Out Of My Mind: A tale of two women

Written by Meghnad Desai | Updated: Dec 22 2013, 16:57pm hrs
Indias reaction to the arrest of Devyani Khobragade has been over the top. From a safe distance, the Indian political and diplomatic establishment was ready to almost declare war on America. The various past insults have been detailed. Past ambassadors have thronged to TV channels to recount their experiences. India is about to retaliate and take away the rights and privileges of US diplomats.

All this and what for The arrest of a person who is consular appointment but who is charged with some criminal activities. None of those activities pertains to her job as a diplomat for India in the US. They concern the payment and treatment of her domestic staff, another Indian woman. In our rush to defend Devyani Khobragade, we forget the plight of Sangeeta Richard. Which is natural because one is IFS and another merely a domestic servant. What rights could a domestic have in India let alone in New York She should have been grateful that she got this fantastic opportunity to go and serve in Khobragades household looking after her children at Rs 30,000 per month with board and lodging.

The realities of the situation are otherwise. As the US legal documents in this case show, Rs 30,000 per month is just $3.31 per hour on the generous calculation that she worked only 40 hours a week. In the visa application the salary was given not as $573.07 per month (which the Rs 30,000 would have amounted to in the days of the strong rupee) but $4,500. Richard was instructed to lie about her salary to get the visa. Thus Khobragade knowingly falsified an official document. But also paying only $3.31 per hour amounts to wage slavery as that is below the minimum wage. Since the declared salary was seven times higher than what Richard was paid, imagine how far below the minimum wage her salary was.

The American legal submission is worth reading as it is very detailed, though somewhat clothed in legalese. The fact remains that Khobragade is charged with something which can merit 15 years of imprisonment. Employing someone below minimum wage (having stated that you will not do so in the visa application) is an offence. It is not part of her diplomatic activity. Human rights of one Indian citizen have been violated by an Indian IFS official. No one in Parliament raises a word about that. Khobragade may be a Dalit (though from the creamy layer as she owns flats in the Adarsh complex in Mumbai), but Richard may belong to a Scheduled Tribe, so there is no lower than thou kudos there.

US Marshall Service (USMS) personnel are not the friendliest of people, especially when they are arresting someone they think is a criminal. Papers show that the Americans were aware of Khobragades diplomatic status, but concluded that her status was irrelevant to her crime. Still the USMS should not have strip-searched her since her crime involved no violence. She was unlikely to be carrying weapons. Nor should she have to be swabbed as there was no evidence of drug abuse. The apology has to be about the manner of arrest but not about the fact that she will be proceeded against.

The lesson is that before the entire establishment lurches into a hysteria of self-righteousness, we should ask whether there is substance to the story. From the statements of various retired diplomats, it would seem the government of India knows about this practice of falsifying visa documents and connives in it. It also shows that the government is very mean in the amount it is willing to pay its officers abroad to enjoy the sort of lifestyle they enjoy at home. If it costs seven times as much to have a servant in New York as in Delhi, either pay that much or tell the diplomats they have to do without home help, as most Americans do.

The stance India took was not a show of strength but one of petulance. The government admitted Khobragades guilt when they transferred her to the UN. The injustice done to Richard and no doubt many other maid servants employed by IFS staff abroad still remains to be addressed.