Devyani Khobragade case: Indian media is less biased than the US

The responses of the US and Indian media to the Devyani Khobragade case – where her maid has received US asylum for alleged underpayment by Khobragade and visa fraud done at the latter’s instance - are interesting.

Contrary to US media allegations that India has been singularly focused on only one side of the story – that of Khobragade – it is clear that the US media has been completely one-sided in its reportage about the handcuffing and strip-search of Khobragade after her arrest. The US knows that this is not how diplomats from friendly countries are treated, but wants to cover up for its own lack of grace by throwing the letter of the law against Khobragade.

 Devyani Khobragade case: Indian media is less biased than the US

US media has been completely one-sided in its reportage. PTI image

The India media abounds in stories supportive of the maid, Sangeeta Richard, and critical of the Indian foreign policy establishment, but there is almost no story in the US media that says anything against the boorish actions of their own government. On the contrary, the editorial comments in the US are patronising to India, to say the least.

Thus The New York Times calls India’s reaction as “overwrought” and accuses the Indian government of inflaming “anti-American outrage instead of calling for justice, especially for the domestic worker who is at the heart of the case.” Washington Post notes that “little attention has been given to the housekeeper, Sangeeta Richard. India is siding with a woman who was in the wrong - who lied, paid her help poorly and now is brazen enough to claim that she should not be treated like a criminal.”

Contravention of a civil law makes her a “criminal?”

Similar comments were made by the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times. In contrast, the Indian media has not only taken a balanced view, but has increasingly been focusing on the alleged underpayment to the maid. And this, even though it quite clear that it was an arrangement the maid willingly entered into: she had agreed to the underpayment and visa fraud since she felt that was the only way to reach America and settle there.

You just have to read a few of the articles in Firstpost (read, here, here, here, and here) to realise that if anything, the Indian media has been hypercritical of its own diplomat and the government – even though this writer disagrees.

This writer believes that Sangeeta Richard was not a victim of anyone’s evil intentions, but a willing participant in a scheme that she saw would help her emigrate to America.  You can read Jerry Rao’s piece today in The Indian Express to see the irony of viewing Richard as the victim in this case.

Not only that, the truth is that it makes absolutely no sense for America to insist that Indian maids should be paid American minimum wages when her employer herself barely clears the American minimum wage.

In fact, even Americans working in India do not pay American wages to their domestic employees in this country. Should we arrest and strip-search them? I certainly don’t pay my maid US minimum wages, nor my driver, for that matter. Most Indians do pay at least the local minimum wage – though some of us may also be ill-treating them.

Given the size of our population and unskilled domestic labour force, anecdotally it would seem that many of them are underpaid and/or ill-treated. But as with anything in India, it is not the number of such cases that indicate the level of ill-treatment, but their proportion in the population. This fact has to be established with data and research, not asserted purely on the basis of media reports of the occasional outrage involving episodes of ill-treatment.

Moreover, the wages of maids or domestic help or anyone we employ as individuals are determined by conditions in the labour market here. There is an official minimum wage – which is often not prescribed for domestic workers in many states – and most domestic workers probably clear this minimum in most metros.

This is why the American charge that Indians want low-paid domestic workers as a matter of feudal right is rubbish. I don’t think anyone in India or any Indian abroad has said any such thing, but this does not stop NYT from using an over-zealous Indian, Ananya Bhattacharya, to lecture us and tell us that “Having a servant is not a right.” The idea of using an Indian to damn India is the best way to avoid charges of racism.

Bhattacharya clearly does not know why maids may be poorly paid. It’s because poor pay is preferable to even worse poverty. Would these unskilled people find employment if their wages were set at levels where fewer people would employ them?

In any case, in terms of domestic wages, India is today where the US was when it was this poor. And the US did not legislate high minimum wages because Americans have the milk of human kindness in greater quantities than Indians.

As Vivek Dehejia notes in a column in Business Standard: “Those well-meaning but ill-informed commentators, who decry low wages and poor working conditions of domestic workers in India, would be well advised to study the history of labour in the United States and other rich countries. It was not pious exhortations from commentators, but rapid industrialisation and growth that led to the upliftment of the working classes. In the manufacturing-intensive sectors, labour unions too played their part by providing a formidable counterweight to the power of large employers. “

Even today, the US does not pay its own minimum wages to migrant labour in the south. But we want to believe that Devyani Khobragade is somehow morally inferior to those US marshals who strip-searched her for paying her maid less than the US minimum wage. Legally, she may be in trouble with US law, but it is a law that is being applied in the breach to us for unstated political reasons.

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Updated Date: Dec 24, 2013 13:23:23 IST