Pride and Prejudice – Thoughts on L’Affaire Khobragade

December 31, 2013

By Suvarup Saha and Deepankar Basu

The arrest on 12 December 2013 of Devyani Khobragade, the Deputy Consul General for Political, Economic and Commercial and Women’s Affairs at the Consulate General of India in New York (United States), on charges of visa fraud and falsifying under oath has dominated Indian media headlines for more than two weeks now. The response of the major media outlets, the mainstream political establishment and most of the urban elite has been mostly jingoistic.

L’Affaire Khobragade is developing new nuances and coming up with new facts almost every day. Writing on such an actively developing case is always hazardous. One’s conclusions, based on limited information, might be overturned by new facts even before the ink is dry on the paper. But for L’Affaire Khobragade, we know the broad contours of the case (even though information is far from complete). So, here we try to draw together the various strands that have emerged in the media over the past two weeks and try to make sense of the all-round strong reaction to this arrest of an Indian consular officer in New York.

Our contention is that hidden in the gamut of Indian reactions emanating from hurt (national?) pride are overt and covert signals about long-standing class prejudices and the current political conjuncture. If read correctly, L’Affaire Khobragade offers us a glimpse not only of Indian elite behaviour but also of the political economy of a stunted capitalism that has not solved its problem of surplus labour. [1]


Nanny-gate: The Background

According to detailed timelines of events available in media reports, Devyani Khobragade had hired Sangeeta Richards in India to accompany her to the US as a domestic help and/or housekeeper. Sangeeta had accordingly availed the A-3 visa (meant for personal employees, attendants, domestic workers, or servants of diplomats The contract, dated November 11, 2012, stated that Richard will be paid the prevailing or minimum wage, whichever is higher and that the expected hourly salary in the US would be $9.75.

However, shortly before leaving for the US, Devyani called Richard to her residence to sign “an enlarged and electronically edited version of the first contract”. The second contract says that Richard will be paid a monthly salary not exceeding 30,000 rupees. This is equivalent to a monthly salary of $480, which, using a 40 hour week, implies an hourly wage rate of $3.31 or less than half the minimum wage. The second contract makes no mention of maximum or minimum hours of work.

In March 2013, Sangeeta allegedly asked for permission to seek extra work/income outside her working hours, which was denied as that would violate the terms of her visa. Sangeeta chose to leave the Khobragade residence on June 23, 2013 and sought help from immigration assistance organizations. One such, called Access Immigration, arranged for a meeting between Richard and Devyani in Manhattan on July 8, 2013. Even while the two parties were talking and were not able to come to any agreement, Richard’s husband and child in India were taken into custody. A scared Richard spoke to them on the phone and refused to leave the attorney’s office in Manhattan. Instead of addressing her grievances, another punitive action follows: Richard’s passport was revoked by the Indian government the same day, which made her status illegal in the U.S.

Later in the month, Richard managed to get in touch with Dana Sussman, staff attorney with Safe Horizon, a group that fights human trafficking. After talking to Richard, Dana got in touch with the U.S. Department of Justice and criminal investigation against Devyani Khobragade is initiated.

In India, punitive actions against Richard continue. In September 2013 the Delhi High Court issued an order to restrain Richard from instituting any action against Devyani Khobragade outside of India. The court opined that this contractual dispute is under Indian jurisdiction since Richard and Devyani Khobragade worked for the Government of India. The high court also issued a notice to Richard’s husband. Meanwhile, an arrest warrant was issued against Richard by the metropolitan magistrate of the south district court in New Delhi under Sections 387, 420 and 120B of the Indian Penal Code.

 

Criminal Investigation and Arrest

On December 11, 2013, New York Southern District Attorney Preet Bharara filed a criminal complaint against Khobragade with a federal magistrate court judge on one count of visa fraud and one count of making a false statement.

Sometime between 9 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. local time, Khobragade is approached by U. S. State Department Diplomatic Security Service agents near her child’s school in Manhattan. Several versions of the arrest episode have surfaced in the media and it is essentially this part of the episode that got immense attention in India.

According to a statement released on December 18 by Preet Bharara, the press has misrepresented many aspects of the arrest episode.

