NEW DELHI — A week after the arrest and strip-search of an Indian diplomat in New York caused an international firestorm, new details are emerging about the woman at the center of the controversy, a professional who advocated for women’s rights in public but is accused of underpaying her nanny at home.
Devyani Khobragade, 39, handled women’s affairs as well as political and economic issues in her job as deputy consul general for India in New York, which she began last November. Posts on her Facebook page show her wearing perfectly draped saris and meeting with one group of female Asian entrepreneurs and another of women doctors.
“India always believes in encouraging its women,” she said after one event, in a video posted on YouTube.
But behind the scenes, prosecutors have alleged, she was paying the Indian nanny looking after her two daughters far less than the $9.75 required by the U.S. government. A federal complaint said the diplomat secretly contracted to pay the nanny, Sangeeta Richard, the equivalent of $573.07 a month, which would work out to about $3.31 an hour based on a 40-hour workweek. However, Safe Horizon, a victim assistance organization in New York that is helping the nanny, said she typically worked 90 to 100 hours a week, which would work out to only $1.32 to $1.46 an hour.
Khobragade’s attorney says that she is not guilty of the fraud charges and that the contract in question dealt with money to be deducted from the nanny’s salary and sent to her family in India.
Richard left the diplomat’s home in June. Her lawyer, Dana Sussman, said she fled poor working conditions. Khobragade’s lawyer has said the babysitter disappeared without warning.
The image of Khobragade presented by prosecutors appears to be at sharp odds with the diplomat’s portrayal of herself.
Khobragade told the Indian Panorama newspaper this year that the “highest point” for diplomats was being named an ambassador.
“But my other ambition is to have direct impact on a foreign policy for underprivileged women,” she said.
Over the past week, outrage over Khobragade’s treatment flared across India. Protesters burned President Obama in effigy. The Indian government cut back on U.S. diplomats’ privileges and even removed concrete security barriers near the U.S. Embassy. Indian politicians and government officials complained about the fact that Khobragade was strip-searched and briefly jailed. Several declared that Khobragade’s honor as “a lady diplomat” must be defended at any cost.
Khobragade was born in a town near Mumbai, into a family of Dalits — the name for the country’s lowest caste, once called the “untouchables.” Her professional success shows how far India has come in recent years.
Her father, a bureaucrat, owed his career in part to a policy to set aside 15 percent of jobs in India’s government for members of lower castes. His daughter benefited from this quota when she joined the foreign service in 1999.
The Khobragades are a prominent family from a sub-caste of Dalits called Mahars, who were once street sweepers and village watchmen forbidden to enter temples or drink water from the same wells as the upper castes. In recent years, as India’s rigid system of social stratification weakened, Mahars have risen to prosperity and professional careers.
“Their life is far better than it was 40 years ago,” said Badri Narayan, a social scientist and expert on Dalit issues at the Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute in Allahabad. “They’re very assertive against any kind of discrimination.”
Khobragade’s father, Uttam Khobragade, said Friday that the family experienced little discrimination during his daughter’s youth, when she was a studious and “extremely bold child” who river-rafted and won a gold medal in a horse show.
On her first diplomatic posting, in Germany, she met an academic, Aakash Singh Rathore, who would become her husband — “a love marriage,” her father said. The couple has two daughters, ages 7 and 4.
Later, while she was stationed in Pakistan, Khobragade bought a flat in the Adarsh Housing Society cooperative in Mumbai, a move that has dogged her and her family for a decade. The posh high-rise that looms above the ocean was supposed to be a six-story residence for war widows. But the project grew to 31 stories and was tainted by allegations of corruption. Both Uttam Khobragade and his daughter were called to testify before a judicial commission investigating wrongdoing, but the panel’s report is sealed, and the state government has rejected its conclusions, without making them public.
“There were flats reserved for the scheduled [lower] castes which we applied for and were allotted one of them,” her father said. “We paid the cost of the flat in full. But now it seems we have been cheated. They are neither giving [us] the flat nor any sign of returning our money.”
Separately, Devyani Khobragade has a large portfolio of real estate holdings, including three flats and agricultural land in three states. Khobragade said in a financial disclosure document this year that the combined worth of these properties was about $300,000. Two real estate experts who reviewed her filing for The Washington Post said she appeared to be significantly underestimating their total value.
India said this week that it has reassigned Khobragade to a post in the country’s permanent mission to the United Nations, a transfer that would, if approved, allow her full immunity from additional charges. (The U.S. government has said she had only limited immunity in her consular post.) But the fraud case seems far from resolved. The United States has said it will not drop charges against her.
Sari Horwitz and Bill Branigin in Washington and Suhasini Raj in New Delhi contributed to this report.