade, not what prompted the action. The allegations, that she lied on a visa application form and underpaid her maid, themselves have been swiftly set aside. Ms Khobragade's arrangement with her domestic staff does not elicit raised eyebrows. After all, In India, which of us has a written contract with our maids? It is also probably not considered odd that Ms Sangeeta Richards, Ms Khobragade's maid, was paid partly in US dollars and partly in INR, into her Indian bank account. Shouldn't there be all manner of tax implications for something like this?

The very act of taking a maid from India smacks of irresponsibility. You promise someone more money, but overlook the social price they would pay. Did Ms Richard's know English? Even English-speaking Indians feel alienated in new cultures sometimes - was there an outlet or mechanism for Ms Richard to cope with being in a new country all by herself? No doubt Ms Khobragade required help to raise young daughters, but why couldn't she hire locally? A place like New York City has sufficient diversity to allow recruitment of household help of a particular ethnicity. But that would have required a higher level of legal responsibility, in addition to financial burden. It appears that our diplomats are no better than us when it comes to household help - get it cheap, and treat the relationship like a favour.

What is further galling is that the Indian Government has come out blazing in its response. Ms Khobragade has been transferred immediately to a position that could offer better immunity to prosecution and apparently in retaliation, privileges have been withdrawn for US diplomats in India. Ask yourself - would this have happened if Ms Khobragade was an investment banker or software engineer in New York City? In that case, the media would have reported it, we would have had two or three editorials about how maids should be treated and the matter would have died down. Because of the nature of Ms Khobragade's position, it appears that the Indian Government wants to purportedly protect "Indian dignity". Let it be known that there are some of us who think it is more shameful that we treat domestic help poorly, than having our diplomat strip-searched. That the Indian Government wants the charges dropped is further proof that we value face-saving, to dealing with the matter in a just and fair manner.

What about Ms Richards? Where is she, and why is it being over-looked that she too is an Indian citizen? Her family appears to have moved to US shortly before the arrest - the obvious reading of this is that the US Government was well aware of how the situation might snowball, but another reading could be that Ms Richard's family genuinely feared for their lives. At one point or another, we Indians have experienced how having "influence" can turn the tide of affairs in the corridors of government power. Isn't it likely that her maid's family felt threatened? One Sunday afternoon, N and I came to blows with riff-raff just because we parked outside a politician's house in Hyderabad. There was no legal restriction to parking; but public space all around that house was commandeered and policed by his goons. When something as trivial as parking space can cause politicians to inflict violence, what would you expect in a more serious case as this?

I am pained that in terms of action, we continue to focus on how our diplomats are being treated and view it in the broader context of national pride. Why can't we discuss and introspect more on what caused this situation, and how we should treat our domestic staff better so they don't feel that their only recourse to legal aid is asylum in another country?

Update: Read here the official charges filed by the US against Ms Khobragade.

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