“Ms. Khobragade was 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. In fact, the arresting officers did not even seize her phone as they normally would have. Instead, they offered her the opportunity to make numerous calls to arrange personal matters and contact whomever she needed, including allowing her to arrange for child care. This lasted approximately two hours. Because it was cold outside, the agents let her make those calls from their car and even brought her coffee and offered to get her food.” (Source: Outlook)

The State Department agents transported Khobragade to the U.S. District court building in downtown Mahattan and handed her over to U.S. Marshals Service personnel. Khobragade is strip-searched and placed in a holding cell in the courthouse. Khobragade was arraigned before U.S. Magistrate Judge Debra Freeman and released around 4:30pm after posting a bail of $250,000 and surrendering her passport.

 

A Tale of Two Citizens

The Indian establishment has described Devyani’s arrest as “barbaric” and has demanded an apology (however, no comments were made regarding the veracity of the actual charges brought against the diplomat). To show its displeasure, it retaliated against the U.S. by revoking several privileges accorded to U.S. diplomats in India and even did a symbolic removal of a concrete barricade located in front of the US embassy in New Delhi. To move towards protecting Devyani from any legal action (by giving her full diplomatic immunity, which she did not have as a Consular staff), it also transferred her to India’s Permanent Mission to the UN. It is reported that the External Affairs Minister, Salman Khurshid, has been working very hard to “resolve the issue”.

Even as the Indian establishment has been working overtime to protect Devyani, it has virtually forgotten about Sangeeta Richard, except to harass and intimidate her. The media has been most obliging to the establishment in this regard and has portrayed her as the villain of the piece (going to the extent of ascribing extortionary motives behind her complaint, faithfully reproducing the establishment’s viewpoint). Sangeeta’s story has hardly been told, except in some online fora and the alternative media. Mainstream media has been much more obsessed with the affront caused by the diplomat’s arrest than the reasons for the same, even when the latter involved alleged violation of the rights of one of its citizens, a woman domestic worker.

Establishment thinkers have even gone to the extent of questioning the claim that Sangeeta Richard was paid wages that are much below the minimum wages in New York. Sangeeta stayed in a room in Khobargade’s house, ate her food, used her clothing, even as her medical and transportation bills were paid by her employer (Khobargade). Every dollar Sangeeta earned, the argument goes, she saved. Hence, there is no question of violating the New York minimum wage.

This is a bogus argument. When minimum wages are calculated for domestic workers in the U.S., it is the same for workers who stay in the house of the employer and those who stay in their own homes (for instance, it is stated in the New York Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights that domestic workers must be paid at least the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour irrespective of where they stay). The public authorities saw no reason to stipulate different minimum wages for domestic workers depending on whether they stay with their employer or not. There is no reason why the distinction should be important in the particular case of Khobragade and Richards. Moreover, what the worker does with her wage income, i.e., whether she uses it for consumption expenditure or saves it, is no business of the employer and can in no way affect the legal minimum wage rate.

The reaction of the Indian establishment betrays class interests. Two citizens of the country are treated very differently because of the differences in their class positions. Of course this is nothing new. This is more or less how the criminal justice system works in India: impunity for the elite and punishment for the working classes. What is interesting in this case is that the naked championing of class interests and the argument for class impunity is hidden beneath an apparently valid argument about diplomatic immunity.

 

Diplomatic Immunity or Class Impunity?

Did Devyani Khobragade’s arrest violate international laws of diplomatic immunity? Legal scholars Deepak Raju and Rukmini Das suggest no. To understand the issue, one needs to distinguish between diplomatic agents of states and consular staff. While privileges and immunities of the former are covered by the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, terms of treatment of the latter are covered by the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. At the time of her arrest, Devyani Khobragade, as Deputy Consul-General at the Indian Consulate in New York, was a member of consular staff and not a diplomat.

The distinction between diplomatic agents and consular staff is important because the 1961 Vienna Convention vests diplomatic agents with absolute immunity from arrest but the 1963 Vienna Convention does not. Article 41(1) of the 1963 Vienna Convention states that “Consular officers shall not be liable to arrest or detention pending trial, except in case of a grave crime and pursuant to a decision by the competent judicial authority.” Since the charges against Khobragade relate to her personal and not her official acts, she is not immune from the jurisdiction of U.S. courts with respect to the allegations levelled against her. Additionally, the charges levelled against Khobragade are categorized as felonies in U.S. law, it may be sufficient to meet the requirement of “grave crime”. Moreover, since her arrest was pursuant to a warrant issued by Hon. Debra Freeman, United States Magistrate Judge for the southern District of New York, a judicial authority, both the requirements for arrest laid down in the 1963 Vienna Convention seems to have been satisfied. While questions might be raised about the manner of arrest and subsequent treatment, the arrest itself seems legal.

