India and the Khobragade Saga

Devyani Khobragade, the Indian consular official arrested two weeks ago by American officials on charges of visa fraud and labor law violations relating to her employment of a nanny/housekeeper, has stirred an international affair, with Indian outrage drawing demonstrations against the US government and the New York officials who arrested her chong qi gong men.

The attractive 39-year-old Khobragade, rather than being a member of the elite foreign service, according to the narrative, is a dalit, a member of India’s lowest caste, once called “untouchables,” who apparently managed to pull herself up by her own bootstraps to become a member of an exclusive foreign service brigade. She is married to a New York-born American Indian who is described as an oenophile – a wine connoisseur.

But amid the swirl of charges of mistreatment of a diplomat, of high-handedness of US officials against a lesser country are the charges laid against Khobragade by Sangeeta Richard, the housemaid she employed.

Media in Mumbai say that Richard’s husband, Philip, in a petition to the New Delhi High Court in July, listed these charges against Khobragade, describing her as keeping his wife in “slavery-like conditions or keeping a person in bondage.”

Other charges include these:

  • ”Even though the contract stipulated that Sunday would be an off-day she worked from 6 am to 11 pm, minus 2 hours for church even on Sunday. She worked from 6 am to 11 pm on Saturday as well.”

  • “Uttam Khobragade called Sangeeta’s family several times and threatened them that they would have to face dire consequences if she complains and that he would ruin their future, get them abducted and frame false charges of drugs against them.”

  • ”At the immigration office, Devyani falsely accused Sangeeta of theft, in front of the US Immigration Officer. Sangeeta asked what it was she had stolen. Devyani could not say and threatened her saying that she will come to know when she returns home.”

Sangeeta’s daughter Jennifer, wrote to government officials in July:

  • ”My mother used to sound unhappy whenever she talked to us on phone. She asked Devyani to send her back to India but Devyani refused her request.”

  • “Uttam Khobragade forced police to come to our house at night around 11 pm. There were 5 policemen. From that day onwards police has started calling my father, my brother and me as well... He said to my father that he would destroy our future and not let my father continue with his job anymore.”

  • ”We no more feel safe in our own house because of the phone calls we are getting and the words that Uttam Khobragade has said to my father. We really need your help to get out of all this trouble. It is like a mental torture on my family. PLEASE HELP US.”

Sangeeta Richard has issued no statement since leaving Khobragade’s house in June. But a US complaint based on her statements indicates that when Khobragade submitted details for Sangeeta Richard’s visa, she stated the housekeeper would be paid US$9.75 per hour, the New York minimum wage. But allegedly she also executed a second contract signed by the two and concealed from US authorities in which Khobragade stipulated that Richard would be paid a maximum of Rs30,000 per month or $3.31 per hour.

The diplomat’s father, Uttam Khobragade, reportedly denied the charges, saying Sangeeta was being paid $8.75, of which Rs30,000 was being sent to her husband every month. The family accused the housekeeper of “extortion,” alleging that she had asked for $10,000, a regular passport instead of the restrictive one issued to consular officials’ servants, and immigration assistance.

At a press conference in Mumbai, Deviant’s father reiterated “We paid her according to the minimum wage. Sangeeta seems to have used Devyani to go to the US,” he said.

Nonetheless, more details come to light – including revelations of US actions to “evacuate” the nanny’s family from India – it’s clear that what at first appeared to be a relatively straightforward matter is anything but.

Certainly, it an be stipulated that the US stumbled badly, whoever is telling the truth. No one in the US State Department appears to have anticipated the outrage in India and its consequences for a relationship that senior department officials have worked hard in cultivating for more than a decade. US Secretary of State John Kerry was forced to deliver a personal apology by telephone to Indian officials.

But it isn’t the first time Indian diplomats in New York have been found in violation of US labor laws. In 2011, the Indian consul general at the time was sued by a former domestic servant for mistreatment. The case was eventually settled out of court. Last year, the consulate’s press and culture counselor was hit with a $1.5 million civil judgment after she was found guilty of what was described as slave-like treatment of a former maid. The counselor left the United States and refuses to pay the award.

Still, beyond anger over Ms. Khobragade’s treatment by US authorities, Delhi officials are also incensed by the other extraordinary actions Washington took, including designating the nanny as a victim of human trafficking and granting her a special visa to stay in the United States even though her official passport had been revoked by New Delhi and she is subject to an arrest warrant in India; rejecting the validity of the legal proceedings Khobragade initiated against the nanny in India over the labor dispute; and then spiriting the nanny’s family out of India on the grounds that it was being harassed by government authorities.

However, before accusing the US of arrogance in the treatment of a minor Indian official, leaders of the government in Delhi ought to look at the charges of mistreatment lodged by the maid. While some are a matter of dispute between the two parties, the fact that Khobragade appears to have executed two different contracts appears incontrovertible, along with the charge to US officials that Richard had stolen from her home, but couldn't come up with what had been stolen. Those speak to the fact that Khobragade isn't as sympathetic as she looks. And a dalit, like anyone else, can assume imperial airs when she gets into a position of authority that lets her think she can do so.