The Diplomatic Tussle

I have been observing the recent diplomatic row between USA and India for quite a while now. I think there have been a few questions that have never been asked or questioned and before something drastic happens.

Firstly, I am going to say at the outset that I, in no way support Dr. Devyani Khobragade. I don’t support her because she has broken law in another country and that is all I require to determine on which side I am on.

The whole outrage about the whole Khobragade affair is because of her arrest in front of her kids, the strip searching and the detention with drug and sex criminals. Was it heavy-handed? Maybe. I would imagine it would be harsh to get arrested in front of your kids and then go to jail. And this is worse since she is a diplomat.

So let us take a look at the facts.

Khobragade hires a maid, Sangeeta Richard from India to take care of her two children while she is away at work. She applies for an A-3 visa with the state department. An A-3 visa is a visa which specifically deals with the private staff of a diplomat such as maids and nannies and other staff. The State department mandates that they be paid a minimum wage of $9.75 an hour. Khobragade in the form mentions that she would be paid the minimum wage. However, what she does is she signs another agreement with Sangeeta Richard stating that her wages would be not more than $3.31 an hour. So basically what she has done is, she lied to authorities. She committed fraud in order to deny minimum wage.

Now, according to me, a diplomat accused of visa fraud is like a cop being accused of burglary.

Devyani Khobragade.

Devyani Khobragade.

People claim that she has consular immunity. That is not factually accurate. The Vienna Convention on Consular Relations stipulates very clearly that consular immunity is extended only to the exercise of consular functions. There is another clause which mentions that the consular officer may not be liable to arrest. However, there is an exception to the clause if the charges against the consular officer are grave.

So no, America is not violating international law as people claim. She does not have immunity and is liable to arrest since the application of a visa for her maid is not exercise of her consular functions.

Then comes the question of the wages itself. People all over cyberspace are having shouting matches on how $9.75 is too much for Indian diplomats to afford and that it would mean that the maid would be earning more than a diplomat. And how is that? Apparently, in a month, the approximate total paid to the maid would be $4500 while the diplomat earned only $6500.

I think that argument is just stupid.

For one, Sangeeta Richard is being brought to New York. New York has really high standards of living and is expensive. You can’t expect her to work for Indian wages while living in New York. It seems outrageously expensive in India because the price of labor here is cheap. Most of the middle class in India do have maids. Even students these days have maids to clean up their rooms and other such duties.

When you go abroad, the situation is quite different. I lived all my life abroad and I know how it is. Services like maids and other odd jobs are expensive. Families in that case usually try to either make do without the maid by doing the jobs themselves or they are willing to fork out that kind of money for the maid’s services.

Sangeeta Richard is a maid, not a slave. Decent wages is her right.

If the wages were such a problem, Khobragade should have employed her for lesser hours. If she wants the nanny for the whole 15 hours of work, then she should be ready to fork out that kind of money. Nobody said life was fair.

The point is, Khobragade lied to authorities. She has been charged with fraud. That is a crime. She committed a crime knowing fully well that she is an Indian diplomat and is representing India abroad. She may have been arrested in front of her kids, strip-searched and put in prison with drug and sex criminals, but she did commit the crime. She denied legally mandated wages to her maid. If there is something to be outraged about, I think it is the fact that she exploited her maid.

The minute she lied on that form, she faced the risk of arrest and humiliating treatment. And she got exactly what she had coming.

Besides, the US Marshals are not people who care about the status of the person they are arresting. They subjected Dominique Strauss-Kahn to the same treatment i.e. Public Arrest, Strip-searching and detention. Devyani Khobragade is no Strauss-Kahn. That is a fact.

Let us not forget, this is not the first time our diplomats have had maid problems. Before this, we have the case of Neena Malhotra, ironically attached to the consulate in New York, just like Khobragade. Neena Malhotra ill-treated her maid and forced to work long hours without adequate compensation. So we have a history of maid problems and that is a fact.