But dig deeper, as we indicated above, and the whole discussion of diplomatic immunity reveal a nasty core: an implicit argument about class impunity. The implicit suggestion seems to be that diplomatic immunity – suppose it were to be applicable in this case (which it is not, as we have just seen) – implies class impunity. In other words, diplomats (and other members of the elite) have the right to mistreat domestic workers they bring from their respective countries, to pay them below-minimum wages, force them to work long hours, and to deny them their basic rights.

If this were not the case then how could the Indian establishment and the mainstream media willfully ignore the seriousness of the allegations made by Richard against Khobragade? After all, doesn’t the circumstances relating to the case merit an investigation of the question of possible human trafficking? Is it not possible that Richard is a victim of human trafficking?

According to the United Nations, human trafficking is “a serious crime and a grave violation of human rights”. It has three constituent elements: (1) the act (what is done), (2) the means (how it is done), and (3) the purpose (why it is done). The act involves “[r]ecruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons”; the means include “[t]hreat or use of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or vulnerability, or giving payments or benefits to a person in control of the victim”; and the purpose is “exploitation, which includes … forced labour, slavery or similar practices and the removal of organs.”

G. Sampath makes a pretty convincing case that all the three conditions of this definition are satisfied in this case. The first condition – recruitment, transportation, etc. – is easily satisfied. The petition filed by Richard’s husband gives information about the second and third. According to the petition, “Uttam Khobragade [Devyani’s father and a former bureaucrat of the Maharashtra cadre] called Sangeeta’s family several times and threatened them that they would have to face dire consequences if she complains and that he would ruin their future, get them abducted and frame false charges of drugs against them.” Regarding working hours, the petition states that Richard had to work for 17 hours a day, from 6am to 11pm, with only a 2 hour off on Sunday (for church). The petition argues that the “treatment of Sangeeta by Devyani Khobragade is tantamount to keeping a person in slavery-like conditions or keeping a person in bondage.” Taken together, these charges amount to extremely serious allegations of human trafficking, and deserve a thorough and impartial investigation.

The fact that the Indian establishment has brushed this matter under the carpet, and is instead exerting itself to the utmost to protest against the manner of Khobragade’s arrest and save “national honor” by arranging for her to be granted diplomatic immunity, is clearly an indication of class impunity. Members of the elite are used to mistreating domestic workers in India. Now they are arguing that they want to continue doing the same, with utter impunity, at other locations of the globe as well.

 

Hurt Pride Brings Hidden Prejudice into View

Beyond this obvious case of class impunity strutting about in the Indian media, the reaction to this entire episode in India is symptomatic of several regressive views that permeate the upper echelons of the Indian society.

The first issue relates to preferential treatment, something that the elite (including the bureaucrats) in India is used to and something that permeates everyday life in India. That the upper classes of India actually believe that an IFS officer has more rights than a drug addict is apparent from this episode. Although there needs to be a serious discussion regarding arrest procedures (in US and elsewhere as well) and how much it infringes on civil liberty, it seems that the focus of much concern in India is that a civil servant was treated at par with a drug-addict (and other common criminals). Unfortunately, this view militates against the fact that equality of all individuals before law is a basic tenet of a working democracy.

The second issue is that of false indignation. As we have indicated above, from the reactions in the Indian media it seems as if the procedure and act of arrest of a diplomat is more important than the actual cause of the arrest. Moreover, it is sad and indicative of inherent biases in the mainstream media that this indignation is mostly reserved for a member of the elite, even as cases of ordinary Indians languishing in foreign prisons hardly draws any attention.

The third issue relates to the importance of social status in influencing public opinion. In a dispute between a member of the bureaucratic elite (in this case a consular staff) and a “lowly” domestic help, reaction of Indian media and politicians seems to be overwhelmingly relying on Devyani’s benevolent role (as an employer paying a domestic help INR 30000 and other benefits) and demonizing Sangeeta’s ulterior motives of exploiting her former employer (obtaining US residency etc.). Further, mistreatment of a domestic help or the issue of her rights seems to be a minor one here compared to the dignity of a diplomat. And this seems to be the reflection of the elite sentiment that the servitude of a domestic help is an entitlement.

