Pride and parampara in Manhattan

What if a class-action suit came up in the U.S. courts on the ripping-off of Indian domestic workers there? That fear drives the government’s outraged response to Devyani Khobragade’s arrest

December 30, 2013 01:16 am | Updated November 16, 2021 06:07 pm IST

In the Devyani Khobragade drama, the media have largely focussed on two themes and stoked wounded national pride around those. One: the outrageous manner of the arrest of the Indian consular official. Two, the perfidy of the United States. Of the latter, there has been plenty in the past few years. But you barely saw a whimper of anti-U.S. sentiment in the mainstream media. It took the Khobragade case to produce that. She has been charged in New York with visa fraud and illegally underpaying her domestic help and housekeeper Sangeeta Richard (who is also an Indian citizen). Both the human story and the U.S.-bully story are easily told, and indeed have been, many times over these past few days. With the crude bungling of her arrest, and the harsh manner of it, the U.S. has raised Indian hackles. And, of course, we’ve had yet another display of U.S. double standards on diplomatic immunity.

Incidents and Indian reaction

What’s been an intriguing and no less riveting a story, is the high-voltage response of the Indian government. The rage and fury it has displayed. None of which was seen in many other cases that cried out for a much stronger response to U.S. wrongdoing. The Edward Snowden revelations earlier this year showed India to be one of the biggest targets of electronic espionage by the National Security Agency (NSA) of the U.S. Yes, ahead of even Russia and China. The scope of the damage done to us has still barely been explored. We know the Indian Mission to the United Nations was, and perhaps still is, bugged. We know that the G-20 meeting in London that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh went to in 2010 was also bugged. The latter, by the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the NSA’s British sibling.

Brazil, less affected than India, saw President Dilma Rousseff cancel a state visit to America. An angry Ms. Rousseff sought an apology and an end to digital snooping. She also launched a scathing attack on U.S. spying, in a speech at the United Nations this September. India said and did nothing. Though an American judge did, saying the NSA’s mass surveillance was most likely illegal even within the U.S. Our supine silence meant that Dr. Singh’s own trip to the U.S. went off without a glitch.

There was no flurry of angry statements from top officials when a U.S. Navy ship fired on a small fishing boat off Dubai in July last year. The USNS Rappahannock opened fire, killing one Indian fisherman and wounding three. All four — in a total crew of six — were from Ramanathapuram in Tamil Nadu. The survivors said they had no signal, warning or inkling of an attack.

The Indian Ambassador to the UAE told Reuters at the time: “Obviously if they were warned they would not go close to such a big vessel. Even if shots were fired in the air, these fishermen would have moved away.” After a day or two of reports in the media, the story sank in silence. We saw no furious External Affairs Minister blasting the U.S. Nor a Parliamentary Affairs Minister saying: “A regret for the sake of formality is not enough. They should apologise in unambiguous terms and accept their mistake.” All of that was reserved for the present dispute. Wrongly jailed Indian sailors in Togo waited months for their government to act. One of them is yet to be released. In the Devyani case, India was on the attack from day one.

Many mighty Indians have been through humiliating pat-downs and checks at airports in the U.S. That includes former Presidents of this country, serving Ambassadors to the U.S., and others. George Fernandes while Defence Minister was twice subjected to intrusive searches. One of these was described by a former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State as a “strip search.” It’s even happened, horror of horrors, to Bollywood’s brightest and best. But none of these instances drew a response like the one we saw over Ms. Khobragade.

Why? Because the charges levelled against her might well apply to a very large number of our embassy and consular staff? And not just in New York? Imagine the embarrassment ahead if this prosecution were to extend to the rest of the fraternity. After all, the domestic help who have been ripped off are also Indian citizens. What if some group clubbed together a raft of such cases and brought something like a class-action suit in American courts? It would be quite logical. And it could cost the government of India millions of dollars.

Issue of underpayment Those voices raising the issues of labour and exploitation in the Devyani case have found very limited space in the media. Unions and activists speaking for domestic workers have had things to say, but they mostly go unheard. To date India has not ratified the ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention 2011 (189).

It could be that the full truth of the Devyani case itself is yet to emerge. But the underpayment and ill-treatment of domestic help by Indians is routine and obnoxious. In the U.S. and elsewhere. Indeed, in New York groups sprang up in the 1990s to organise such workers and defend them against inhuman treatment. That’s a whole set of stories in itself. Indian domestic workers are often brought into the U.S. by their employers as ‘family members.’ On arrival, some have their passports confiscated by their ‘family.’ That ensures they cannot run and cannot hide. Some of these workers have remained locked up in apartments or houses for weeks while their ‘family’ goes on vacation, leaving them with meagre rations.

This is not the first time the American legal machinery has moved on such a case. The other instances have been no less shameful. Here, though, if the prosecutors proceed against all offenders, a much greater fraternity stands threatened. Hence, “a regret for the sake of formality is not enough.” The Indian government wants the proceedings dropped altogether.

Under-payment is another story. This is the most dreary, routine practice within India. And not just with domestic workers. There are several private colleges in the country, for instance, which employ lecturers ostensibly at UGC scales. All the paperwork, including the payslips they sign, show them getting UGC-scale salaries. In truth, they get a fraction of that. But this is accepted as ‘normal.’ People getting ripped off by manpower export sharks is also seen as ‘normal.’ And some of the Gulf states have found it convenient to go along with this for decades.

So, when one prosecutor in a foreign land does not accept such conduct as normal, there’s panic. More so since it affects an elite Indian service. All we did was to extend good old Indian elite tradition, or parampara, abroad. How dare anyone challenge that?

The India-U.S. nuclear deal demands media scrutiny. And indeed, governmental action. To date, India has got very little of what it signed up for. But where are the angry responses and demands for restitution? Indeed, the U.S. government has demanded we change our liability laws if we want it to deliver on that deal. All that the government of India is asking for in the Khobragade matter is a dropping of charges. The Americans want us to change our very laws. Even those tested and upheld in our Supreme Court. More recently in Bali, we celebrated a ‘victory’ that ‘benefits everyone,’ over a deal that does little for food security now, while trading away quite a bit of it in the future. Again: a marked lack of toughness in response. No cries of conspiracy. Not even what would have been valid charges of extortion. The list is endless.

But there’s an amazing level of protest on a case involving — on the surface — a single consular official. It is possible that there’s much going on in the background we don’t know about. Yet, even as Ms. Khobragade’s problems in the U.S. are far from over, others confront her in India. She is named in the Commission report on the Adarsh scam. She figures in it as one among several ineligible persons who got a flat in the Adarsh building.

With the U.S. rejecting the demand to drop charges against Ms. Khobragade, things will get tricky. This is indeed an issue of principles, not of the individual Ms. Khobragade. But any coming face-off, if one occurs at all, won’t be on any of the issues we need to confront the U.S. on. Merely on our fundamental right to rip off our servants and exploit labour.

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