The diplomatic row between the United States and India over the arrest in New York last week of an Indian diplomat on visa fraud charges is turning into a holier-than-thou debate about which country is the worse violator of human dignity.
In India, no less a figure than the prime minister is faulting the “deplorable” treatment that befell Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul in New York, who says she was handcuffed, strip-searched, and had her body cavities examined after she was taken into custody for allegedly providing false statements on the visa application of a domestic worker. Ms. Khobragade is also accused of paying the nanny, an Indian national, well below the New York minimum wage.
Before an irate lower house of Parliament, India’s foreign minister, Salman Khurshid, pledged on Wednesday to “bring [Khobragade] back and restore her dignity,” adding solemnly, “It is my duty.”
But in the US, human rights activists are taking a different tack – celebrating the spotlight the case is shining on what they say are the precarious and sometimes even slave-like conditions that domestic help can face around the world.
“It’s a good sign that authorities are showing they can take mistreatment of domestic workers seriously,” says Nisha Varia, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch specializing in women’s rights in Asia and Africa.
Domestic workers “often face underpayment and long working hours with little hope of redress,” Ms. Varia writes on the HRW website. Noting that Khobragade reportedly paid her home help $3.31 an hour, she adds, “Diplomats from many countries who abuse their workers have often used their status to skirt the law.”
New York State’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is scheduled to increase to $8.00 an hour the end of this year.
Khobragade claimed in the visa application she was paying the worker $4,500 a month, but in fact was paying about a third that amount.
While the debate rages over who is treating whom poorly – and as India seethes – the US is trying to calm the roiled diplomatic waters.
Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday called India’s national security adviser, Shivshankar Menon, to express his "regret" over the incident.
“It is … particularly important to Secretary Kerry that foreign diplomats serving in the United States are accorded respect and dignity just as we expect our own diplomats should receive overseas,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement.
Kerry also expressed his desire “that we not allow this unfortunate public issue to hurt our close and vital relationship with India,” Ms. Harf said.
But the statement also hinted at Kerry’s sensitivity to the dignity of all the “victims” in the incident. Noting that Kerry “understands very deeply the importance of enforcing our laws and protecting victims,” the statement said the secretary “expects that laws will be followed by everyone here in our country.”
In India, the case continued to fill the media and halls of parliament with diatribes against an “arrogant” and “insensitive” America, with all the focus on Khobragade – and little or none on the other Indian citizen in the story, the diplomat’s employee.
“The most important, immediate concern is to ensure that no further indignity is inflicted upon the young officer,” Foreign Minister Khurshid told Parliament.
Even the leader of the Communist Party of India, Sitaram Yechury, appeared to ignore the plight of many domestic workers around the world as he insisted before Parliament that the kind of indignity Khobragade faced “cannot be accepted by any sovereign nation.”
But in the US, the case was cause for rights advocates to chronicle recent cases of Indian diplomats in the US abusing their domestic help.
Last year an Indian maid won a $1.5 million lawsuit against the former press and culture counselor at India’s New York consulate who was found guilty of forcing the maid to work without pay. The year before that, another Indian national sued India’s New York consul general for imposing conditions of servitude on her – extremely long hours of work, confiscating her passport, and assigning her only a storage closet for sleeping.
Those cases aren’t getting much play in India. On social media sites, most commentators opine that the maid should have been happy with $3.31 cents an hour, especially since on top of that she was getting room and board in New York.
And as one Indian noted, that $3.31 cents an hour probably compares quite favorably with the wages that American multinationals in India pay their custodial workers.