On December 12, U.S. Marshals arrested Devyani Khobragade, the acting consul general of the Indian Consulate in New York, for alleged visa fraud and paying her live-in nanny an illegally low wage. Khobragade was handcuffed after dropping her daughter off at school, detained, then released on $250,000 bail after pleading not guilty. Her lawyer says she plans to claim diplomatic immunity.
India is furious.
In what by all accounts are retaliatory measures, New Delhi police removed protective concrete barricades from around the U.S. Embassy on Tuesday, demanded that U.S. consular staff and their families return diplomatic ID cards, barred the U.S. Embassy commissary from importing liquor and other goods duty-free, and requested the salaries for teachers at the American Embassy School. Indian officials refused to meet a visiting U.S. congressional delegation. Here's opposition leader Narendra Modi:
Refused to meet the visiting USA delegation in solidarity with our nation, protesting ill-treatment meted to our lady diplomat in USA.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) December 17, 2013
From the U.S. perspective, the case is pretty clear: Khobragade allegedly lied on her Indian maid's visa application, claiming that she would earn $4,500 a month when a separate, secret contract spelled out a wage of less than $3.31 an hour. Visa fraud — a felony offense — isn't protected under the Geneva Convention on Consular Relations, and the U.S. also has a legally enforceable minimum wage, so of course the diplomat would be charged.
"This type of fraud on the United States and exploitation of an individual will not be tolerated," said U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. Khobragade faces a maximum of 15 years in prison, 10 for visa fraud and five for making false statements.
Culturally, Americans consider nannies a luxury. If you want to hire somebody to clean your house, cook, and watch your children, you should pay them more than $3.31 an hour. It is especially galling that Khobragade publicly fashions herself as a champion of "underprivileged women" who fervently believes that "women must be economically independent."
That's not how India's diplomatic corps, political class, and media are viewing the situation. The main source of outrage stems from how the U.S. Marshals treated Khobragade.
In an email the deputy consul purportedly sent her colleagues, reprinted in the press, Khobragade says she "broke down many times as the indignities of repeated handcuffing, stripping, and cavity searches, swabbing, in a hold-up with common criminals and drug addicts were all being imposed upon me despite my incessant assertions of immunity."
The U.S. Marshals Service acknowledges that Khobragade was strip-searched, calling it "the same search procedures as other USMS arrestees." Indian national security adviser Shivshankar Menon called Khobragade's treatment "despicable and barbaric." Certainly it seems a little excessive.
"The idea of a middle-class woman being arrested and ordered to disrobe is seen as shocking" in India, says Gardiner Harris in The New York Times. This has to do with class, gender, and privacy norms.
In Indian airports, for example, women can go through separate security lines. "Any pat-down searches are performed behind curtains," Harris adds, and "top Indian officials are exempt from security screenings" altogether.
Long lists of officials who are permitted to bypass the screenings are posted at many Indian airports. When those officials are required to pass through security screenings in the United States and elsewhere, that fact often makes headlines in India and is seen by some as an insult to the country. [New York Times]
Khobragade's public handcuffing — a practice common in the U.S. — also "touches a number of hot buttons in India, where fear of public humiliation, particularly among the middle and upper classes, resonates deeply," says the AFP's Trudy Harris. India isn't the only country where the U.S. "perp walk" is considered an abomination — photos of IMF Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn being frog-marched to jail scandalized France in 2011.
On top of all that, there's a big difference in how Indians and Americans view domestic labor.
"It is not unusual in India for domestic staff to be paid poorly and be required to work more than 60 hours a week; they are sometimes treated abominably," says The New York Times' Harris. "Reports of maids being imprisoned or abused by their employers are frequent." In the past three years alone, New York has played host to two civil suits against Indian consular officials for virtual enslavement of domestic help.
Framing the whole public response in India are national elections next year. Narendra Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who will be prime minister if his party wins a ruling majority in Parliament, started banging the Khobragade drum first and loudest. Officials from the ruling Indian National Congress followed suit. The most contentious salvo in India's war of words came from BJP leader Yashwant Sinha:
Media has reported that we have issued visas to a number of U.S. diplomats' companions. 'Companions' means that they are of the same sex. Now, after the Supreme Court ruling, it is completely illegal in our country, just as paying less wages was illegal in the U.S. [Sinha, to PTI news service]
Not everyone in India agrees that the government should arrest gay U.S. Embassy employees, but nationalism usually plays well at home, and while U.S.-India relations are pretty warm now, they haven't always been. Many Indians simply see this as a slight to their increasingly powerful country by an America that doesn't play by everyone else's rules. "If you do not have the means to project power effectively, the world will walk all over you," says R. Jagannathan at Firstpost.
It is good that India is in a mood to retaliate, but it is important for us to persist with it long after this is over. Moreover, we should equip ourselves with more laws to target foreign countries that use their domestic laws to blackmail or humiliate us. We should not take such affronts lying down anymore....
There are times when we have to show we are Indians, and this is one of those times. The only right response to the Khobragade insult is to treat Americans the same way they treat our kind: Catch hold of a technical violator of Indian law, do some handcuffing and "cavity searches" on some of the men arrested, and then bargain about Khobragade. [Firstpost]