Why India is upset about Devyani Khobragade, and why it’s wrong

December 18, 2013
MONEY SHARMA/EPA - Activists protest near the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi on Dec. 18.
Activists protest near the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. (Money Sharma/European Pressphoto Agency)

U.S.-India relations haven’t been this fragile in years. Why? Last week, the United States apprehended an Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, and charged her with providing false information in a visa application for her nanny, whom she paid $3.31 an hour, well below minimum wage. Many are wondering why India is outraged.

A “deplorable” act.

In a letter to her colleagues, Khobragade, India’s deputy consul general, told her family that she faced “indignities of repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches, swabbing, hold up with common criminals and drug addicts were all being imposed upon me despite my incessant assertions of immunity.” U.S. officials maintain that she was treated along standard guidelines. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh even weighed in on the matter, calling Khobragade’s treatment “deplorable.”

Although Khobragade’s “indignities” seem pretty standard, in India, the perception that a woman’s honor is the community, society and country’s honor still holds. It’s one of the reasons many women are hesitant to speak about rape — their chastity is their family’s as well. So when reports were released that an Indian diplomat was touched, strip-searched, and treated like a mere criminal — that didn’t go over well with the Indian population.

It’s not the first time an Indian diplomat has gotten in trouble over this issue — last February, Neena Malhotra was ordered to pay $1.5 million to her former maid for “barbaric” conditions. But there was no strip-search, no jail time and, therefore, no mass protests.

She was treated as a common criminal.

It’s also not every day that a high-ranking official is put behind bars, especially for a charge many Indians feel is minor. Khobragade was impounded with people who faced drug-related charges — which are minor in the U.S. penal system. But in India, a female diplomat in jail over a salary issue for her nanny is almost unimaginable, and not a picture Indians are used to seeing.

Low wages for servants is normal.

It’s not just the privileged in India who have help. According to this report, “The going monthly rate for a live-in maid or cook, who often works for more than 12 hours a day, six days a week, is still low: only 4,000-10,000 rupees ($73-184) in the cities.”

While having servants or chauffeurs in the United States is a luxury attained by a select few, even lower-middle-class families in India have some sort of hired help. In this case, the treatment of the women in question wasn’t about any form of abuse — it was about a payment discrepancy. In India, that would rarely amount to jail time, especially for someone with means.

This isn’t the first time diplomats received what Indians thought was “unfair” treatment.

In 2010, India’s U.N. envoy, Hardeep Puri,who wore a turban for religious reasons, was reportedly asked to remove it during an airport security check. Also that year, reports suggested that Indian ambassador Meera Shankar was taken to another room and searched because she was wearing a sari. Those events stung in India, and no doubt came to mind when this latest event dominated the headlines.

This is India’s response:

The country has lodged a formal complaint with U.S. Ambassador Nancy Powell, removed barriers near the U.S. embassy and stopped import clearances for the embassy (such as liquor), while leaders have refused to meet with a congressional delegation and a member of India’s conservative party also said there could be retaliation “against the gay partners of U.S. diplomats.

And the U.S. response:

Officials have maintained that all procedures were standard and said Khobragade couldn’t receive diplomatic immunity because:

“Under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, the Indian deputy consul general enjoys immunity from the jurisdiction of U.S. courts only with respect to acts performed in the exercise of consular functions,” Marie Harf, a State Department deputy spokeswoman, said on Tuesday. “So, in this case, she fell under that specific kind of immunity and would be liable to arrest pending trial pursuant a felony arrest warrant.”

India has since moved Khobragade into a new post so that she receives full diplomatic immunity.

Why this is all wrong.

Little attention has been given to the housekeeper, Sangeeta Richard. India is siding with a woman who was in the wrong — who lied, paid her help poorly and now is brazen enough to claim that she should not be treated like a criminal. What’s “deplorable,” to use the prime minister’s words, is not Khobragade’s treatment, which was standard, but the fact that many in India aren’t speaking out against the treatment of the nanny.

India’s reaction is disappointing. The anti-corruption party in India is gaining incredible momentum — the party even unseated the ruling Congress party in the country’s capital, which was a huge victory. So why are Indians rallying for a privileged treatment of a diplomat? Why shouldn’t she be treated as a common criminal? In India, someone with power would rarely be apprehended for paying a servant a low wage. Actually, it’s laughable to think such a charge would even take place. But there was hope that a movement against corruption would change things.

After the global outrage and mass protests in India due to the Delhi gang rape that happened a little over a year ago, there was hope that unfair treatment toward women and opposition to immunity would skyrocket. Instead, many Indians are siding with the wrong woman in this battle. Like we saw with India’s anti-gay ruling last week, the country is in the wrong once again.

Follow Swati at @SwatiGauri.

Swati G. Sharma is a digital editor for the World and National Security and previously worked for the Opinions section. Before this, she covered news and nightlife for The Boston Globe. Originally from California. Interests include politics, traveling, Bollywood and hot sauce.
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