The menial that shook Indo-US relations 

By S. M. Hali 

Indo-US relations have received a severe jolt at the hands of a domestic servant, brought to serve as a menial at her residence by Devyani Khobragade, the Indian Deputy Consul General in New York. The raging tempest is owing to a barrage of protests lodged by India against the US arrest of its diplomat and alleged ‘strip/cavity search’ and DNA swabbing on charges of visa fraud and lying to US authorities on a visa application regarding amount of wages paid to her Indian maid. According to details published in Indian and international media, Ms. Devyani Khobragade, on her posting to the Indian Consulate General at New York, brought a maid servant Ms. Sangeeta Richard from India. While submitting the visa application to the US Embassy for her maid servant, the Indian Diplomat was obliged to attach the employment contract for Ms. Sangeeta Richard for a monthly salary of US$ 1550/- per month. According to US labour laws, minimum wages for domestic help is US$ 9.75 per hour while weekly working hours cannot exceed 40 hours. Once the visa was obtained, the Indian diplomat entered into another contract with the maid servant, according to which Ms. Sangeeta Richard would receive only 25,000 Indian Rupees monthly, which is only twenty five percent of the original contract. Both Ms. Devyani and Sangeeta arrived at New York and assumed their respective duties, the former as the Deputy Consul General, while the latter as her maid servant, engaged in household chores from 6 AM to 11 PM. In accordance with the second contract, the employer, Ms. Devyani was regularly sending 25,000 Rupees to Sangeeta’s family in India. Very soon Sangeeta became aware of the US labour laws and their breach by her employer. It is not known; whether Sangeeta demanded full compensation from her employer, but one day she disappeared and on December 13, 2013, Ms. Devyani was arrested by the New York police right in front of her daughter’s Manhattan School, handcuffed and driven to Police Search Station for completion of investigation process. US law, which like that in any civilized society, is blind and fully supports the rights of the poor and downtrodden, ran its full course. She was released on $ 250,000/- bail, as she pleaded not guilty on all charges leveled against her, surrendering her passport and avowing to report to Police Station in New York on weekly basis.

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India has retaliated strongly to the perceived ignominy ordained on its official and the alleged breach of her diplomatic immunity. Besides demanding an unconditional apology from the US, Indian government reprisal comprises removal of

Devyani Khobragade

Sangeeta Richard

security barriers placed around the US mission in New Delhi, withdrawal of concessions from US diplomats in India, cancellation of bilateral engagements and cancellation of airport passes and import of duty free items.

India claims diplomatic immunity for Ms. Devyani Khobragade in consonance with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, an international treaty that defines a framework for diplomatic relations between independent countries. It specifies the privileges of a diplomatic mission that enable diplomats to perform their function without fear of coercion or harassment by the host country. The level of immunity differs from diplomats serving in the Embassy vis-à-vis the Consulate. One may recall the infamous Raymond Davis affair where it was initially claimed that Mr. Davis was a member of the US Consulate at Lahore and later he was depicted as being posted to the mission in Islamabad to seek greater immunity. Acting on similar lines, since her arrest, Ms. Devyani has been reposted to India’s mission at the UN to enhance her level of diplomatic immunity. It needs to be understood that Diplomatic Immunity pertains to breach of laws in the execution of diplomatic responsibilities. Civil cases do not fall under the purview of diplomatic immunity. New York police opines that non-compliance of wage standards is a breach of contract between two individuals and is not covered under immunity under Vienna Convention.

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It is interesting that in the case of Sangeeta Richard vs. Devyani, Preetinder Singh Bharara, an Indian-American is the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York.  In 2012, Bharara was named byTime magazine as one of “The 100 Most Influential People in the World,” and by India Abroad as its 2011 Person of the year.  Preet Bharara is under fire in his home country of India over suggestions that he’s trying to build a political career by prosecuting fellow natives of the Asian subcontinent, including Deputy Consul General Devyani Khobragade. He is being criticized for targeting the Indian diplomat. Human rights activists both in India and the US are supporting the case of Sangeeta for not being compensated adequately for her services to the Indian diplomat. On the other hand, Indian media and foreign office is rallying against the US.

If Ms. Devyani Khobragade’s claim of New York police subjecting her to the humiliation of cavity search is true then it is regrettable. Eastern standards of female decorousness differ from that in the West. She is neither a hardened criminal, nor was she accused of violence or murder. Handcuffing her publicly and deriding her personal dignity was humiliating for Ms. Devyani Khobragade. Diplomatic immunity aside, Indian demand for withdrawal of the case against its diplomat and rendering an apology is not unjustified.

Unfortunately the US overwhelmed by power motives appears to have developed callous and cold-hearted attitude towards sensitivities of third world countries. US should show greater sense of magnanimity and compassion by extending a word of apology to India and by withdrawing the case against Devyani Khobragade. This will help US improve its image and prestige as well as restore Indo-US diplomatic relations. Indians are known to nurse grudges and will not let go easily without obtaining an unconditional apology at the humiliation of its diplomat. Simultaneously, diplomats must remember that respecting local laws and regulations is part of the diplomatic decorum.

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It is a sorry state of affairs that a mere menial has upset the Indo-US relations.