Devyani Khobragade’s arrest: what it means for India

January 30, 2014 5:42 pm0 commentsViews: 18

Devyani Khobragade’s arrest has caused a great deal of uproar in India. Khobragade is an Indian Foreign Service officer who served in New York City as the Deputy Consul General. In December 2013, she was charged by U.S. authorities with committing visa fraud in bringing domestic help, a woman named Sangita Richards (also an Indian citizen) to the U.S., and then underpaying her. Khobragade has said that after her arrest she was ill-treated: subjected to a cavity search and forced into custody with “common criminals.” She maintains that Richards had used her to gain entry into the States. Khobragade’s situation caught the attention of the Indian government, which promoted her status to that of a diplomat, thereby granting her diplomatic immunity. In January 2014, she was sent back to India from the U.S.

Richards was employed as a nanny by Khobragade since November 2012. Khobragade had facilitated Richard’s entry into the country by providing false statements, thereby committing visa fraud. According to U.S. law, Richards should have been paid minimum wage, however, she was only paid $3.31 an hour. She was also allegedly kept in “slavery-like conditions.” In June 2013, Richards left Khobragade’s residence without notice and sought support from the Indian community in New York. She then contacted Safe Horizon, an NGO that provides services to victims of domestic violence, rape and human trafficking.

This was a simple case wherein Khobragade, if proven guilty, would have had to pay Richards compensation for her mistreatment. However, both Khobragade’s and Richards’ positions were ignored by almost all Indian politicians, who instead chose to politicize Khobragade’s ‘ill-treatment’ by U.S. authorities, thereby ensuring that justice was not delivered to either party.

This callous attitude is primarily because the Indian political climate is currently pregnant with anxiety about the upcoming 2014 general elections. This pre-election anxiety has been demonstrated through attempts made by politicians to capitalize on the case and gain the goodwill of the masses. For instance, Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi, Prime Ministerial candidates from opposing parties, refused to meet the U.S. delegation visiting India in order to condemn an Indian’s ill treatment abroad.

This decision was made instead of trying to generate a dialogue within the country. Rather, they did not regard the case or use their connections in the U.S. to ensure that justice was delivered. Moreover, a senior member from Modi’s right-wing conservative party further shifted the focus of the case by giving a statement that since Indians were forced to comply with U.S. law, U.S. diplomats should be asked to do the same. Hence, homosexual U.S. diplomats shouldn’t be given visas since sexual relations “outside the order of nature” are illegal in India.

This statement played to the sensibilities of conservative Hindus but did nothing to deliver justice to Richards or Khobragade. Mayavati, the leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party, a party catering to minorities and lower castes, said that the delay in giving diplomatic immunity to Khobragade was on account of her belonging to a lower caste herself.

During this charade, Richards has been completely ignored by political circles as well as by the mainstream media. Other than one NGO, Gharelu Kaamgar Sanghathan (GKS), a domestic workers’ rights group, nobody has shed light on her side of the story. As a domestic servant she has been subject to potshots from Khobragade’s family. Moreover, given her lack of resources, her future will remain uncertain.