 

Is this an Isolated Incident?

It is important not to view this incident as an isolated one. Not only have Indian consular staffs been involved in horribly mistreating domestic workers brought from India, but according to advocates of immigrant workers in the U.S., exploitation of domestic workers is a plague. Two previous cases, involving Indian diplomats in the US and their domestic helps, have been reported in the recent past.

In June 2011, Santosh Bharadwaj, filed a lawsuit against Prabhu Dayal, India’s consul general in New York. Santosh had worked as a maid for Prabhu Dayal and alleged, in her complaint, inhuman treatment. In December 2012, the matter was settled out of court by paying $ 75,000 to Santosh. In an earlier case, domestic help Shanti Gurung filed a case in 2010 against Indian consular official (Counselor of Press, Culture, Information, Education and Community Affairs at the Consulate General of India in Manhattan) in New York, Neena Malhotra, and her husband, Jogesh. Speaking to The Hindu in 2010, Gurung’s lawyer had noted that “Shanti’s story is one of almost unimaginable cruelty. Over three years without pay, without a passport, without freedom to leave, without friends or family, and unable to speak English to get help.” In February 2012, a New York City Magistrate Judge recommended that Neena Malhotra and her husband be required to pay $1.5 million for forcing Gurung to work without pay and for meting our barbaric treatment to her at their plush East 43rd Street Apartment in Manhattan. Instead of addressing Shanti Gurung’s grievances, the Indian government approached the Delhi High Court. In his interim order, Justice Kailash Gambhir issued an order against Gurung from pursuing her case in a New York federal court till further orders. Not only has she not been punished, but Neena Malhotra continues to be employed by the Ministry of External Affairs of the Indian government.

Mistreatment of domestic workers by diplomatic and consular staff in the U.S. (and other countries too) is a class phenomenon, which cuts across nationalities, countries and regions. Nonpayment of wages, or payment of wages far below the legal minimum, non-payment of overtime, long hours of work (often stretching over the whole day for 7 days a week), mistreatment, harassment and intimidation, seems to be commonly faced by domestic workers brought into the U.S. by foreign diplomatic and consular staff. In 2008, a report published by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) identified 42 cases (between 2000 and 2008) of mistreatment of domestic workers brought into U.S. by foreign diplomats. The report noted that this figure was almost certainly a gross underestimation.

According to Avaloy Lanning, senior director of the anti-trafficking organization, Safe Horizons, nothing much could be done in such cases of abuse in the early 2000s. Diplomatic and consular staff enjoyed immunity and the legal system in the U.S. was not equipped to handle cases of mistreatment and abuse of foreign domestic workers. The response to the victim, according to Lanning, was “just forget it, and move on”. But that started changing in 2008. In a victory for cause of domestic workers’ rights, the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorisation Act was passed in 2008. Under this law, domestic workers brought into the U.S. by diplomatic and consular staff must be made aware of their rights by consular officers, and most relevant for L’Affaire Khobragade, diplomats are required to have a contract with the domestic worker which specifies their terms of employment.

According to Lanning, there is anecdotal evidence that this 2008 law has improved protection for the workers and has increased the number of victims coming forward to lodge their complaints.

“Among the cases which have been criminally prosecuted was [a case] against Hsien Hsien Liu, an envoy at Taiwan’s mission in Kansas City, who pleaded guilty in November 2011 to human trafficking charges over the treatment of two foreign employees. She was ordered to pay $80,044 to the employees in restitution and a fine of $11,040 before being deported in 2012. And in November 2012, Somduth Soburun, then the Mauritius ambassador to the United States, pleaded guilty in federal court to paying his Philippine housekeeper less than the minimum wage after Mauritius agreed to U.S. government’s request to partially waive his immunity. He was ordered to pay $24,153 in restitution to the housekeeper and $5,000 in fines.” (Source: Reuters)

A similar outcome in the Khobragade case would certainly not be anything out of the ordinary. If that were to happen, the Indian tax-payer would have to once again – just like in the case of Prabhu Dayal – pay a hefty sum to, at best, let a bureaucrat go scott free after mistreating her domestic worker. The fact that the Ministry of External Affairs promotes the practice of bringing domestic workers abroad as an entitlement and tacitly encourages under-payment of salary (lower than that mentioned in the visa document) is troublesome.

