Nationalistic outrage aside, the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York for giving false information to obtain a visa for her domestic worker, and paying her less than the local minimum wage, has shone well-deserved light on a troubling practice that many Indians unfortunately think is normal. Devyani Khobragade is not the first Foreign Service officer caught on the wrong end of the law in the host country on charges relating to treatment of a domestic employee. The human aspect of the controversy and the seriousness of the visa fraud charge are at times lost through the shift of focus to technical and procedural issues, relevant as they are. While it is for the courts to pronounce on Ms. Khobragade’s conduct, there is no moral high ground to be claimed on this issue. It is well known that exploitative practices against domestic workers are rampant in India. With unskilled labour plentiful, and domestic labour comprising the lowest section in this category, there is no minimum or maximum age of employment, no fixed work hours, and certainly no minimum wage. Indians posted abroad are loathe to hire locals to do household work, especially in the West, as minimum wages are fixed, and translate into much more than what they would pay back home; the terms and conditions of employment too are not malleable, with specified holiday and leave requirements. Uncaring about violating local laws, they end up taking “the help” with them on Indian wages, sometimes even showing her as a member of the family for visa purposes. Ms. Khobragade was only hewing close to type, going by the charges against her, even though as a senior government official, she should have known better. The Ministry of External Affairs should put an end to the practice of its officials taking domestic staff with them abroad.
As a consular official, Ms. Khobragade does not have the same extent of immunity under the Vienna conventions as a diplomat in an embassy. In the United States, consular officials can be arrested for a serious crime on the basis of a warrant. It is of course debatable if the offence she is charged with falls in the category of felony, particularly as she was released on bail within a few hours. The dramatic manner of the arrest, which included handcuffing, is unusual treatment for any person, even if one were to disregard her consular status. Also, there is nothing to suggest she was about to flee the country. Sensibly, New Delhi made no claim of immunity for the official. While standing in solidarity with the official against the manner of her arrest, the government has also rightly made it clear that she will be available for the court proceedings against her.