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The Devyani Khobragade Kerfuffle: A Surprising Response and Indian Political Hypocrisy

January 15, 2014

Some quick thoughts about the case of the Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade’s arrest as a common criminal in New York in late Dec 2013, accused of falsifying a Visa application for her domestic servant. She recently returned to India, after weeks of diplomatic standoff.

The US attorney’s office in NY, led by Preet Bahara dropped the ball. Even if she was not a full diplomat, his office should have coordinated with the State department and surfaced this matter in private. The alleged heavy-handed treatment was unnecessary. If she was strip-searched and arrested in her children’s presence, which the NY prosecutor’s office denies, then I agree with many others, that the situation required a more tactful resolution.

The wealthy Indians’ treatment of their domestic help, long a hush-hush topic in Indian society, begs for open discussion. Having lived in an upper-middle class homes in Delhi, I have personally seen the way some domestic servants are treated. In one house I lived in, the servants ate all their meals in a dark corner of a stairwell and the lady of the house never once called them by their first names, referring to them merely as ‘boy’ and ‘girl.’ Her callousness treatment of them initially shocked me, but then I realized that was probably the norm, not the exception.

If this situation brings dialogue about not only how wealthy Indians treat household servants, but the larger issue of exploited labor into the vernacular, I consider it a ‘win.’

However, underpaying a domestic servant, living in the US is a major problem. It speaks volumes that stories are focusing on Ms. Khobragade’s treatment while overlooking the issue of whether or not she actually paid her servant US minimum wages. My guess is that the New York office knows of multiple cases of underpaying or worse treatment of domestic labor, particularly by diplomatic staff and part of the reason for arresting Ms. Khobragade was sending a message that it is not acceptable.

If Devyani fabricated a US visa application to bring a servant here and underpay them according to US law, then she deserves punishment accordingly. That is a grave offense.

For those saying prosecutor Bahara (himself an Indian-American) is making a point that he is more American, than Indian, by coming down hard on his ‘own people’ I think they are misguided. Mr. Bahara has made it his mission to prosecute everyone from diplomats to Wall Street tycoons. He is not concerned with how high or mighty one is, if they break the law.

India’s response to the incident continually made the situation worse. They have acted like a spoiled child, taking away security at the US embassy, revoking diplomatic passes and refusing to meet with visiting US delegations. I understand that Indians feel the arrest was an affront to their country, but surely high-level talks could have de-escalated the situation. The Indian government is treating the issue as bigger than a court case, but I think they are wrong. Not to mention, the Indian government’s actions are something I would expect from a nation like Russia or China, but not a friendly ally like India.

Lastly, the two strangest things about this case to me are the following; the way it has united India and Indian politicians’ blatant hypocrisy when discussing it.

All political parties banded together, decrying this event from its outset, from the Hindu nationalist BJP to its Congress. Normally these parties have nothing but contempt for one another and on all other issues that rings true. However, L’Affaire Khobragade has galvanized India like a cricket match, wherein caste, religion and wealth are immaterial.

In particular, the lower classes, of which a person of her stature would never think about remains singularly up in arms about her treatment. Why are people, just above domestic servants in terms of their demographics agitated over this woman’s treatment?

The huge demonstrations by Indians in the major cities are full of middle class and poorer citizens. Why are they suddenly taking the side of a class that has trampled upon them and in some cases denied their basic existence for decades and even centuries? Ms. Khobragade’s support from people who presumably she and her demographic view as invisible is strange. It is the rich and privileged of her class, which could care less for the poor. Nevertheless, the under-privileged are exactly the demographics of the people demonstrating and calling for US apologies etc. I find this baffling. It is not as though by advocating for a woman of money and stature that their situation will be any different.

Lastly, I have read a number of articles detailing how upset Indian politicians are about her treatment. However, the condemnation of actions against a woman of importance ring hollow when the angry crowds care only about how non-Indians treat women, but have little regard for Indian vs Indian violence against women.

Peers who utter non-sense like ‘women should not have cell phones because they cause promiscuity’ surround the same politicians speaking derisively against the US arrest, calling it ‘deplorable and intolerable.’

When Indian men rape Indian women and sexually assault them with abandon, many politicians are silent. Perhaps it’s because a third of sitting parliamentary members have charges of rape, attempted rape, sexual assault and other bodily offenses either currently pending against them or have admitted them previously.

Do they not see the obvious disconnect? To me, they are saying ‘we do not really care whether Indian women are assaulted by Indians, but how dare you Americans violate the dignity of our sacred females.’ I find this farcical, but not actually humorous, because Indian women and girls enjoy no such rights in India enduring rampant violence against them on all sides.

 

I'd love to hear your thoughts!