 

Domestic Workers in the U.S. and the World

The Indian establishment and mainstream media’s reactions to the whole affair – indignation at the arrest of Khobragade and wholesale vilification of Richard – is not without its touch of bittersweet irony. Even as the Indian establishment and its apologists ignore the injustice meted out to Richard, the struggle of domestic workers and their advocates worldwide have started bearing fruit. In the last few years, domestic workers and their champions have won major victories at the international level and in the U.S.

There are between 50 and 100 million domestic workers worldwide, who comprise a significant and growing part of the global informal workforce (according to the International Labour Organization, there are about 53 million domestic workers if child domestic workers are not counted). Domestic work consists of duties performed for a family other than one’s own and includes work like cleaning, cooking shopping, caring for the elderly, children and the sick, housekeeping. Domestic workers work within homes, often without any contract that specifies the terms of employment, and are, for the most, excluded from the purview of national labour legislation (most employers do not even view the domestic worker working in their homes as their employees).

The vulnerability of working behind closed doors and being isolated from other workers is heightened by demographic factors. An overwhelming majority of domestic workers are women (and children) and, over the past few decades, they have been increasingly drawn from immigrants. For these reasons, domestic workers face deplorable working conditions, labour exploitation (below minimum wage payments, no overtime, long hours, no rest days) and other forms of abuse (verbal, physical and sexual abuse).

A major milestone in the struggle to recognize rights of domestic workers was attained on June 16, 2011 when the International Labour Organization (ILO) adopted the Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers (No. 189). This landmark treaty requires governments to provide domestic workers with rights and protection available to other workers, including those related to minimum wage, hours of work, overtime compensation, social security, daily and weekly rest periods, and maternity protection. Convention 189 came into effect on September 5, 2013. India is yet to ratify the convention and implement it in the country.

Parallel to international developments, the political movement of domestic workers in the U.S. – who are predominantly women, immigrants and non-white – have achieved significant victories. Organized by the National Domestic Workers Alliance, this movement gradually built up from a single chapter in New York city to a national organization that has the power to influence public opinion and shape the direction of key legislation. It is their organizing efforts that have forced key legal changes by two state governments and even the Obama administration.

On 17 September 2013, the Obama administration extended the Fair Labour Standards Act’s minimum wage and overtime protections to 2 million direct care workers – such as home health workers, personal care aides, and certified nursing assistants – who form an important part of domestic workers in the U.S. On September 26, 2013, California signed into law the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, which will mean extending the gains for the home health workers to all domestic workers. The California victory was preceded by victory in New York: on November 29, 2010, the New York Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights was passed.

It may be noted that activism around minimum wage has been an important agenda for the Democratic Party. With the 2014 congressional elections round the corner, cracking down on a foreign diplomat on grounds of minimum wage violation (though actual charges are different) does help energize the party base.

 

And the Politicking …

Beyond the charade of national pride and the clear prejudice of the elite against a working woman lies the game of politics. Having welcomed huge U.S. business interests into India, ranging from the civil nuclear deal to further opening up of the Indian market for insurance and multi-brand retail, the ruling UPA government (led by the Congress) has suddenly taken up the Devyani issue as one of the gravest transgressions of national interest in recent history. Clearly, the Congress party is gearing up for the upcoming Lok Sabha polls, where it is projected to perform poorly after years of mismanagement and scam-tainted governance. The Devyani issue allows it to assert its nationalistic, jingoistic position and take the winds from the BJP’s sail. Not to be left behind, the BJP, having finally made its official position against homosexuality clear, went on to demand arrest of gay partners of US diplomats in India as a tit-for-tat tactic in enforcing the laws of the land (read Article 377). Sadly, in this discourse – shared by the entire political spectrum in India, ranging from the right-wing BJP to the social-democratic left party CPI(M) – nowhere did the issue of the probable exploitation of a domestic worker ever surface. However, the role of India’s Foreign Service corps has been most stunning in this entire episode. The establishment seemed to have learnt no lessons from previous domestic help related incidents in the US (refer to details about the cases involving Prabhu Dayal and Neena Malhotra). Further, it has been complicit in threatening Sangeeta and her family by using tactics such as revoking Sangeeta’s Indian passport. Having continued the practice of supplying cheap domestic labor for it cadre, even if that amounts to committing fraud, it has failed to adapt to changing times.

