Maid in India: The brutal way we treat our domestic help shows we still see them as subhuman

What happened between the madams and the maids at the Mahagun Moderne society in Noida? Versions of the event, as varied as they are puzzling, present many pictures.

Representational Image. Reuters

Representational Image. Reuters

On Tuesday, Zohra Bibi, a domestic worker at the palatial residence of the Sethi family, visited her employers to demand dues for nearly two months of work. Early Wednesday, a large group of workers from the neighbouring slum approached the society, looking for Bibi. In what was described as a riot-like situation, the workers, armed with sticks and stones, allegedly ransacked the Sethi residence in search of Bibi.

The Uttar Pradesh Police had to be summoned. Bibi was subsequently rescued from a room of one of the buildings, where she had either taken shelter after absconding for fear of being reported for theft – if Anshu Sethi is to be believed — or was held captive throughout the night merely for demanding her pay, as Bibi claimed.

The Mahagun Moderne society has apparently prohibited entry to domestic ‘help’ from Bibi’s colony of shanties, depriving hundreds of their livelihood. Perhaps nothing has been as instructive in the progressively tightening stranglehold of manufactured news as the "harrowing" accounts of residents of the suburban complex.

In only a few hours, an altercation with aggrieved workers who were eventually frightened into dispersal by police firing transformed into a mob of Bangladeshi Muslims perpetrating a gruesome act of mob violence (as if the 2016 Kaliachak riots in West Bengal were happening again).

How the squabble transformed into an alarming narrative of religious fervour and persecution would not be new to those familiar with the changing face of contemporary India and its novel modalities of misinformation and vendetta.

What is it, after all, that is so relevant about the citizenship of impoverished workers? The implication concealed in alleged attempts to brutalise Bibi and other maids servicing affluent families is that it is citizenship that makes one human. It seems that people simply being Bangladeshi is enough to justify our exploitation of them, be it of their economic or human rights.

Which raises wider questions on the meaning of nationalism and that citizenship can never be an abiding consideration for a country whose citizens have routinely voted against vulnerable migrants and refugees they can only imagine as encroaching outsiders. While Bibi’s slum has seen several raids, detentions, and arrests, Mahagun Moderne rests in its luxurious tranquility, far from the vagaries of investigations and inquiries.

Suhasini Raj and Ellen Barry diagnose the problem somewhat accurately in their writing: ‘….this kind of arrangement (between madam and maid) has persisted across India for decades, in apparent harmony. But early on Wednesday (…) the madams and the maids went to war.’

Although the series of events at the Mahagun Moderne represent war, the war has never been fought on an equal footing. This is, at most, an interlude in an otherwise harmonious symphony. For decades, the middle class has attempted to enshroud the very mention of caste, let alone the prevalence of untouchability. Caste is unfailingly remembered to repudiate effective discrimination and economic opportunity for marginalised castes and social groups — in the hope that presenting caste as a bygone relic in a fair world would conceal the intrinsic unfairness of one’s history — but caste is far from gone.

It is in the language we speak, our education, our work, and our gated communities. It is the way middle class, upper caste India treats its domestic workers: Denying them an employment of dignity, rights, fair wages, social assimilation, even the fanciful designation of ‘work.’ Societies such as Mahagun Moderne routinely treat Bibi and countless domestic workers like her as subhuman, regardless of where they come from. The rise of sequestered slum colonies in tandem with plush residential complexes accentuates this divide, creating isles of ill-begotten prosperity in a sea of destitution.

The reason Bibi and those who occupied the opulent premises of the residential society in their desperate search for her matter is because they puncture our imagined harmony and compel us to examine a burden we've been unwilling to examine: Their humanity. We care because Bibi's case tells us more about the madams than it does about maids.

“I think they hate us,” declares Sethi's wife.

This is what will remain in public memory: Workers with sticks and stones looking for Bibi, threatening the peace at the Mahagun Moderne. The deliberate targeting of the poor and vulnerable will be forgotten.

Bibi and the rest of the maids will return to the madams, entrenched in the same circuits of every day exploitation. Like everything else, written and sometimes outraged about, care is momentary coercion.

Updated Date: Jul 18, 2017 09:23 AM

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