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Rediff.com  » News » We don't need the Americans to tell us what to do!

We don't need the Americans to tell us what to do!

December 23, 2013 10:59 IST

'When all the facts are known, if they ever are, it will likely turn out that both Ms Khobragade and Ms Richard might have been at fault and so too might both governments be faulted, the US for a needlessly aggressive approach in the first place and India for its ham-handed response in the early stages of the affair,' says Rupa Subramanya.

A protest outside the US consulate in Hyderabad over the Devyani Khobragade issueStrangely, various commentary has been quick to condemn Ms Khobragade, and unquestioningly accepted Ms Richard's version of events, painting her as a helpless victim. India is once again, it would appear, on the wrong side of international (mostly Western) public opinion.

The arrest of Devyani Khobragade, the deputy consul general for India in New York over alleged visa fraud by paying her domestic help, a Government of India employee, less than the legal minimum wage in the state of New York, has caused a diplomatic row between the US and India.

The case has garnered international notice for the harsh spotlight that it apparently casts on working conditions in India (in particular, how middle class and well-to-do Indians treat their domestic help) and of Indians working abroad in diplomatic missions.

Equally, the case has received much attention in India because of the fact that Ms Khobragade was not only handcuffed, but strip-searched by the US Marshals who placed her under arrest.

A slew of editorials and op-eds in American and British newspapers and Web sites have argued that the real issue here is the violation of the human rights of the domestic worker Sangeeta Richard.

Why does 'India care more about a well-heeled diplomat than a poor helpless maid?' is a standard trope in the commentary. For most, though not all Indian commentators, the issue is rather the harsh treatment meted out to Ms Khobragade in what is ostensibly a friendly bilateral relationship between two democracies.

Some international and Indian commentators also criticise the tough retaliatory measures taken by the Indian government in response to what happened in New York, most provocatively removing security barriers around the US embassy in New Delhi, which had earlier been provided as a courtesy to the Americans.

To many Indians by contrast, this is a perfectly legitimate response to a needlessly hostile and far from courteous act by a friendly and well-meaning partner country which seemed to have caught everyone off guard, including apparently officials at the White House and the State Department.

Indians don't need The New York Times or the Washington Post (external link) to tell them that wages and working conditions in India are poorer than they are in the United States.

Nor do they need to be taught by American or British observers that much work needs to be done in improving the enforcement of existing Indian laws on workers's rights and human rights more generally.

When a New York Times editorial (external link calls the Indian reaction 'overwrought', I have to ask how they think the United States would have reacted if one of their officials had been arrested, stripped and cavity searched by Indian law enforcement officials in Mumbai or Delhi.

In fact, one doesn't need to speculate on this question. In August 2013, an American diplomat in Kenya (external link), while driving his SUV at very high speed, struck a minivan killing one person and injuring eight others. The dead man left a pregnant widow and children behind.

The US response was to fly out the diplomat and his family the next day, citing his diplomatic immunity from prosecution. While he hasn't yet been charged, the case remains under investigation, nor has the diplomat as yet returned to Kenya to face justice.

According to news reports, apart from a perfunctory apology, US officials have paid no compensation to the victim's family.

If the Indian reaction was 'overwrought,' I wonder how the New York Times would characterise such behaviour?

Strangely, various commentary has been quick to condemn Ms Khobragade and has unquestioningly accepted Ms Richard's version of events, painting her as a helpless victim. After all, no tragedy is complete without a victim and a villain.

One online comment (external link) even bizarrely invoked the concept of 'human trafficking' in describing the treatment of the maid. Yet, this is to look selectively at what is still admittedly a murky and imperfect and contested record of what actually took place.

It is true that Ms Richard and Safe Horizon, the American NGO that has championed her cause, allege that she was underpaid, overworked, and not allowed to return to India when she was asked to be relieved of her responsibilities.

But it is equally true, and strangely missing from many accounts of the episode, that Ms Khobragade has alleged that Ms Richard sought her permission to work illegally in New York outside her home, a request Ms Khobragade says she refused because it would be in violation of Ms Richard's visa.

If Ms Khobragade's account is to be believed -- and I should reiterate that the facts are as yet unclear -- it would suggest that far from being a helpless victim, Ms Richard wanted to game the American immigration system as much as Ms Khobragade is alleged to have done by underpaying her in the first place.

The truth of the matter is, when all the facts are known, if they ever are, it will likely turn out that both Ms Khobragade and Ms Richard might have been at fault and so too might both governments be faulted, the US for a needlessly aggressive approach in the first place and India for its ham-handed response in the early stages of the affair.

Image: A protest outside the US consulate in Hyderabad over the Devyani Khobragade issue. Photograph: SnapsIndia

Rupa Subramanya
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