Indian elephant in the room

Opinion by Arjun Rajkhowa

The diplomatic incident that was almost inevitably dubbed “Nannygate” created an unexpected rift between the United States and India. The case threw up a plethora of issues, not the least of them the exploitation of domestic workers in India. The continuing fallout and Indian response over the past two months have been revealing.

The diplomatic incident that was almost inevitably dubbed “Nannygate” created an unexpected rift between the United States and India. The case threw up a plethora of issues, not the least of them the exploitation of domestic workers in India. The continuing fallout and Indian response over the past two months have been revealing.

It all began on December 12, when India’s deputy consul-general in New York, Devyani Khobragade, was arrested on charges of visa fraud. Indian politicians condemned the arrest as an “insult” and a “slap in the face” of the entire country. Khobragade’s father, a retired senior government officer, denounced it as:

…an attack on the sovereignty of the nation. Devyani has been made a scapegoat.

Indian officials, relying on the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, insisted Khobragade had diplomatic immunity. The Americans, citing the Convention on Consular Relations, argued it grants immunity only for acts committed in the line of work and could not be invoked in this case.

Khobragade was charged with underpaying her maid, an Indian national, and providing false information about her wages to immigration authorities.

A nation takes offence

India responded with outrage. “Retaliatory measures” included the removal of security barricades outside the US embassy in New Delhi, which inspired headlines like “We’ll bulldoze you, Uncle Sam!”. Politicians insinuated that gay US diplomats should be charged in accordance with Indian law.

The maid, Sangeeta Richards, and her family were granted temporary asylum in the US. US authorities disregarded a Delhi High Court notice against them for blackmail and conspiracy. Richards, through her US lawyer, reportedly demanded compensation from Khobragade after quitting her position.

Richards' family alleged that police routinely harassed them at the instigation of Khobragade’s father. The Richards’ conduct was viewed through the prism of “asylum seeking” stratagems (aided and abetted by “overenthusiastic” human rights groups, lawyers and evangelical organisations) and widely condemned as part of a conspiracy to humiliate India.

The US district attorney for Manhattan, Preet Bharara, is of Indian origin. A barrage of derogatory attacks berated him for everything from assuming “the white man’s burden” to “exorcising his origins” in pursuit of supposed political ambitions.

India spurned the offer of a plea bargain and suspended jail sentence, demanding that all charges be dropped. In the face of the evidence of providing false information the US refused to do so. Khobragade, whose husband and children are US citizens, was ordered to return to India.

What began as an “operational setback” in Indo-US relations provoked the most vociferous displays of indignation in the media and in public protests. The merits of the case were lost amid the national emotion invested in it.

Some critiques of the US position (for instance, of America’s refusal to allow the law in a foreign jurisdiction to take its course when US agents are charged) were justified. Others were petulant and born of an obstinate refusal to recognise any wrongdoing by the Indian diplomat.

This incident provided ample opportunity for India to reflect on its treatment of domestic workers. Instead it became a test of muscular diplomacy. Foreign minister Salman Kurshid told parliament:

It is no longer about an individual, it is about our sense of self as a nation and our place in the world.

What about workers' rights?

One cannot argue that the case lends itself seamlessly to an analysis of workers’ rights in India, but surely it should have prompted some discussion. Minimum wages for manual workers (observed largely in the breach), labour laws, workplace conditions, treatment of workers, timely payment of wages, pensions and recourse to workplace and commercial justice are all neglected problems in India.

The US State Department had also made it clear it would act on diplomats underpaying employees. According to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, 42 diplomats were accused of abusing or mistreating their foreign employees between 2000 and 2008. The law was strengthened in 2008 and some diplomats were charged. This latest case is, therefore, neither unique nor unprecedented.

The prospect of federal elections in 2014 no doubt inflamed the political rhetoric in India. But the anti-American diatribes, on television news channels in particular, were driven by other factors. Some commentators argued that one of these more imperceptible factors may have been a sense of entitlement: an overweening dismissal of the rights of domestic workers when these clashed with the imperatives of the upper-middle class lifestyle.

Other international incidents ignored

A question needs to be asked about the priorities of the Indian Foreign Service. Between July and November 2013, more than 130,000 Indian labourers in Saudi Arabia (of 2.8 million expatriate Indians there) were forced to leave by a new “Nitaqat” (classification) policy and tougher migrant labour laws.

Allegations emerged of Indian embassy officials demanding bribes from the workers for providing basic consular services. This caused not a murmur of protest in India.

In December 2013, a riot erupted in Singapore’s Little India district. Around 400 Indian workers, mainly employed in the construction industry, were said to have been involved. About 28 were charged with rioting, more than 50 were deported and more than 3000 workers across the city were informally questioned.

Singaporean law does not require immediate legal representation during interrogation, which makes consular vigilance and assistance all the more crucial. Questions were asked by Singaporean rights activists about the possible underlying causes of the riots; concerns were raised about the workers’ living conditions; allegations were made about employers routinely deducting workers’ salaries to pay off company levies. The Singapore riots received the bare minimum attention in India.

Why is it that the welfare of millions of expatriate Indian workers matters so little to the Indian government and its diplomatic arm, or to the doyens of public opinion, in comparison to the welfare of a single officer?

The answer lies in the logic of class and its immutable grip on Indian society

 First published on The Conversation on 3 February 2014.

Arjun Rajkhowa is a PhD student in Journalism and Strategic Communication at La Trobe University. 

Image:Brittany Hock