In the days since the United States arrested Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade, 39, for allegedly lying on her Indian housekeeper’s visa application, underpaying and forcing her to work longer hours than specified, the case has made a splash in both the US and India, whose media are covering the incident with very different emphases. In India, initial coverage focused on US mistreatment of a senior diplomat, while American media spilled more ink over the allegation that Khobragade was underpaying her maid. Subsequent Indian coverage, though, took up this theme, leading to some soul-searching about inequality in the country, which has an entrenched tradition of low-paid domestic help.
According to Indian media reports, Khobragade was dropping her daughter off at school when she was apprehended and mistreated by American authorities, allegations which US attorney Preet Bharara, the prosecutor for the case, says are factually incorrect and unfounded. Khobragade wrote in an email to her colleagues at the Indian Foreign Service that she endured “the indignities of repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches, [and] swabbing” and was held up with “common criminals and drug addicts.” She was later released on $250,000 bail.
In India, media focused on reactions to the arrest and alleged mistreatment of a senior diplomat. Officials there expressed horror that a middle-class woman would be “humiliated,” treated like a criminal and subject to a strip-search. The resulting power struggle between India and the United States, particularly India’s response, was the next order of business. “Strip search finds India’s spine” was the frontpage headline in The Times of India on Wednesday. The jump headline in the print edition was equally telling: “Livid India Takes on Arrogant America.”
The country has revoked the identity cards and airport passes of its US consular officers and their families, halted import clearances for the US embassy—including alcohol imports—and is seeking private details of family members of US officials in India. It’s also scrutinizing the salary details of all Indian staff employed at US consulates, the American School, and in the homes of consulate officers and their families.
India also removed security barricades in front of the US embassy in Delhi, meant to protect officers in case of a terrorist attack, and one politician called for the arrest of the same-sex companions of US diplomats (same-sex relations just became illegal in India, again). A Domino’s pizza outlet in Mumbai became the latest casualty on Friday, when protesters ransacked the pizzeria and demanded a ban on US goods.
Meanwhile in the US, the focus was not that India found its spine but that it reacted spinelessly. “India says it wants to be a great power. It didn’t act like one this week,” was the headline for Max Fisher’s post on the Washington Post’s WorldViews blog. The US press also focused on the fact that Khobragade, India’s chief consular officer in New York, could get away with paying her live-in nanny $3.31 an hour in a city where $9.75 is the minimum wage. “Such practices are not allowed under American law, and abuses by anyone should not be tolerated, regardless of their status,” the Editorial Board of The New York Times wrote.
Swati Sharma, an editor-producer also with the Washington Post, pointed out that for a country where the anti-corruption party is gaining incredible momentum—the party will now form the new state government in Delhi after recent state elections—its reaction to the Khobragade case is nothing short of a fallback.
“In India, someone with power would rarely be apprehended for paying a servant a low wage. Actually, it’s laughable to think such a charge would even take place,” Sharma wrote. But there was hope that a movement against corruption would change things.”
Indeed, several Indian writers admit the Khobragade case is forcing India to look inward at its own power dynamics when it comes to class. As The New York Times reported, Khobragade is the third Indian diplomat in New York City accused of exploiting domestic help in recent years. It’s not uncommon for middle and upper class households in India to employ several domestic servants round the clock.
“Do Indians have a domestic help problem? And why do we not seem to get it no matter how many times we trip up?” wrote Sandip Roy, an editor at the popular digital news site Firstpost.
An excerpt from an editorial in The Hindu, one of India’s leading English dailies, suggests it’s the difference in cultural views and tolerances that’s at the heart of the case:
It is well known that exploitative practices against domestic workers are rampant in India. With unskilled labour plentiful, and domestic labour comprising the lowest section in this category, there is no minimum or maximum age of employment, no fixed work hours, and certainly no minimum wage. Indians posted abroad are loathe to hire locals to do household work, especially in the West, as minimum wages are fixed, and translate into much more than they would pay back home; the terms and conditions of employment too are not malleable, with specified holiday and leave requirements. Uncaring about violating local laws, they end up taking “the help” with them on Indian wages, sometimes even showing her as a member of the family for visa purposes. Ms. Khobragade was only hewing close to type, going by the charges against her, even though as a senior government official, she should have known better. The Ministry of External Affairs should put an end to the practice of its officials taking domestic staff with them abroad.
In comparing the case to other news in which Indians were exploited, writer Deepanjana Pal wrote, “It establishes with painful clarity just how little the government cares for the less privileged and how naive people like me are when we bleat about equality and democracy.”
Pal even admitted she could never discuss this case with her own female housekeepers because of this unspoken understanding of injustice.
“Much like I accept investment bankers make much more money than I do for very little reason, my domestic help would probably accept the difference between local and foreign ‘rates.’” she wrote.
This piece was originally published on December 24, 2013, on Columbia Journalism Review.