Devyani case: India only stands up for rights of the privileged

The Indian government's eagerness to fight for Khobragade's rights and self-respect is sharply contrasted by its complete lack of interest and urgency in cases where those affected didn't belong to a privileged set.

Deepanjana Pal December 19, 2013 12:50:18 IST
Devyani case: India only stands up for rights of the privileged

Mausi and Sujata are the two ladies who, for all practical purposes, run my home. While I'm ranting and reviewing films, these ladies make sure my flat doesn't turn into a breeding ground for bacteria and fungus. Having worked together for years, the three of us working women have become friendly, I'd like to believe.

We talk about all sorts of things, including hot current affairs topics like the Shiv Sena when Bal Thackeray was on his deathbed (Mausi is a staunch Sainik). However, the one subject I'm not going to discuss with them is the ongoing case of Devyani Khobdagade and her domestic help, Sangeeta Richard.

Talking about Khobragade and Richard to Sujata and Mausi is difficult for a number of reasons. To begin with, there's the minor discomfort of explaining the allegations of fraud against Khobdagade.

At $537 per month — which is a little more than Rs 33,000 — Richard was being cheated because Khobdagade and Richard had signed an employment contract for $4500 per month. (That's Rs 2,78,909 and more than what Khobdagade reportedly earns per month.)

Devyani case India only stands up for rights of the privileged


Neither Sujata nor Mausi and I have an employment contract and you don't need me to tell you I pay them far less than Rs 33,000. But it isn't just a question of comparisons. Much like I accept investment bankers make much more money than I do for very little reason, my domestic help would probably accept the difference between local and foreign 'rates'.

The American minimum wage isn't a realistic expectation of those who earn Indian salaries. After all, Khobdagade probably isn't paid enough herself to be able to comfortably afford a live-in nanny who must be paid a minimum wage of $9.75 (that's Rs 605) per hour. However, it's also true that $537 is pittance in New York City, where one can comfortably earn in the range of $100 to clean one house on one occasion.

This is something Richard would probably not have known until she landed up in New York City. Use a currency converter, and $537 is a lot of rupees. In dollars that pay for living in New York however, it doesn't add up to much.

What's unsettling about this case is how little we know about Richard's side of the story. While there are endless articles available on Khobdagade and how terribly she's been treated by US officials, there's almost nothing on Richard. All we have is this timeline from, according to which there was trouble between the two women within months of Richard going to New York in November 2012.

In June, Richard left Khobdagade's home. She approached an immigration attorney and it was at this attorney's office that Richard met with four consulate officials to discuss her case. She told the officials that she wanted more money and a regular Indian passport. It seems they responded by telling her that her husband and child were in custody back in India. There was a deadlock with Richard refusing to leave the attorney's office. Finally, the police was called and they took Richard away. The same day, Richard's Indian passport was revoked, making her an illegal alien in America. All this happened in July.

In September, the Delhi High Court issued an order stating Richard could only institute proceedings against Khobragade in India and a notice was issued to Richard's husband. An arrest warrant was issued against Richard, charging her with sections of the Indian Penal Code related to extortion, cheating and conspiracy.

This means, if Richards returns to India now, she would be arrested. However, since Richard's husband and son have reportedly joined her in New York, it seems the entire Richard family is out of the Indian legal machinery's reach. Considering how her husband and son were in police custody the last time Richard acted against her former employer, it is perhaps not a coincidence that Richard's family left India a week before American authorities began their proceedings against Khobragade.

Perhaps Richard is guilty of extortion, cheating and conspiracy. Perhaps Khobragade is the victim of a plot hatched by a maid and an attorney. She certainly seems to have suffered at the hands of overzealous American authorities. But that doesn't explain why Richard's husband and child were in police custody in India earlier this year when Richard first turned to an American lawyer to help her fight an Indian diplomat. Nor does it answer the question of whether Richard has any valid grounds of complaint against her former employer. When negotiations involve four consular officials and two family members in custody versus a complainant and a lawyer, it's safe to assume this isn't a level playing field.

The American Department of Justice released a statement this morning that also focuses most of its attention upon the allegations made by Khobragade and defends the behaviour of those who arrested her (apparently, she wasn't handcuffed and she was allowed to keep her phone for two hours after her arrest, which is an unusual privilege). It does, however, provide a few details of Richard's case against Khobdagade, like Richard was made to work more than her contracted 40 hours per week and that "there are other facts regarding the treatment of the victim" that are not "consistent with the law or the representations made" by Khobdagade. The most stinging attack in the press release, however, is not against Khobragade, but against India.

"And one wonders why there is so much outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian national accused of perpetrating these acts, but precious little outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian victim and her spouse?"

The Indian government's eagerness to fight for Khobragade's rights and self-respect is sharply contrasted by its complete lack of interest and urgency in cases where those affected didn't belong to a privileged set.

Richard isn't the only one whom the government has dismissed summarily. There is also the story of Captain Sunil James, whose story of surviving a pirate attack is like the Hollywood film Captain Phillips gone terribly wrong. James was put in a filthy, overcrowded Togo prison in August and his family approached everyone they could, including the prime minister's office, but all they got for months from authorities was a patient hearing. This morning, a spokesperson for the Indian Ministry of External Affairs announced James would be flown back home today.

Yesterday, Singapore decided to deport 52 Indian nationals, ignoring their right of appeal and not bothering with a trial to prove or disprove the allegations of rioting. The riots were sparked off by the death of an Indian national in an accident. When Indian nationals were arrested after the violence in Singapore had been brought under control, the Indian High Commission issued a statement requesting all parties to maintain calm. That's all the reaction that the death of one Indian evinced. It's more than what the 52 Indians who have been arbitrarily declared guilty and robbed of their livelihood got from their government. Some of these men have also complained of police abuse while in custody, not that anybody is listening. The Indian government hasn't offered any reaction so far.

And that's what makes the Khobdagade case an uncomfortable subject.

It establishes with painful clarity just how little the government cares for the less privileged and how naïve people like me are when we bleat about equality and democracy. The government and political establishment's eagerness to tap into jingoistic patriotism would be a little less distasteful if it had the grace to at least pretend we're all equal in its eyes. Instead, it's made a ridiculous exhibition of its support for Khobdagade — who may well join the long list of Indian officials found guilty of mistreating their domestic help — and shamefully ignored the privilege-less citizens being victimised by foreign authorities.

The Indian government will take months to take a stand an insignificant country like Togo for an everyman like James. It won't upset a powerful Asian player like Singapore for the dignity and rights of 53 Indian nationals. However, it will roar against the mighty USA and risk extreme embarrassment for one bureaucrat who may well be guilty of what she's been accused.

This is the mindset and the political structure that we're supposed to depend upon for our security and welfare.

The way the government and opinion makers in this country have responded to Khobdagade's arrest comprehensively dismantles any pretence of ours being a democratic society in which all citizens are equal. It may be enshrined in our constitution but it's only in the pages of a document that is read by a tiny minority in this country that the notion of equality exists.

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