Devyani Khobragade – Monster Employer’s Diplomatic Mess

“Mommy can we please get that?” said a sweet little 4 or something year old boy, as he pointed to the chocolate croissant. His accent was somewhat Californian and I asked his mother, where she was from.  She told me she was from California indeed!  She was accompanying her husband who worked in the State Department, and was eager to head back home for Summer vacations.

Like other Diplomats I have seen in the New Delhi area, Ms. Lee (name not revealed on purpose) also shopped mostly in the Khan Market area. She happened to love the same French Bakery as I did. We exchanged notes on life as ex-pats, and Ms. Lee stated how nice it was to have domestic help in developing countries, unlike the West. Curiously enough, I did ask her how the payment system worked for domestic help she hired. I was particularly interested because brilliant Fulbright scholar friends I had at Berkeley were bound by State Department’s contracts to pay a minimum wage, which at that time was approximately USD 8. Ms. Lee said she had hired domestic help based on whatever her ex-pat friends and neighbors had told her, though she helps the staff (cleaner, 2 nannies, cook and driver) pay for their children’s education.

For those abreast international news, must already know where this is going, but I cannot help wonder about the irony of this personal story. On December 18th, the US Marshall publicly arrested an Indian diplomat – Devyani Khobragade on charges that she allegedly committed a VISA fraud, she underpaid her domestic staff and she tried to cover up the mess.

Credit: ndtv.com
Credit: ndtv.com

Forget the Diplomatic immunity that any Diplomat is awarded, she was arrested, strip searched, swabbed for DNA, cavity searched like ANY OTHER arrestee in the Southern District of New York. Never mind the fact that United States has historically gone to all lengths to protect / cover-up their own in cases of human right violations abroad.

Even if Devyani has committed all these crimes and she must be tried for all these crimes, can United States – the champion of human rights, wrong Devyani by not even giving her basic Diplomatic rights? Clearly, she isn’t just another drug peddler on the street and the charges against her are only ALLEGED up until this point. Or do such immunities only apply to US staff who might also knowingly or unknowingly employing staff at dubious “local” rates? Why wasn’t the case presented to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs first instead of legal action taken solely by the US? Where is the maid who filed the charges and has suddenly gone missing?

In America, Devyani has barely found support and she has been painted as an abusive employer already by national new agencies. Instead of actually really understanding the practical issues that surround Diplomats abroad and potential culture clashes (by no means am I defending the charges Devyani faces), American media / journalists have called Indians employing domestic help elitists, while painting Americans as champions of equality. Are these journalists and media persons really so sure about the conduct of their own diplomats abroad, who often treat the host countrymen with real distaste and arrogance? Having worked 2.5 years in India, I have seen enough examples of such rowdy demeaning behavior around the New Delhi area.

Credit: Emmanuel Dunand, AFP
Credit: Emmanuel Dunand, AFP

The fragmented, mostly self-serving Indian Americans living in various parts of America were quick to point out about how Devyani didn’t follow the American laws and quickly sided with the American viewpoint, lest they appear un-American in anyway. Secretary of State, John Kerry was slightly sympathetic after the Indian government and media threw a grand fit. Of course, why mess with India over such a silly issue? After all India still happens to be one of the largest supplier of underpaid H1-B techies, and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs in United States. Kerry stated he regretted the way the treatment was meted out to Devyani. This might come a bit late for Indians who feel insulted beyond measure. The Indian Government stood by the people of India by quickly canceling the liquor import for US staff in India…well timed with the Christmas and New Years approaching quickly!

Barricades outside the American Embassy in New Delhi, Credit: Saurabh Das, AP
Barricades outside the American Embassy in New Delhi, Credit: Saurabh Das, AP

By no means am I delusional that the Indian Government headed by the Congress party actually gives 2 cents about Devyani. The backlash against the US is pure election year politics, and the only support Devyani might get at this point is Indians living in India, who see this as another opportunity for US to muscle its might!

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