The Devyani Khobragade Affair
Many Americans cannot understand why there is such an outrage in India over the arrest and treatment of Devyani Khobragade, India’s Deputy Consul General in New York, while there was no such outrage when an Indian soldier was beheaded by Pakistani soldiers on the border.
The American disbelief is not surprising. The Americans have failed to understand the strong cultural bindings, tribal relations and religious sentiments in Asian societies. American TV footage of their soldiers invading the bedrooms of Iraqis, pulling out men, women and children, and sometimes shooting the men in front of their families during the invasion of Iraq, (on concocted evidence), caused outrage. To Muslims, it is not the killing of their men so much, as invading the privacy of their women, that is an unpardonable and sacrilegious act, never to be forgotten.
Similarly, there is a misunderstanding over the status of women in India. The education of average American diplomats, media personnel, and others are based on media reports about dowry deaths, treatment of the girl child in certain levels of society etc. They do not understand that this is not part of Indian culture but forced by economic deprivation. The basic cultural concept of the worship of the “mother goddess” is completely missed. Woman is considered a well of power and compassion. In short, she is the revered “mother” in the pages of ancient Indian texts and scriptures as in the prayer “Oh, mother! We bow before thee”.
Devyani Khobragade is that Indian “woman” for the people of India. It is not the arrest of Khobragade, but the strip search and cavity search of a “woman” representative of India. Figuratively, an Indian woman “molested” and “raped” by the American system. The meaning of rape must be read here on the new Indian legal definition of “rape”. Basically, a deplorable and “sick” action found in American police laws.
As is well known, strip search and cavity search is conducted on dangerous criminals and drug mules to see if weapons or drugs are hidden. The Indian Deputy Consul General was neither a hardened criminal nor a drug mule. The US State Department Spokesperson said they followed due process! Amazing! This is the difference between American culture and the 5000-year-old Indian culture.
To make things worse, a number of American NGOs have jumped into the ring, trying to charge Khobragade with human trafficking and human rights abuse of Sangeeta Richard, the maid who accompanied her. The New York Times (December 19) carried an article on how badly Indians treated their domestic help. The aim was to type cast Khobragade.
The NGO representatives adamantly refuse to take into account Richard’s demands, at a meeting in the Indian Consulate General, that she be paid $ 10,000, her official passport be revoked and an ordinary Indian passport issued to her, and assistance in immigration. She also refused to return to India saying that once back in India it would be impossible for her to return to the USA.
It is obvious that Richard went to the USA to emigrate. The salary issue is a ploy in which American officials and NGOs assisted her.
This writer has served in Indian Embassy, Washington, as a minister with additional charge of Consular and Visa Affairs, and has first-hand knowledge of the immigration racket. On many occasions, domestic help accompanying diplomats to the USA, run away and vanish in the huge Indian community.
They take illegal employment in households of Indian American, Indian shops and Indian restaurants with the hope that at some point of time they will get a Green Card or citizenship. At worst, if they are discovered by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), they will be deported. There is a problem here, though. The officer concerned of the Indian mission or post will have to certify that he or she is an Indian citizen to facilitate deportation.
As far as I know, the Indian officers concerned have always cooperated with the INS. Some INS officials used to complain that many other embassies do not cooperate. The issue is an economic one. Domestic help from developing countries go to earn American dollars, which, converted into their own currencies, are many times over, an amount that they could not earn at home. It is no secret that there are human traffickers who take huge amounts from aspiring illegal immigrants to go to the US and Europe.
The case of Sangeeta Richard Vs Devyani Khobragade is, however, not only curious, but suspect. The US authorities found it to be such an important case that Sangeeta’s husband, Philip Richard and their two children were secretly “evacuated” from India to the US. This was an open boast by Preet Bharara, US Attorney in New York, who is prosecuting the case. It is almost a page from the Cold War years, when the US and the Soviet Union were secretly evacuating their respective spies from the territory of the other or espionage centres across the world.
In today’s India-US relations there is a growing strategic partnership. This incident brings up many questions with no clear answers yet. It smells of a plot to use this case, at the minimum, for career progression for some US officials. Sangeeta’s father-in-law works in the American Embassy in New Delhi, as reported. From all accounts, he would be an important factor in this plot. Preet Bharara, who has made a career in prosecuting high-profile Indians in the US, would be a net gainer.
At worst, the genesis of the action may be much more complicated. The Cold War mentality among some in the US administration, especially Democratic administration is no secret. President Barack Obama, erstwhile Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, current Secretary of State John Kerry and other heads of departments appear to have been presented with a fait accompli.
The US State Department has sections dealing with human rights, religious intolerance and human trafficking. US embassies across the world also have sections dealing with these issues, snooping through the length and breadth of the host country to find out any case that they can include in their annual report. American organisations, however, have a different standard to judge their own human right abuses. Take the case of George Zimmerman, the Florida neighbourhood watch captain who shot and killed a 17-year-old African American student Trayvon Martin, who was unarmed and not provoking or threatening anybody. But the all-women white jury found Zimmerman innocent. Did any American human rights NGO come forth to question the verdict? None!
There is another question. There are some, not too many, important countries who are particularly concerned about the post-Cold War India-US relations which have risen to nuclear (peaceful) cooperation, military exchanges including military transfers, and growing security relations. They would be particularly delighted if India-US relations break down.
The Indian government, that is the Indian Foreign Ministry, has been rather lackadaisical on consular and visa agreements with the US. It is only now that the Indian foreign office is waking up to the fact that domestic assistants accompanying Indian diplomats to the US carry an Indian official passport, do not earn money from US employment, do not enjoy US citizen privileges of medicare and social benefits, and do not pay taxes to the US government.
They are employees of the Indian government and do not come under US laws. In fact, the US law to cover minimum wages, and the 2011 addition to the law that wages do not include accommodation, medicare etc are bad laws and should be struck off the statute books of the US.
The law stands in stark contrast to the American workers who get covered by minimum wages, but have to pay for their food, medicare, accommodation and transport from their salary. There is a clear inequality in law. There is another issue, however. If Khobragde committed visa fraud knowingly she will have to face the consequences. This aspect needs to be examined closely.
India-US relations are too important to be thrown overboard. It is relationship between the world’s largest democracy and the world’s strongest democracy. Both countries are ruled by law of equality and justice. Both have a major role to play together.
By Bhaskar Roy