Diplomatic relations between India and the US have been rocked by the treatment meted out to Devyani Khobragade, the Indian deputy consul-general in New York, who was accused of providing false information to obtain a work visa for a household employee.
I saw the original story a day or so ago and was not surprised. The dirty little secret is that there are people from developing countries who work in embassies or international organizations like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund who, used to having cheap live-in domestic help at home, bring them to the US by getting visas for them by saying that they pay them more than they actually do. Such employees often live lives of indentured servitude, since they live in a strange land where they know nobody and don’t speak the language and are thus unable to complain.
Ms. Khobragade said she would pay her nanny $4,500 a month, in accordance with US labor laws, in her visa application, but actually paid the nanny $573.07 a month, according to the district attorney’s office. If found guilty, Khobragade faces a maximum sentence of 10 years for visa fraud and five years for making false statements..
I was glad that officials were cracking down on this kind of exploitation. What I did not expect was that Khobragade would be treated the way she was. (Thanks to Marcus Ranum for the link.)
Devyani Khobragade, the deputy consul-general, was arrested last week for alleged visa fraud while she had gone to drop her daughters to school.
Besides being handcuffed in public, Khobragade, 39, was not only stripped but also allegedly forced to undergo repeated body cavity searches – a treatment usually reserved for drug suspects – before she was freed on a $250,000 bail bond.
Subsequently, Khobragade narrated her ordeal in an email to her colleagues.
“I must admit that I broke down many times as the indignities of repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches, swabbing, hold up with common criminals and drug addicts were all being imposed upon me despite my incessant assertions of immunity,” the 1999-batch IFS officer wrote.
The offense she committed reminded me of the Nannygate scandals back in the 1993 when officials nominated for high government positions were found to have hired undocumented immigrants and/or not paid their live-in nannies properly and/or not contributed to their Social Security. As a result of all that publicity, one rarely hears of such things now, presumably because those seeking high office have learned to be careful. But those people were never treated like this.
Indians are outraged at this treatment and demanding retaliation and the government has done so.
Disturbed by the details, New Delhi upped the ante and stripped US diplomats and their families in India of several privileges.
Taking the position that American staff at consulates will be treated at par with which Indian diplomats are treated in consulates in the US, all personnel posted in consulates and their families have been asked to turn in their diplomatic ID cards immediately.
On the instructions of the government, the special barricading outside the US Embassy in New Delhi that had closed a part of Nyaya Marg to the public, was also removed. While the barricading and closing of the stretch of road has ended, a police picket will remain there for security purposes.
Making a distinction between consulate and embassy staff – the US has four consulates in Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Hyderabad – instructions have been sent out that details of all Indians employed at the consulates have to be shared.
Besides, US staff at the consulates have been asked to provide details of the employment of their spouses or dependents along with tax details, bank account numbers and salary details.
What surprised me was the US State Department’s response. Rather than trying to heal the breach, it said that her treatment was appropriate.
In Washington, the US state department has said that standard procedures were followed during Khobragade’s arrest. Officials argue that her immunity from prosecution extends only to actions directly connected to her position.
So why was Khobragade treated this way? If this is ‘standard procedure’, then isn’t it time to re-think that? Is everyone who is arrested treated this way? Or could it be that she made the cardinal mistake of ‘committing an offense while brown’ in mayor Michael Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk emporium, where police brutality against people of color seems to be routine? How would the US react if one of its consular personnel in India was treated according to their ‘standard procedures’ of criminals?
The US sure knows how to win friends overseas.