The Curious Case of a Maid in Manhattan

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In the spotlight Devyani Khobragade
In the spotlight Devyani Khobragade

New Delhi and Washington have found themselves in the midst of an ugly diplomatic stand-off after an Indian Deputy Consul General in New York, Devyani Khobragade, was arrested, allegedly handcuffed and subjected to a strip search by the New York Police Department (NYPD). India has made its anger known to the United States over the fact that Khobragade’s detention is illegal according to international conventions as she is a diplomat and enjoys diplomatic immunity.

Over the past 48 hours, the tensions between India and the US over Khobragade’s detention has escalated. New Delhi unanimously condemned America’s actions in arresting the diplomat, and the Ministry of External Affairs reassigned her as a permanent consul to the United Nations so that she has full and unchallenged diplomatic immunity under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961. It was done so that the US authorities don’t get a chance to distinguish between full diplomatic and consular immunity rights.

To add to its dissent, India also acted to remove privileges for American diplomats in New Delhi, blocked imports of alcohol for the US Embassy and consulates, and removed traffic protection barricades in front of the US Embassy using bulldozers, which made for dramatic visuals for the media in both countries.

While New Delhi is justified in its ire over the treatment reportedly meted to her (even as US maintains strip search and so on were as per rules in the country), the stories being told by the US officials and the Indian government have loopholes that both the governments seem to be having a hard time plugging.

Khobragade’s arrest was prompted by the alleged evasion of US law designed to protect the domestic employees of diplomats and consular officers from exploitation. The State Attorney’s office in Manhattan, New York — led by US Attorney Preet Bharara, who is also overseeing the case — claims that the domestic help, Sangeeta Richard, along with her husband, was “made to attest false documents and be part of her (Khobragade’s) scheme to lie to US government officials”.

The US authorities say the Indian diplomat had devised two contracts for paying the maid. One contract was in sync with the US labour laws requiring that the maid be paid the minimum wage of $9.75 per hour, while the other was for the actual amount paid, which is calculated to be around $3.50 per hour. This is what the case against Khobragade is, but India, however, has maintained that the case is part of a “conspiracy” and has asked the American authorities to drop all charges.

According to the Indian Embassy in Washington D.C., Sangeeta went missing on 23 June. This was then reported to the Office of the Foreign Missions in New York and the NYPD. Further, the Indian Embassy says Sangeeta “blackmailed” Khobragade that she be permitted to change her passport and visa status to work elsewhere, which would be in violation of both US and Indian laws.

Upon receiving a call on 1 July, with this demand allegedly from Sangeeta’s lawyer, Khobragade asked the person on the other side for identification, upon which the person disconnected the call. After this, the diplomat is known to have filed a complaint of harassment to the NYPD, which reportedly ignored it.

During all these developments, Sangeeta’s husband Philip Richard is known to have been aware of his wife’s actions in the US. He filed a writ petition on 15 July against Khobragade, but took it back four days later. On 19 November, a district court in New Delhi issued a nonbailable against Sangeeta, which was then forwarded to the US State Department and the US Embassy in New Delhi. But there was no response from either.

A lot of the concern coming out of New Delhi in this case was also due to the fact that initial reports suggested that Khobragade was arrested and handcuffed outside a school. Later, the reports suggested that the diplomat was strip-searched by the police.

In an unexpected and rare press release, Bharara has offered an alternative version of how the arrest took place. Bharara has said that the diplomat was not put in handcuffs in front of the school and was, in fact, accorded courtesies “well beyond what other defendants, most of whom are American citizens, are accorded. She was not, as has been incorrectly reported, arrested in front of her children. The agents arrested her in the most discreet way possible, and unlike most defendants, she was not then handcuffed or restrained”.

Bharara’s note also highlights a continuing loophole in this ongoing saga between Washington and New Delhi. Two days before Khobragade’s arrest on 12 December, Sangeeta’s husband, along with their kids, flew to New York onboard an Air India flight. Bharara has said: “Some focus should perhaps be put on why it was necessary to evacuate the family and what actions were taken in India vis-à-vis them. This office and the Justice Department are compelled to make sure that victims, witnesses and their families are safe and secure while cases are pending.”

Reports about the history of both Philip and Sangeeta Richard include unconfirmed information that prior to working for Khobragade, both were employed by American diplomats. Other sources are also pointing to the fact that lawyers hand-in-glove with some ngos are helping the Richards in the US to fight the case against Khobragade. However, it seems to be confirmed that both India and the US are aware of the fact that Sangeeta’s family flying out of India was an important juncture, but both are not ready to release further information on this account in the public sphere yet.

A former diplomat, who has served in Indian missions across Europe, says he won’t be surprised if this case is actually meant to enable the Richards to look for resettlement in America. Talking on condition of anonymity, he says such cases backed by ngos are not uncommon.

“During my time in Europe, I saw such cases frequently,” he reveals. “Maids travelling with diplomats file charges against them to try and gain resettlement and working rights in the particular country. However, this particular case seems to have a lot of other factors at work as well, so it is difficult to say.”

The next date for hearing Khobragade’s case has been announced for 13 January 2014. If at the end of it all, she is found guilty, she may face jail time of up to 10 years.

This is not the first time that an Indian diplomat has got into trouble relating to treatment of maids travelling abroad with them. Only last year India’s cultural and press counsellor in New York, Neena Malhotra, was told by a US judge that she should pay $1.4 million in damages for bringing an under-age child to work in the US and then not even paying her the minimum wage.

Kabir Taneja is a freelance journalist specialising in foreign affairs and a scholar at Takshashila Institution

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