India-US row over arrest of diplomat Devyani Khobragade escalates

Devyani-Khobragade-Deputy-Consul-General-New-YorkIndia-US row over arrest of diplomat Devyani Khobragade escalates
17 December 2013

 Devyani Khobragade, India‘s deputy consul general in New York, was charged last week with making false statements on an application for her housekeeper to live and work in the United States.

India’s national security adviser on Tuesday called the treatment of Khobragade “despicable and barbaric” and the country’s foreign secretary summoned the US ambassador. Politicians – including Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and vice chairman of the ruling Congress party, and Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of the Hindu nationalist opposition BJP – refused to meet a visiting US congressional delegation.


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The removal of the barriers was one of a slew of retaliatory actions taken by the Indian government as outrage at the arrest grew, including the withdrawal of import clearances and special airport passes. The incident has become a major story in India, dominating TV bulletins.

The arrest of Kobragade touches on a range of sensitivities in India. Special official privileges – such as the right to use a red beacon light on an official car are minutely graded and valued in India. Unofficial privileges of the wealthy and powerful – such as the ability to “settle” police inquiries without publicity – are equally well-entrenched.

Much of the criticism in India of the arrest has focused on how Khobragade was treated as a “common criminal”. According to Indian officials, Khobragade was arrested and handcuffed as she dropped off her daughter at school, then strip-searched and kept in a cell with drug addicts before posting $250,000 (£153,000) bail.

India is also acutely sensitive to its international image and status. Far less serious incidents have provoked major clashes in the past. Standard security checks in the US frequently make front-page news in India when they involve visiting dignitaries, who are ushered through airports as VIPs in their own country.

Prosecutors in New York say Khobragade, 39, claimed she would pay her Indian maid $4,500 a month when applying for a visa at the US embassy in Delhi to bring her to New York but actually paid her a third of the US minimum wage of about $10 an hour. She has pleaded not guilty to the charge, which could lead to a 10- year prison sentence, and plans to challenge the arrest on grounds of diplomatic immunity, her lawyer said last week.

In Washington, the US state department has said that standard procedures were followed during Khobragade’s arrest. Officials argue that her immunity from prosecution extends only to actions directly connected to her position.

Khobragade’s father, Uttam Khobragade, told the TimesNow TV news channel that his daughter’s treatment was “absolutely obnoxious”.

“As a father I feel hurt, our entire family is traumatised,” he said.

In India most middle class families will employ at least one full-time domestic servant, possibly two and sometimes three or four. Wealthy households sometimes employ dozens, including drivers, cleaners, cooks, nannies and gardeners. Supporters argue that the custom provides a degree of welfare and social mobility for often illiterate workers from rural areas which otherwise would not exist. Critics say it reinforces a rigid hierarchy and is exploitative.

Public transport appears to be a particular point of tension for Indian dignitaries in the US. Mani Shankar Aiyar, a veteran of the Congress party, wrote that “Democracy in America apparently means the right of the lower orders to be rude to their social superiors” after a trip to the US last year.

In 2010 there was uproar after India’s UN envoy, Hardeep Puri, was reportedly asked to remove his turban at a US airport and detained in a holding room when he was refused. A hands-on search of India’s US ambassador Meera Shankar at an airport in Mississippi that year also prompted claims that India had been “insulted”.

In 2009 Continental Airlines apologised to former Indian president APJ Abdul Kalam for searching him in Delhi before he boarded a flight to the US, and in 2005 India’s former speaker of parliament Somnath Chatterjee refused to attend an international meeting in Australia without a guarantee that he would not have to pass through security.

Chatterjee said even the possibility of a security screening was “an affront to India.”

Principal Sources:

Useful Resources:

‘India’s national shame’ Feature
he establishments of institutional arrangements for the welfare of ‘Overseas Indian Community’, as highlighted by the Government of India, are intentionally deceptive, untruthful and purport to demonstrate that there are procedural remedies or tactics.

Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations
diplomatic agent shall not in the receiving State practise for personal profit any professional or commercial activity. [Article 42]

Support ‘Indo-Gulf Reparation Mechanisms’
trategy formulation and implementation of ‘Mutual Human Rights Law and Reparation Mechanisms’ between the Government of India and the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries, mandating our elected representatives and officials to eliminate discrimination and imbalances of Overseas Indians working in different countries.

Is the ‘$1.5 Million Maid’ an Isolated Case?

Shanti Gurung, a 22 year-old Indian maid, was recently awarded $1.5 million in damages by a United States district judge after her three years of service with an Indian diplomat and her husband. Ms. Gurung’s case is extreme – she was forced to work 16 hours a day, paid a total of $120 (around 5,500 rupees) for the three years she worked and lost 63 pounds, dropping to 84 pounds, court documents say. She slept on the living room floor and was only allowed to eat leftovers.

Government Report Points to Diplomats’ Abuse of Workers They Bring With Them

Every year, thousands of foreigners are brought to the United States, mainly to New York and Washington, to work in the homes of diplomats: cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping and caring for the diplomats’ children According to a report released in 2008 by the Government Accountability Office, since 2000 at least 42 foreigners brought to the United States to work as live-in workers have said that they were abused by their employers in some way. The report is the most comprehensive survey by the federal government of abuses of household workers by foreign diplomats, said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, a Democrat and chairman of a Senate subcommittee on human rights, who requested the report last year. The survey said that of the foreign diplomats named in the 42 reports of alleged abuse, 32.5 percent came from Africa, 30 percent were from the Near East, 20 percent were from “the Western Hemisphere,” 15 percent from Asia and 2.5 percent were from Europe.

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1 Comment

  • The hue and cry of India to save Ms. Devyani Khobragade, insulating with the “immunity” clause, cannot be said to be perfectly in order. Immunity could be claimed by a Diplomat to his/her activities confined to the official activities of a Diplomat. Denial of maid the minimum salary prevalent in the US by Ms. Khobragade led to her arrest. Another criminal case is going on in the Delhi Magistrates Court against Ms. Sangeetha Richard. Even though Ms. Richard was working in the U.S., as the domestic servant of Ms. Devyani Khobragade and presently alleged to be absconding at US with stolen money of Ms. Devyani, and mobile of Mr. Kobragade, the jurisdiction in the matter is kept limited to Delhi. In fact, the jurisdiction of the case should have taken in the U.S. also, as the cause of action actually took place in that country.
    Parineeti, Durban, South Africa

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