The Indian government is furious that a junior diplomat, Devyani Khobragade — the deputy consul general for political, economic, social and women’s affairs in New York –was arrested last week. Indian officials have been quoted as saying that Khobragade was arrested while dropping off her daughter at school and that she was handcuffed, strip-searched and held with drug addicts before being released on $250,000 bail. Angry that she had been treated as a “common criminal,” the Indian government has removed security barriers outside the U.S. embassy in Delhi and withdrawn some privileges for American diplomats. In a suburb of Mumbai, protesters have ransacked a Dominos pizza outlet and demanded a ban on goods imported from the U.S.
Khobragade was arrested because she submitted false visa documentation for a domestic worker, Sangeeta Richard. According to the criminal complaint, from November 2012 until about this past June, Richard worked for Khobragade “far more than 40 hours a week” and was paid about $3.30 an hour, despite a contract that stated a higher rate.
Diplomat Said To Be the “Victim” But What About Her Underpaid Maid?
As Richard’s lawyer, Dana Sussman of Safe Horizon, a victim services agency, says in the New York Times, her client has been “frustrated with how the media has portrayed this story and the response from the Indian government.” Khobragade has been portrayed as the victim when she is the criminal defendant but it is Richard, “who worked incredibly long hours and was severely underpaid,” who is the victim.
The arrest of Khobragade was “just,” as writer Ritwik Deo says in the Guardian, observing that the response of the Indian government and others in India is symptomatic of class tensions in Indian society. Noting that “it takes a lot to get Indian politicians united,” Deo writes that many from the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party and from the ruling Congress party have condemned the U.S. over Khobragade’s treatment.
Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, has stuck by his decision to arrest Khobrogade on the grounds that “she clearly tried to evade U.S. law designed to protect from exploitation the domestic employees of diplomats and consular officers.” She is not the first Indian diplomat in New York but the third to face criminal charges over the treatment of domestic workers. In 2011, a maid accused Prabhu Daval ”of forcing her to work like a slave and sleep in a storage cupboard, and of confiscating her passport.” Neena Malhotra and her husband, Jogesh, were ordered by a judge to pay nearly $1.5 million in 2011, on the grounds that they had forced an Indian girl to work without pay and that she had been subjected to “barbaric treatment.”
Khobragade belongs to the upper class; her parents are, says Deo, “powerful government officials.” The rage in India about her receiving the same treatment “as any human trafficker would have got in the US” is itself a “classic case of privilege if there ever was one.” The upper classes in India demand “VVIP treatment; no security checkpoints for them, chauffeured cars with flashing lights and diverted traffic in rush hour are mandatory,” writes Deo. For this reason, Khobragade’s arrest was the “best possible advertisement” about the intense dilemmas for a democratic nation with a centuries-old caste system.
A Case That Reinforces One Thing: Domestic Workers’ Rights Must Be Protected
For Americans, the controversy over Khobrogade’s arrest and treatment is another reminder that, in the U.S., domestic workers have rights and these must be predicted. Khobrogade is hardly the first to find herself in the midst of a very public controversy about underpaying domestic workers. In 1993, corporate lawyer Zoe Baird had to withdraw her nomination as U.S. Attorney General after it was discovered that she and her husband had employed an undocumented immigrant couple from Peru as a nanny and chauffeur but has not paid Social Security taxes on them.
On Thursday, India’s Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid of India called for the charges against Khobragade to be dropped immediately. India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) is considering whether to discourage diplomats from taking nannies, cooks and other domestic workers from India to America.
The arrest of Khobrogade has led to her family in India facing intimidation and put their safety at risk to the point that, as Bhahara said, it was necessary to “evacuate” them to the U.S. One thing is likely: After the controversy subsides — with Khobrogade possibly gaining popularity and influence despite the controversy; many in India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh have been calling for her to run for parliament – it is very likely that Richards and her family will be the ones to face long-term and adverse consequences.