A Maid in Distress Roils U.S.-India Relations

India and the U.S. have become embroiled in a rapidly escalating diplomatic imbroglio that is reminiscent of Cold War theatricals yet lacks even the perverse logic of those standoffs. The crisis was set off by the sudden arrest and temporary detention in New York on Dec. 11 of Devyani Khobragade, an Indian deputy consul general, on the charge of “visa fraud and false statements in connection with household employee’s visa application.”

Her offense -- a somewhat cynical one, to be sure, but almost certainly not limited to her alone -- was to have brought to the U.S. on an A-3 visa a maid from India (which requires the signing of a contract between employer and employee that guarantees the payment of at least the U.S. minimum wage), and then of holding the household worker to a separate, private contract on a far smaller wage, amounting to approximately $600 a month.

Khobragade, 39, was arrested in public shortly after she had dropped off her daughter at school in Manhattan. She was handcuffed, taken into detention, strip-searched and briefly held in a cell with other alleged felons before being released on a $250,000 bond and surrendering her passport. She faces a maximum of 15 years in jail if convicted.

The behavior of all the parties involved in this matter seems an unedifying mixture of the petty and the perverse, but l’affaire Khobragade also raises some interesting questions about legal and diplomatic principles and their jurisdiction. And about power: both the power of states over citizens of other countries, and the power enjoyed by individuals -- not least that of Khobragade in devising a double contract, but also that of the high-profile U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who initiated proceedings leading to the arrest.

Some of these questions are: Couldn’t the matter have been sorted out behind closed doors, or did U.S. authorities want to make this an exemplary case? Either way, doesn’t Khobragade enjoy diplomatic immunity? (Apparently, on one reading of the relevant law in the Vienna Convention, she doesn’t, as those rules apply "only with respect to acts performed in the exercise of consular functions.")

Is equality before the law of all foreign residents of the U.S. the main point here, and if so, wouldn’t there have been ways of ensuring this without this unnecessary stress on painstakingly established Indo-American bilateral relations? Indeed, would the U.S. government have countenanced similar treatment of one of its own diplomats in another country?

What was unusual in Khobragade’s case was that the maid, Sangeeta Richard, grew discontented, left her job and sought action against her employer in the U.S. Khobragade responded by filing a court case against Richard in India and having her special passport annulled.

Is Khobragade herself guilty of an abuse of power both in New York and in India, having members of Richard’s family in India detained by the police after Richard suddenly left work in New York? And is the ignominious manner of Khobragade's arrest standard procedure in the U.S.?

Meanwhile, as the State Department continued to insist that the matter was “primarily a law enforcement issue,” India’s government retaliated against what it perceived to be the humiliating treatment of Khobragade. It asked for details of salaries paid to all Indians employed at U.S. consulates, and canceled clearances for the import of food and liquor by U.S. missions in India. (This could be just the boost that India’s stagnating wine industry needs.) And at least one road in New Delhi has become wider this week, after the police somewhat petulantly removed a few security barricades placed outside the U.S. Embassy. No terrorist outfit has taken up the invitation implied by this voluntary concession of space, but plenty of motorists have.

These gestures have been read by some Indians (most prominently the hectoring and jingoistic TV anchorman Arnab Goswami) as a welcome sign that their government is standing up to the U.S., and by others as a pointless display of tit-for-tat behavior. At least one politician asked if the principle of “no immunity before the law” shouldn’t work both ways, requiring the arrest of any same-sex partners of American diplomats in the wake of the Indian Supreme Court’s recent recriminalization of homosexuality?

There’s something to this, even though it reveals that Indian law on the matter of gay rights has regressed from what might be expected of a maturing democracy. Moral equivalence with respect to the treatment of officials of foreign missions of two countries, though, can’t be used as a screen for the fact that a consenting same-sex partnership is a moral arena vastly different from a contract between employer and employee.

Perhaps the most mature response to l’affaire Khobragade has come from Indians who, while endorsing their government’s concern about the harsh detention of one of its employees, have also argued that it’s high time Indian officials working abroad stop exporting the country’s deeply entrenched culture of denying their often illiterate domestic workers their rights. Many think the government should work to ensure the safe return not just of Khobragade (as it has vowed to do), but also Sangeeta Richard, for whom it has issued an arrest warrant, and whose testimony is currently the crucial missing link in the case.

It seems that Khobragade’s troubles with both nanny and state may have turned her into an unwitting agent for the termination of what the journalist Chidanand Rajghatta called “nanny service for Indian diplomats,” at least in the West.

Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View and the author of the novel Arzee the Dwarf.

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