Devyani Khobragade has done the impossible. She has enabled Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi to find common ground. The Indian deputy-consul general’s arrest in New York has caused a major diplomatic row.
Modi tweeted that he had “(r)efused to meet the visiting US delegation in solidarity with our nation, protesting ill-treatment meted to our lady diplomat.”
Rahul Gandhi, Sushilkumar Shinde and Lok Sabha speaker Meira Kumar have also snubbed the delegation as a mark of protest. US Ambassador Nancy Powell had already been summoned to South Block. External Affairs minister Salman Khurshid has called it an “insult.” India has also stopped all import clearances for US embassy including food and liquor. Yashwant Sinha has suggested that after the Supreme Court verdict, India could now arrest same-sex partners of American diplomatic officials."'Companions' means that they are of the same sex. Now, after the Supreme Court ruling, it is completely illegal in our country. Just as paying less wages was illegal in the US. So, why doesn't the government of India go ahead and arrest all of them?" said Sinha.
The story has quickly become one about national pride. How could India’s consular official be strip-searched and made to stand with common criminals and drug addicts by the police? While the treatment meted out to Ms Khobragade is being perceived as a major insult to India, we seem less concerned with the treatment meted out to her maid, the reason why she was arrested in the first place.
There are obviously questions about whether the correct diplomatic protocols were followed or what the difference is between diplomatic immunity and consular immunity. But that’s a process debate. There’s a more fundamental question here separate from the rule book of consular relations.
It is simply this. Do Indians have a domestic help problem? And why do we not seem to get it no matter how many times we trip up?
In 2012 Neena Malhotra, India’s cultural and press counselor in New York was ordered to pay out nearly $1.5 million for forcing an underaged Indian girl to work with little to no pay in their plush 43rd Street Manhattan apartment. She had been told she would be raped, beaten and sent to India as “cargo” if she left the home without their permission.
In 2011 Prabhu Dayal, the consul general in New York was accused of treating his domestic help as a “slave”. Santosh Bhardwaj, the maid in question, said in her lawsuit that she was forced to work long hours for $300 a month, her passport was confiscated and she had to sleep in a storage closet. She also alleged sexual overtures which Dayal vehemently denied.
Ms Khobragade is accused of visa fraud and exploiting her babysitter and housekeeper. According to the 11-page criminal complaint in her A-3 visa application for her domestic help, the domestic help alleged she worked far more than 40 hours a week and was paid less than $9.75 per hour as had been agreed to in a contract she had signed with Ms. Khobragade for her visa application. Ms Khobragade reportedly got her help to agree to being paid no more than Rs30,000 which works out to about $3.31 per hour.
"Foreign nationals brought to the United States to serve as domestic workers are entitled to the same protections against exploitation as those afforded to United States citizens," said Preet Bharara, the US attorney for the Southern District of New York. His office alleges Ms Khobragade tried to circumvent US protections for workers by submitting false documents and information while applying for a visa for “a babysitter and housekeeper” she brought from India.
Sure, this is not a case as egregious as the ones that erupted in New Delhi recently where an air hostess was accused of locking up her 12-year-old maid when she left the country or the 15-year-old being tortured by her female employer in a posh Vasant Kunj apartment in South Delhi. Nor is anyone accusing her of beating the maid with broom, forcing her to eat hot chillies and take freezing showers as perfume milllionaires Mahender and Varsha Sabhnani were convicted of.
During the Dayal case, his lawyer Ravi Batra alleged that the housekeeper was just trying to extort the couple. “This fraudster of a woman, seeing dollar signs, has hit on a ‘get rich quick’ scheme after a year and a half of illegally staying and working in New York: fraudulent defamation of a highly respected and honored member of the diplomatic corps,” Batra wrote.
That is for courts to judge. But India is a signatory to the Domestic Workers Convention. Should it not be concerned that its diplomatic officials, the ones who represent India abroad, embarrassingly run afoul of labour laws? And no, whether diplomats from elsewhere do the same or worse isn’t a good counter argument.
Khobragade’s father, Uttam, a retired IAS officer has raised the point that it is numerically impossible for her to pay her nanny $4500 a month as required by US law when she herself is only paid $4120 a month.
But that unfortunately for Ms Khobragade is India’s problem, not the United States, that it does not pay its consular officials enough to hire a live-in nanny. Anyway it’s not like there aren’t plenty of mid-career professionals in the US who work and clean their toilets and make dinner for their children on their own precisely because they cannot afford cooks and nannies. We cannot have the old world convenience of domestic help in the United States and not be prepared for the inconvenience of the price tag it comes with.
We might come from a country where labour is cheap and noone raises an eyebrow that millions of Indians come to our homes everyday to cook and clean, seven days a week, 365 days a year and have their pay docked when they fall sick and don’t make it to work. But that does not our cultural attitude towards domestic help will not cause a stink outside our borders. Just because our diplomats’ nannies live in Manhattan and not a chawl in Mumbai does not mean that they should be grateful and not gripe about not being paid according to US Labour laws.
The Indian government is perfectly justified in arguing whether or not the US went overboard when it handcuffed Ms Khobragade. It should definitely make sure that proper process was followed as befits a consular staff member. As consular staff member representing India abroad, Ms Khobragade enjoys many rights.
The right to a domestic help at cut-rate wages however is not one of them.