 

Concluding Thoughts

We close this article with two concluding thoughts, one relating to the need to avoid cultural determinism and the other to draw attention to imperial hubris.

What might appear as a cultural difference between the U.S. (and other advanced capitalist countries) and India (and other Third World countries) with regard to the treatment of domestic workers is really the result of solid structural factors pertaining to the political economy of stunted capitalism in the periphery of the contemporary global economy. Domestic workers are one of the most vulnerable sections of the working class active in the informal economy of Asian and African countries. The bloated informal sector in these countries is a sign of a distorted, dis-articulated capitalism that has not managed to solve the central problem of development: huge pools of surplus labour. A vicious linkage between small scale agriculture and precarious employment in the informal sector reproduces the pool of surplus labour. And it is from this pool that India’s elite draw their domestic workers. The ready availability of surplus labour keeps the bargaining power of domestic workers low, allows their employers to mistreat and deny them basic rights due to all workers. As and when the process of capital accumulation makes a dent on the pool of surplus labour, the material basis for an improvement in the conditions of domestic workers will fructify.

It is interesting to note that a similar process can be seen in the advanced capitalist countries, the U.S., the European countries, etc. For instance, during the early parts of the 20th century, when capital accumulation had not yet dried up the pool of surplus labour in the U.S., it was common for U.S. households to have domestic workers (often belonging to the African-American community). As capital accumulation proceeded, employment opportunities for workers expanded so that they could move away from low-paying, precarious employment like domestic work. This process was further strengthened in the robust 25 year growth after the end of World War II (often called the Golden Age of capitalism). Scarcity of domestic workers increased their wages and bargaining position enormously. It is this material reality that, along with the organization of workers, underlies the deterrence of American families to mistreating their domestic workers (if at all they can hire one).

The bottom line is that there is nothing inherent in Indian or American culture that might explain the different treatment of domestic workers in these countries. The cultural differences if any, and the differences in behavior, are all undergrid by different political economies. Even a whiff of American cultural exceptionalism or superiority must not be allowed to enter the discourse.

In fact, quite the opposite. The record of 20th century U.S. imperialism is replete with instances where it has argued for, and managed to enforce, immunity from local laws for its citizens, even when those citizens were involved in “grave crimes”. Take the case of the Bhopal Gas disaster. On the night of December 2, 1984, a pesticide plant in Bhopal leaked methyl isocynate and other harmful chemicals. The leakage killed 8,000 people in the first few days due to cardiac and respiratory arrest, and more than a total of 20,000 people have lost their lives since that fateful night. The chemical factory responsible for the leak belonged to Union Carbide (Union Carbide owned 50.9 percent of the company that operated the Bhopal factory), which negotiated a settlement with the Indian government in 1989 for $470 million, a sum even smaller than what would be required to medical bills for the affected. In 1987, a Bhopal District Court charged Union Carbide officials, including CEO Warren Anderson, with culpable homicide, grievous assault and other series offences. None of the defendants showed up for any proceedings, and in 1992, a warrant was issued for arresting Anderson.

Warren Anderson is a U.S. citizen and still a free man.

 


[1] Our intention in this article is not to pass judgment on the case; neither are we competent, nor do we desire, to do so. The case is currently under investigation and the relevant court will pass the judgment in due time. In this article, we wish to look at the matter as social scientists and use the publicly available facts to draw some conclusions about the nature and working of Indian society.

3 Comments »

3 Responses to “Pride and Prejudice – Thoughts on L’Affaire Khobragade”

  1. Vernon Gonsalves Says:
    March 18th, 2014 at 05:16

    The public issue in this matter has been all about the handcuffing, strip-searching, cavity-searching and other mundane brutalities of the US judicial system. These are not the things under investigation or up for trial and they have all been admitted and defended without ambiguity by the US bureaucracy. So they do not need to fall into the category of the things that the authors are chary of commenting upon (as it is not their intention ‘to pass judgment on the case’).

    It is somewhat strange to read such a long piece that actually ignores the original issue and instead focuses on the matter that the US ruling classes and government has bombarded through servile media to shift focus away from their own brutal system, to obfuscate the central points of criticism and debate and to instead present themselves and the US system as some torchbearers for the workers of all countries.

