The Khobragade wrangle raises a number of questions that both the US and India need to answer.

In the cacophony of collective national outrage at the criminal proceedings initiated against a member of our neo-princely class — the Indian Foreign Service — we have lost sight of certain essentials.

India’s Deputy Consul General in New York Devyani Khobragade took with her Sangeeta Richard, as domestic help. Two agreements were made with respect to her wages. A “fair” US wage of $9.75 an hour for a 40-hour week was stated on Sangeeta’s visa form, with her employer fully aware she couldn’t afford to pay a wage that exceeded her own. Had this not been stated, there would have been a real danger of her not getting that coveted visa. And how can our hallowed IFS members, a notch above the desi IAS babus, be expected to do their jhadu-pocha (even with a vacuum cleaner) or clean their toilets? The second was a private agreement for Rs 30,000 to be paid to Sangeeta’s family in India.

So, as must be customary for IFS officers posted to this coveted land, and following a convention laid down by their seniors, Devyani signed a contract she intended to flout, by lying and cheating. Thankfully, unlike some other Indian diplomats, she has not been charged with harassment or inhuman treatment. For reasons best known to her and perhaps sniffing greener pastures in a land whose Green Cards and citizenship even the most privileged in India covet, the maid did the disappearing act six months ago.

Humiliating arrest

But barely two days before Devyani’s dramatic arrest on the streets of New York on December 12 on visa fraud charges, the plot thickened. Sangeeta’s family — husband and children — was flown to the US as guests of Uncle Sam. Worse, our IFS officer was picked up, handcuffed, strip-searched and locked up with drug addicts and streetwalkers. By the manner of her arrest and secretly flying in the maid’s family to the US, as though they faced a deadly threat in India, the American administration landed in a whirlpool of Indian outrage. In India, of course, such heavy-handed police action is reserved for the poor and not the rich and influential.

In September, Devyani had got an interim injunction from the Delhi High Court “restraining the maid and her husband from filing for any action against Khobragade in any foreign court,” and a non-bailable arrest warrant against Sangeeta.

India’s rage

As details emerged of the deplorable manner in which the officer was held, the powerful IFS lobby, aided by the chatterati on social media platforms and the Opposition parties — always eager to defend India’s honour — stepped in with “how dare you treat an Indian diplomat like this” outrage. Of course, Indian honour can be compromised when the Opposition is in power and dreaded terrorists are released, as had happened in the past, but that’s another story.

The Congress-led UPA Government, still smarting under the drubbing it received in the recent Assembly polls, quickly jumped on the bandwagon and took on the mighty US.

Withdraw the charges against Devyani and apologise, thundered our ruling netas, standing cheek by jowl with the Opposition and other angry Indians. Barricades outside the US embassy in Delhi were removed; all the privileges given to American diplomats such as VIP passes for airports (why were they given in the first place?) removed; the unlimited imports from home for their mission and families curbed, and that too just before Christmas; and details of their spouses’ employment in India demanded. How much do you pay your domestic help, we thundered; perhaps their wages and treatment might be better than what we in India generally give our maids or cooks.

The lowest point was reached when Yashwant Sinha, senior leader of the BJP — a party always at pains to safeguard bharatiya sanskar — came out with this gem: Article 377 was operative again, so arrest all the homosexuals among the American diplomats, and their partners too. Bravo, can we get lower than this?

In another triumph of babudom, Devyani was promptly transferred to India’s permanent mission to the UN in New York to ensure her full diplomatic immunity.

But this triumph was punctured when the US said this immunity wouldn’t hold good for an offence already committed. What message are we trying to convey by this transfer? That she can now go ahead and break more laws or commit any crime and we will cheer her on long-distance and say ‘boo’ to the mighty US?

The US has made it clear that the charges won’t be dropped; no apology is forthcoming on the manner of her arrest, but both sides are making the right noises on “our relations” being too precious to be jeopardised by this single incident.

Unanswered questions

Whatever the outcome — Devyani is now out on an unsecured bail bond of $250,000 — this episode raises many questions.

Over long years, IFS officers have taken domestic help from India without paying the stipulated fair US wages. The argument that unless a complaint is made, the US administration cannot/will not act doesn’t behove a superpower that claims to ensure equal opportunities and justice to all. Surely, the US government is aware of our diplomats’ salaries; so, by requiring a fair wage declaration on the visa forms, isn’t it complicit in perpetuating the fraud?

For the last week, we’ve been hearing ad nauseam how the rule of law is sacrosanct in the US, which will not discriminate between a maid and high-ranking diplomat and, hence, it cannot drop this case.

Then what prevents its government from refusing such visas for domestic servants who tag along as part of the entourage of our IFS officers to foreign missions? Isn’t there a mili-bhagat (complicity) here as the wages of our diplomats are not a huge secret?

Also, where do the other developing countries of Africa, or Asia, such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh or Pakistan, stand on this issue?

Surely, Pakistani diplomats are even more spoilt than our IFS officers, and against one maid our diplomat takes along, he/she might be taking two!

The most basic issue is of domestic help itself. Even at home, many upper middle-class working women are getting used to only part-time domestic help; in the US, or Europe for that matter, even very senior executives manage with part-time local help, if any at all.

Isn’t it time the Indian Government stopped helping our diplomats from misusing their powerful positions to get visas on dishonest grounds for domestic help? And also shave a portion of its massive expenditure on IAS/IPS and other high-ranking government ‘servants’ by cutting down on their servant quota?

If the Aam Aadmi Party can pick up a jhadu, so can they, at least occasionally, along with millions of other Indians.

(This article was published on December 23, 2013)
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