A minor Indian diplomat in New York inflamed a stand-off between her country and the United States, following her arrest. Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul general in New York was charged with failing to meet minimum wage requirements for her live-in housekeeper, visa fraud and making false statements. Public feuds are rare between America and India, two friendly democracies with significant economic and counter-terrorism ties; yet America’s actions have provoked outrage, demands for her release, and sharp words from Indian authorities, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The negative response has been drastic: the concrete serpentine protecting the entrance to the U.S. Embassy in Delhi was removed in protest, and an enraged leader of the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party, Yashwant Sinha, inspired by his country’s anti-gay laws, has called for the arrest of homosexual partners of U.S. diplomats in India. These reactions may appear excessive, given the serious accusations against Khobragade, but in the view from India, this affair is important in ways not apparent to the outside world.
By Indian standards, the maid, Sangeeta Richard, was paid generously. Compared to her estimated compensation of $3.31 per hour, plus room and board, the manual laborers hauling bricks for an underground water filter I designed in Himalchal Pradesh earn $5 per day. That’s per day, not hour. The Times of India published records that Khobragade herself is also paid less than New York’s minimum wage. Coming from a place with such different standards, Khobragade’s defenders believe diplomats from developing nations can’t be expected to pay American wages to hired help. As understood from India, U.S. officials must be aware of these circumstances, which likely apply to diplomats of many countries. Filling in the applicable minimum wage for domestic workers on visa forms is assumed to be a common practice, and accurate in spirit, if not in fact. Arresting Khobragade appears to be really about something other than the law.
America is up to no Good
The charges seen as excessive, America’s true motives are open to speculation. One theory, common in Indian online forums, is that she is being punished for refusing to divulge confidential information. It is a conspiracy. In this version, America used irregularities in the maid’s visa documents to threaten Khobragade then came down hard when she refused to cooperate. Others see racist implications. Others see racist implications, accusing America of picking on her because she is a dark-skinned woman from India. (Khobragade’s father alleges the incident is a “clear racial bias to harass the Indians.”) No matter how wild or unsupported with facts, any suspicion is received as more plausible than the official story. The possibility that the events, as reported, may be true does not excuse America in Indian eyes either. They see cultural incompetence and a gross mishandling of the affair that would have been better dealt with quietly.
Elections Make Politicians Stupid
The Congress Party, the dominant force in Indian politics since 1947, has been taking a beating in local elections, and the contest for a new Prime Minister just around the corner. Political newcomer, the Aam Admi Party, defeated Congress in Delhi with its popular anti-corruption message. And the rival BJP is posing a challenge nationally. Threatened by BJP candidate Narendra Modi’s tough image, PM Singh and other Congress politicians can’t afford to miss this opportunity to be seen defying America. Political opponents have also vied to raise their own profiles with tough posturing and pointed demands for an apology. If this event occurred after the elections, it’s likely the response from Indian officials would be much more subdued and diplomatic.
America is a Bully
Those annoyed by heavy-handed U.S. foreign policy in general support standing up to America as a matter of principal. And a bigger game is considered at stake, setting precedent for future interactions between India and the United States. As an emerging power, India wants to establish a robust image: it can not be pushed around or taken for granted as an ally.
No Way to Treat a Lady
Gender is particularly relevant to the details of Khobragade’s treatment in custody given the perception that strip-searching women is far more humiliating and intrusive than it would for a man. As a diplomat, Khobragade represents India, making her dishonor India’s. More than an elitist notion that she is above the law, the problem is that America is perceived to be intruding where it doesn’t belong legally, as well as physically. “Standard procedure” is taken for no more than a weak excuse for the consequences of a path that should have been avoided altogether.
Evan Denno is a writer in India and a contributor to A Hundred Thousand White Stones, a memoir of one Tibetan woman’s experience as a refugee