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How Far Will the Indian Diplomatic Face-Off Go?

A History of Labor Problems at the New York Consulate

Friday, December 20, 2013

Protesters outside the Indian consulate in New York (Stan Honda/AFP/Getty)

India's response to the arrest of one of its New York consular officials has been so overheated — and so willfully oblivious to a pattern of labor issues — it makes one wonder how far this international face-off will go. 

Devyani Khobragade, the Deputy Consul General, was charged with paying her live-in housekeeper and nanny, Sangeeta Richard, only about $3 an hour, and lying on her visa application. Within days, Khobragade's arrest — and her strip-search at the hands of the U.S. Marshalls Service — had set off protests across India and angry denunciations from top Indian government officials. 

In retaliation for her arrest, the Indian government removed security barriers from around the US embassy in New Delhi. A senior politician even threatened to arrest the same-sex companions of American diplomats living in India.

Of course, the human face of this whole episode has been the accused, Devyani. She's the one you see pictured in pretty much every story, an attractive young woman in a sari, smiling at the camera. This is the image that's set off protests across India.

What you never see are images of her accuser, Sangeeta Richard. She's been kept out of the public eye.

But whatever picture you see, this isn't an isolated incident. This is the third scandal involving an Indian consular official in New York in three years.

In 2011, the Indian consul general, Prabhu Dayal, was accused in a civil suit of labor violations by his live-in help. In Dayal's case, the plaintiff was represented by Legal Aid, who would only say the case was resolved — no further comment.

But the other case was against a diplomat named Neena Malhotra. And a federal judge ruled in favor of Malhotra's maid, Shanti Gurung, awarding her nearly $1.5 million dollars in damages.

However, Martina Vandenberg, who runs the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center, said the money has not been paid.

"The victim has received absolutely nothing," said Vandenberg.

What's worse, she said, is that the government of India joined with the Malhotras, "and filed a lawsuit against the plaintiffs for the victims in the U.S. and all her lawyers. And that case was filed specifically to prevent any enforcement" of the judgment. 

India's External Minister and other government officials have insisted this week that Devyani Khobragade shouldn't have been arrested. That her relationship with her domestic worker has nothing to do with US labor laws. And that if anything, it's a matter between India and the US state department. Vandenberg says that's not right at all—the Indian government has been aware of its officials' legal obligations to their own domestic workers.

"That consular office should have been on notice," said Vandenberg. "The State Department has been entirely clear — not for one year, not for two years, for more than a decade — that consular officers have to follow U.S. law in their treatment of domestic workers."

For Indians who are active in fighting for the rights of domestic workers, it's been an extraordinary, at times infuriating episode. Neha Misra is the senior specialist in Migration and Human Trafficking at the Solidarity Center, and says she feels simultaneously excited that the U.S. took action against a diplomat, and saddened at the response from India.

"The Indian diplomat and the domestic worker victim are Indian, and yet everything I've seen from the Indian government and social media has been in defense of the diplomat. And it's pointing out some of the ugly side of India."

That includes the idea that the exploitation of a domestic worker pales in comparison to the arrest of an Indian elite. That earning around $3 an hour was actually a great deal, at least by Indian standards. That maybe she conspired against her boss, or was even an American spy. India has turned diplomat Devyani Khobragade, the accused, into the victim, and made her powerless maid the villain. At the same time, Misra marvels that the US attorney who brought the charges, Preet Bharara, is also Indian.

"I think he's a hero," she said, "and I think we should be thanking him for standing up for the rights of the Indian citizen who was the weaker party here, who had less power, and was willing to stand up for her rights, instead of the diplomat. And he's being called an Uncle Tom. And it makes me really sad."

But for Misra and other human rights advocates, the hope in a case like this is that it'll move beyond the hysteria and force India pay more attention to the rights of its domestic workers.

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Comments [4]

US constitution and bill of rights were designed to protect the weak, poor, powerless, and less muscular people on US soil. In the same way, international conventions such as Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, 1963 was designed to protect the less muscular country from more muscular country. No host country is entitled to arrest or strip search a consular official of a guest country unless a grave crime is committed such as a murder or terrorist activity. Dr. Devyani Khobragade was involved in a labour dispute with her nanny, and the nanny took shelter and went into hiding several months ago, so there was no question of Dr.Khobragade committing any grave crime. If the US did not like Dr. Khobragade, then it should have cancelled her visa, and under international convention, it is prevented from being muscular. As everyone knows, international conventions supersede domestic laws and constitutions.

Why wasn't the husband of Dr.Khobragade, who happened to be New York born US Citizen, arrested even though he lived in the same household, and commuted to his job in Philadelphia while he lived in New York with his kids, and his wife Dr.Khobragade? Since when are the kids sole responsibility of a married woman? If a nanny was being mistreated, obviously the mother and father of the kids bear equal responsibility. Since when are the US Nationals like Dr. Khobragade's husband shielded from US laws?

Live-in maids make the backbone of India's educated women, and root cause of their career ascendency. They are almost always uneducated, and cannot find a better job, and accept to be the nanny or the maid for the mutual benefit of their respected families. In India, they are governed by Indian labour laws which are in compliance with International Labour laws. There is a mechanism in place to monitor violations.

The nanny, Ms. Sangeeta Richards, was under contract with the Government of India, not with Dr. Khobragade. The dispute is between the Governments, not the individuals.

Finally, consular and diplomatc personnel are guest of the country. If you don't like a guest, you don't invite him into your house. If he misbehaves while he is in your house, you ask him to leave. You don't strip search a guest, because your sterling tea-spoon is missing, which you ultimately find at the bottom of your dishwasher.

Dec. 23 2013 05:46 PM
k Bose from Carlsbad California

As I read more and more about this case in the world press, I see how crooked this Consul and her dad are. But I still think she could have been handled in a civil manner,her being an official of a friendly ally India.
The trouble the Marshall and Barara has created for President Obama, Kerry and in turn for India PM, and the American Indians who have supported Barara is inestimable.
This maid has played a troublesome role, and she should be sent back to India as she has lost her Visa status. It is a mystery how The City Prosecutor, arranged for visas for family of an illegal, while millions await their visa, for years, all over the world.
The mystery thickens. I read, unconfirmed that her husband worked at the US embassy. Wsa there a CIA plot involved here to leak info from US consulate vis this servant and her husband!

Dec. 23 2013 11:33 AM

There has been considerable support in India for the rights of domestic workers, and a good deal of coverage on TV for those who take Sangeeta Richard's charges seriously.. See, for example, the debate on NDTV,esp. The comments of Meghnad Desai. But most of all see the statements of Ananya Bhattacharjee, a trade uion organizer of domestic workers in India: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1131220/jsp/frontpage/story_17701456.jsp#.UrdGUvuAGac

Dec. 22 2013 03:10 PM
Madhu Sekharan from Cypress, Texas

There must be proper focus and attention paid to the legal and human rights of Ms. Khobragade in this matter. Yet, the rights of Ms. Sangeeta Richard must not be overlooked either. Where are the protests in India about how Ms. Richard was treated? There are many instances of workers such as Ms. Richard being underpaid in the U.S. by other diplomats and other American families. That is the larger issue. It seems that the arrest of Ms. Khobragade has overshadowed Ms. Richard’s situation. Why is there not proportional outrage at the treatment that Ms. Richard received? The rights of Ms. Richard should not be overlooked while different aspects of this matter are debated and litigated. The Indian government and Indian officials would be well served by properly recognizing the perspectives and rights of both Ms. Richard and Ms. Khobragade in this matter. Thank. Great article.

Dec. 22 2013 02:17 PM

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