A tale of two citizens

In the Khobragade case, India had two standards: one for what a middle-class woman needs and feels and another for what a working-class woman needs and feels

December 23, 2013 01:00 am | Updated May 12, 2016 08:55 am IST

India has two citizens, not one — Devyani Khobragade and Sangeeta Richard. India needs to stand by both. Both are looking for protection from unfair treatment. However, one is being blamed for speaking up while the other has been turned into a heroine, whose honour is tied up with India’s honour. Ms. Richard not only had to work for Ms. Khobragade in New York for less than the legal minimum wage but was also forced to sign documents saying she was earning more. When she objected and left her employment, her family in Delhi was threatened and cases were filed against her in a Delhi court for flouting her visa conditions.

Ms. Khobragade was picked up outside her daughter’s school for not paying Ms. Richard the legal minimum wage. She was humiliatingly handcuffed and strip-searched — a violation of the Vienna Convention, which lays down the guidelines for how diplomats should be treated.

While India has rightfully objected to the treatment of its diplomat, it needs to address the fact that she broke the law of the host country she was posted to.

The diplomat not only did not pay legal wages, she also falsified documents and then tried to intimidate the victim’s family by filing a case in the Delhi High Court. If Ms. Richard “stole” money and a phone as the Indian embassy press release says, then a police case ought to have been filed in New York and not Delhi, a city where Ms. Khobragade has connections and influence.

The victim and her family were hiding in fear of retaliation by Ms. Khobragade’s family and the government till they left Delhi for New York.

Both women are wives, daughters and mothers, and both are concerned about their families. While the government has expressed concern about the trauma of one woman’s daughter and family, there is only anger against the other woman’s family. One is a working-class woman, while the other is a well-placed government official and millionaire.

This class divide has influenced our reactions to both women. Our anger against Ms. Richard is based on our own sense of entitlement over the poor and the working class. We feel betrayed when they ask for anything that we have not conferred on them out of the “largeness” of our hearts.

We have two standards for what a middle-class woman needs and feels and what a working-class woman needs and feels. While we are quick to point out that the salaries of our foreign diplomats need to be raised so that they can afford to pay their domestic help according to U.S. standards, we omit to note that we have no minimum wages in India for our own domestic help. Only two States in India, Tamil Nadu and Kerala have any legislative protection for domestic workers. Routinely, domestic helps in India are exploited in terms of no. of working hours, pay, living conditions and leave. Live-in help in middle-class India usually work round the clock.

Perhaps that is why Ms. Khobragade did not feel she was doing anything wrong in breaking the U.S. law. Her outlook was conditioned and normalised by the working conditions of domestic help in India.

Standing by the weak Empathy is a very revolutionary emotion. It is high time that the Indian government addressed the labour conditions of millions of domestic workers in India through legislation and fixing accountability on those who exploit them. Patriotism is not just about standing by the rich and powerful but about standing by Gandhi’s “last” (the poorest and weakest) individual or Ambedkar’s Dalit (oppressed) person. When Bharatiya Janata Party leader Yashwant Sinha calls for the government to take action against gay U.S. diplomats under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which criminalises homosexuality, or when Samajwadi Party’s Azam Khan offers a seat in his constituency to Ms. Khobragade, or former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati says that the Indian government was slow in reacting to Ms. Khobragade’s arrest because she was a Dalit, they are ignoring the very ethos of Indian democracy on which our nation rests.

India has a moral standing in the world as the country that won independence from British colonialism through non-violence. We demonstrated to the world that the means are as important as the end. Once again, when we take the moral high ground with the U.S., we can only do so if we stand by all the “oppressed” and not just one of them.

(Ruchira Gupta is founder of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, www.apneaap.org. Email: ruchira@apneaap.org)

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