Apparently, each diplomat gets one maid in order for the diplomat to fully discharge their duties without being worried about domestic duties. Personally, I think its colonial and reeks of some sort of a feudal order. If diplomats need to hire maids, they must pay out of their pocket. A maid is a luxury, not a right. And if the Ministry of External Affairs thinks that it is absolutely essential for the diplomat to have a maid, then the Ministry must bear a part of the cost.

While there have been problems between diplomats and their maids, we must also understand that there are other Indian diplomats who may be hiring maids to help out with domestic duties. The same would be the case for diplomats of other countries. So far we haven’t seen violation of rules by the other diplomats. This means that the whole it-is-too-expensive-to-get-maids-for-diplomats is stupid because the law is being followed by others. She doesn’t get to violate law like that. She simply doesn’t.

This is also a fact that the Indian government was notified as early as September about Khobragade’s activities. The Indian government did nothing. It did not restrain Khobragade. So all this outrage is actually a big cover-up of their failure.

Which begs the next question. Why was she not restrained? Maybe a better question would be who really is Dr.Devyani Khobragade?

We know she is a 1999 batch IFS officer. Her father is a former bureaucrat who worked with the Maharashtra government and is known to be quite close to various politicians. What we also know is that given the kind of hierarchy the IFS follows, it is not very easy to be the deputy Consul General in New York. It takes people with years of experience and seniority to get there. So how is it that 39 year old Khobragade assumes such a post? Is she such a good diplomat? Or is something not in place?

Next comes the issue of Preet Bharara, the attorney who put Khobragade behind bars. He is perhaps the most hated person right now in India. Cyberspace is filled with trashy comments and slurs calling him a traitor and all such nonsense. Now I don’t agree with any of that. First of all, Bharara is not Indian, he is American. He is merely of Indian origin. As a US attorney, he is doing his job and he is doing it well. This cannot be counted against him. His lack of sympathy for the likes of Khobragade and Rajat Gupta cannot be termed as racism. If anything, he is the only one who has fought for Sangeeta Richard, who is ALSO an Indian.

The Indian government reaction is perhaps the most pathetic thing I have seen in terms of foreign policy. Everyone has come out in the open calling her treatment as a criminal “outrageous”. So the Indian government started this whole campaign of subjecting American diplomats to bad treatment. The Indian government and the petty people who run it recalled the IDs of embassy staff, they reduced all privileges and started asking for all sorts of documents regarding wages of workers and all such nonsense.

The worst thing however, was the removal of barricades. Now let us not forget that India is obliged under international law to protect embassies. This cannot be violated. Removal of barricades is the breach of duty on the part of the Indian government and if subsequently there is any breach of security, then the responsibility solely lies with the Indian government for the dereliction in duties.

Personally I think that the Indian government and the politicians who come out to her defense shout out the loudest against her treatment in prison because they want to drown out the core issue. Not a single one has called on for the investigation of Khobragade and her crime against the maid.

As I mentioned earlier, the government had full knowledge about this going on. They did not respond and this is a cover-up of their failure. The whole establishment is a beneficiary of things such as servants for their domestic duties and are quick to shout down Sangeeta Richard because it raises questions against themselves too. This is not a problem of one diplomat, it is the mentality of a nation that is the root cause of the problem. The mentality that maids are slaves and are a right. This is something that resonates a lot with upper and middle class families. This is where Khobragade’s support comes from.

Dr. Devyani Khobragade needs to be investigated for fraud. The Indian government must stop this pathetic charade of harassing American diplomats to cover up their problems before they make things worse. The victim here is not Khobragade, it is Sangeeta Richard.

The outrage has been caused by Khobragade’s fraud, not her arrest. When people around the world would read about Khobragade, they are not going to remember that she was detained, they are going to remember that she was a woman who committed visa fraud in order to withhold minimum wages from her maid. They are going to know her as the Indian diplomat who did that. That is the image she has created of Indians everywhere in this world.

In her disgraceful actions lie the outrage.



Ashwath Komath
An article by:
Ashwath Komath

Leave a Reply