India and US: Nanny furor highlights ugly things about both sides

The US-India relationship is historically young. Now that we are over the infatuation stage, we should absorb what the other is saying and admit that there are real differences in worldview between us.

Krishnendu Halder
A member of the Student Federation of India shared a poster while shouting slogans during a protest outside the US consulate office in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad December 19, 2013.

In happier times just a few years ago, US and Indian leaders trumpeted the shared cultural values between the world’s oldest and the world’s largest democracies. It’s instructive that in a matter of a few days, we are at each other’s throats over an incident that is not exactly the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Instead, an Indian diplomat was arrested in New York for allegedly falsifying documents that allowed her to illegally underpay a nanny she brought over from India. During the course of her detention, the Indian diplomat was “fully searched” by police, meaning at least a strip search.

This US-India relationship is historically young. Now that we are over the infatuation stage, we should absorb what the other is saying and admit that there are real differences in worldview between us, and that sometimes these differences highlight ugly things about ourselves.

Thoughts for Americans to consider:

1. Americans are outraged at the way the Indian diplomat illegally exploited her nanny with wages far below New York’s prevailing wage. And then lied about it. But when is the last time Americans were really outraged over US tech companies bringing over Indians on special work visas and – illegally – paying them less than the prevailing wage? And then lying about it. Where are the arrests and strip searches of Silicon Valley CEOs? No one has the high moral ground on cross-border pay.

2. Americans are so busy trying to make the point that it’s standard operating procedure to strip search people after an arrest that we haven’t stopped to think whether that practice makes any sense at all. Set aside for a moment the emotions surrounding respect for diplomats or female modesty: If an arrest is a surprise, and doesn’t revolve around smuggling contraband or a violent crime, what are the chances really that a suspect has dangerous items hidden in her body? Currently there is a lawsuit brought by a US citizen who was strip searched, then cavity searched, then brought to a hospital to observe her bowel movement, all on suspicion she was carrying drugs. She wasn’t. This is the stuff of police states.

3. Try remaining consistent while arguing the US position on the Vienna Convention over Raymond Davis, the CIA contractor arrested in Pakistan, and the US position on Vienna protocols over the Indian diplomat. Maybe it can be done, but I haven’t heard it yet. Americans try to portray themselves as automatons before the law, as if the law often isn’t a matter of human interpretation where bias creeps in.

Thoughts for Indians to consider:

1. Picking this battle will not make the US respect India, in fact it is eroding the country’s credibility fast. The US is currently one of the biggest champions of an expanded role for India on the world stage. Americans start to reconsider that when it appears (to them) that New Delhi is more concerned with defending elite privilege than the country’s strategic big picture. Does India even have a collective sense of national interest? A common refrain making the rounds is that the US would never treat Russian or Chinese officials this way. To make the US more wary of crossing India, as some commentators there want, would require flashing some willingness to use hard power. Maybe that would win "respect" of a sort, but the relationship would come to resemble something more like that of the US and Russia.

2. India has an unacknowledged human rights problem surrounding its domestic workforce. Domestic workers have few real protections and exploitation runs rampant in the form of long hours, low pay, subhuman accommodations, physical/sexual abuse, and the lack of a fair system of dispute resolution. India needs labor laws to set some minimum standards, and to begin to move more people out of poverty. But the system is awfully convenient for a lot of people the way it is.

3. The removal of security infrastructure around the US embassy was the action of an enemy, not an angry friend. American officials are unlikely to make a big public stink about this for safety reasons. But it will be remembered as a reckless move. We should be able to disagree with each other without jeopardizing life and limb.

Math help for journalists:

1. The minimum wage in New York is $7.25/hour. At 40 hours/week, with roughly 4.3 weeks in a month, that equals $1,247/month, not $4,500/month. This mistake is all over Indian media and even in US outlets.

2. The legal obligation is for the nanny to be paid the prevailing wage, if it is above the minimum wage.According to the NY district attorney, that’s $9.75/hour, or $1,677 a month. If she worked for $573.07 /month as alleged, her per hour rate assuming a 40-hour week would be around $3.33/hour. However, she allegedly was forced to work “many more” hours. That means she was paid less than $3.33 / hour – maybe even less than $3/hour.

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