    Even if the authors were intent on only dealing with political economy at issue, they could yet have done better. A look into the political economy of what is probably the largest penitentiary system in any country would have helped give insights into the basis for its institutional inhumanness and brutalites. It would also have helped the authors to avoid straying from the core issue to the peripheries preferred in this debate by most NRIs resident in the US

  2. (Authors) Suvarup Saha / Deepankar Basu Says:
    March 25th, 2014 at 12:14

    Thanks Vernon for a critical reading of the article.

    We disagree with your main contention that the real issue was about “handcuffing, strip-searching, cavity-searching” of Devyani Khobragade. That was the angle that was being relentlessly highlighted by the Indian media, in our opinion, to divert attention from the real issue, which was the exploitation of the domestic worker, Sangeeta Richards. The main issue, in our opinion, was the wanton exploitation of a domestic worker (Richards) by an official of the Indian government (Khobragade) in a foreign country, where the position of the domestic worker is especially vulnerable. That there was near-complete silence about this aspect of the case is the Indian media was not surprising: it was a clear case of class prejudice. Our article took the perspective of the domestic worker, Sangeeta Richards, and analyzed the political economy of a labour surplus economy like India, where domestic workers are regularly exploited and ill-treated, not only outside the country but also within the country. We see Khobragade’s treatment of Richards as symptomatic of this underlying class behavior of the Indian middle and upper classes.

    Moreover, we do not think that the Khobragade case is an especially important entry point for analyzing the “brutalities of the US judicial system”. If one were interested in studying the “brutalities of the US judicial system”, one would start by looking at the effects of mass incarceration on the African-American population in the US, the daily indignities meted out to Mexican and other immigrants. While this is a very important topic of research and analysis, that was not the purpose of our article. An informative article on this issue can be found here: http://sanhati.com/tweet/4412/

  3. Vernon Gonsalves Says:
    March 29th, 2014 at 22:30

    Suvarup, Deepankar,thanks for engaging.
    My three short paras made no attempt to opine on the ‘real’ or ‘main’ issue vis a vis L’Affaire Khobragade. ‘Real’ can so much be tailored by the eye of the beholder, that one would normally require much more than comment space to explain one’s reasons for contending that something is ‘the real issue’. I therefore consciously chose to restrict myself to the “public” issue or the “original” issue raised in the public domain and stated my very limited objection to what I perceived was a reluctance to ‘pass judgment’ on an issue that daily cries out (particularly in the US) for judgment to be passed on it. You, while admitting (perhaps inadvertently) to what was the public issue, chose to ignore my objection and simply reiterated your article’s thesis on the class pride and prejudice of India’s middle classes (something to which I do not have, nor have raised, an objection too). Let it lie.
    But now it’s perhaps in order to bare my own prejudices. I think I am fairly guilty of an ideological allergy to finding myself on the same side as the US ruling classes and government. In a particular context of the state representatives of the most thoroughgoing exploiters of global labour posing as stalwart fighters against exploitation by a Dalit middle class woman, my prejudiced antennas spring into overdrive. I think I could be forgiven the liberty of doubting the credentials of such messiahs of the working class. I know I lack hard data or proof but that hardly prevents me from nurturing blind belief that a bleeding heart US bureaucracy is bound to have a hidden agenda. History is too replete with corrosive examples of such selective imperial ‘assistance’ to not be biased against it. This is not at all to say that Richards was not exploited by Khobragade and does not need to be united with in her battle against Khobragade; it is just to insist that the war to be waged by the Richards of this world is best fought without the Bhararas on our side. And the sanctimonious US state support to Richards’ cause shouldn’t figleaf the nakedness of their exploitation everywhere.
    As for your belief that handcuffing, strip-searching, cavity-searching was ‘relentlessly highlighted’ by my country’s media, I only wish it were true. I am still to reconcile myself to the casual unconcern of the average US resident to such issues. It’s all very well to talk of the ‘daily indignities meted out to Mexican and other immigrants’, but could a populace which no one attempts to make to see the wrong in the handcuffing of a Straus-Kahn or a Devyani be expected to stand up against the indignities on the real oppressed? And if those who care choose to remain silent at such particularly highlighted cases, can they hope to make a dent in the general wider struggle against the overall brutality of the system?

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