The Maid and the Diplomat

The diplomatic ‘crisis’ that has flared between India and the United States over the arrest of Devyani Khobragade, the Indian vice-consul in New York, is what is called a tamasha: entertaining farce. It is of no real importance, but an awful lot of people are looking on with interest, exhibiting various degrees of vitriol, righteous indignation and amusement.

For those who have not seen an Indian newspaper lately, or read the American papers carefully, the basic story is that the vice-consul was arrested for having paid her imported maid, Sangeeta Richard, a decidedly sub-minimum-wage salary. She is also alleged to have lied about Richard’s wages on the visa application she submitted to the US government. Richard went AWOL last summer, and this week an ambitious federal prosecutor (is there any other kind?) Preet Bharara – Indian-born, as luck would have it – had Khobragade arrested, strip-searched, cavity-searched, thrown briefly in jail (‘with drug addicts and common criminals’), and charged. The maid, it turns out, was not missing at all, but working with Bharara’s office. Her family has been since then ‘evacuated’ from India and spirited to safety in the US. They're all here somewhere, hiding from RAW assassins and NDTV reporters. If found guilty of the charges against her, the vice-consul faces ten years in prison.

Indians are upset. They understand, correctly enough, that a strip search and cavity inspection constitute a sanitized sexual assault, and nationalist patriarchies are highly sensitive to sexual encroachments. They also suspect, again correctly, that US diplomats are treated with greater indulgence by the Indian authorities than their Indian counterparts are in America. So American diplomats have had their diplomatic privileges sharply reduced by an Indian government determined to show its toughness in the run-up to elections. The various political parties are competing for the Most Patriotically Outraged prize, and it is not all posturing: people are quite genuinely outraged.

All of this was unnecessary. In an ideal world, the Indian government would issue its diplomats with instructions that occur naturally to the rest of us: if you can’t afford a maid, make do without. The US government, which has conducted itself with spectacular clumsiness and stupidity, would know better than to engineer a diplomatic incident where a discreet warning (or better visa processing) would have done the job. And no prosecutor with an eye on the governor's office would presume to ‘evacuate’ foreign citizens from their own country. These outcomes reflect poor coordination between bureaucracies, arrogance, and probably a measure of racism as well. If in doubt, play the scenario in reverse: female American diplomat, suspected of underpaying an employee, being made to spread her cheeks for the police in Delhi. The New York Post editors would die of joy. But I too love a good tamasha, and this one has all three elements of a really good one: race, class, gender.

So I marvel at Ms. Khobragade, who is barely denying that she provided false information on the maid’s visa application and then quietly negotiated a second agreement, for a lower salary, with the maid. Nor is she denying that when the maid threatened to go to the authorities if she was not paid her legally due minimum salary (and compensated for the extra hours she had been made to work, being an Indian servant), she tried to have her arrested, and got an Indian court to issue an order blocking the maid from filing a civil suit. She is either not very bright, or befuddled by a runaway sense of entitlement.

In the vice-consul’s defense, this sort of visa fraud is probably very common. The American officials who processed Richard’s visa application could easily see that a diplomat who earns $4000 per month could not pay her maid more than $4000. Yet the visa was issued. Obviously, these things are usually handled with a nudge and wink, and prosecutors who want to demonstrate their American credentials are not on hand to make trouble. Khobragade can hardly be the first Indian diplomat to have brought her servant with her on these dubious terms.

But what strikes me most sharply about the vice-consul is how utterly provincial she is. Here is a highly-educated woman who has signed up for a career in the Foreign Service. Yet she remains the typical Indian memsa’ab, who must have servants to boss around. Her standing in life, her sense of her own worth, and the normalcy of her world all depend upon it. Of course, the servant has to be Indian, accustomed to a particular idiom of command and deference. When Ms. Khobragade came to New York, she never left Bombay. She had no intention of seeing, let alone absorbing, local norms of housework, dignity, employer-employee relations and legality. She has no idea that she has done something wrong, and does not understand – or care to understand – why others might feel otherwise. Such people, who are essentially tourists with the expectation of immunity to consequences, are the worst kind of diplomat. Yet they are the norm and not the exception. The Ugly American is in good company.

The same provinciality and entitlement are evident in the Indian media’s complaints that the vice-consul was treated like a ‘common criminal,’ locked up with ‘drug addicts,’ and so on. There is no reason to assume that Ms. Khobragade is an uncommon criminal, after all, or that she is morally superior to somebody whose major vice is substance-abuse. Strip searches and body-cavity inspections are indeed ‘barbaric,' as the Indian government noted in its protest against the vice-consul’s arrest. They are rituals of power and humiliation dressed up as security measures, like much of law enforcement in America. Now, it would be one thing if Ms. Khobragade’s sympathizers were outraged that anybody should be treated in that manner. But their outrage is rooted in an obscene distinction between common and uncommon people: it is apparently acceptable to violate the bodies of the former, but not of the latter.

It is precisely this distinction – that differential assessment of the worth of human beings – that leads to the exploitation and mistreatment of servants by their employers. It is also why middle-class Americans seldom make a fuss about how the police treat their victims. They know that these rituals are intended for a different demographic from themselves, although the expectation of ‘uncommon’ treatment is rarely naked. Indians, on the other hand, let it all hang out. When Shah Rukh Khan was profiled by American airport officials a couple of years ago, Indians protested not because a Muslim had been harassed, or even because a brown man had been harassed, but because the dumb firangis had failed to treat an uncommon man with uncommon respect. Had it been some other brown man, or a poor man, they wouldn’t have cared. And, of course, poor brown men and women face this sort of shit every day: in New York, in the Gulf states, at Heathrow. There’s no national outrage there.

Ms. Khobragade faces two sets of charges: one having to do with visa fraud, and another with the exploitation of an employee. The first accusation seems irrefutable, but the second is more interesting. To some Indian and most American observers, the exploitation is obvious. As per US and NY labor laws, Sangeeta Richard was entitled to a minimum wage of nearly $10 per hour, for a maximum of 40 hours a week. She was also entitled to vacation time. Instead, she was working longer hours, and instead of getting four thousand dollars a month, she was getting about five hundred.

The issue, however, is not so straightforward. First of all, people who depend on cheap labor overseas to maintain their First-World lifestyles are in no position to be self-righteous about exploitation. And American diplomats abroad don’t pay their native employees an American minimum wage. Secondly, like most live-in servants, Ms. Richard had a free place to live, food, clothing and medical care. So it is not quite true that she was being forced to survive in Manhattan on $500 a month. Had she wished, she could have saved or remitted her entire salary, which is precisely the expectation in these arrangements. If I had five hundred dollars left over every month after all my basic expenses had been met, I would be delighted. So would anybody who is actually paid the minimum wage in America. And $500, which works out to thirty thousand rupees, is a middle-class salary in India.

Ms. Richard clearly agreed in advance to the lower salary. She cannot claim to have expected four thousand dollars and then been surprised to receive five hundred. She is an adult who entered into an agreement with Ms. Khobragade; nobody forced her to take the job. It can, of course, be argued that she was forced by poverty, but if we take that position then we effectively argue that the poor have no agency or accountability. In any case, Richard was not in dire poverty before she accompanied the vice-consul to New York. Her father works for the US embassy, and she herself has worked for an American diplomat in the past. She appears to have known what she was doing.

That does not, however, mean that there was no exploitation. When you pay someone $500 a month to be your live-in servant in America, you render that person totally dependent upon you and your goodwill. This is especially true if that employee has limited English-language skills, no driver’s license, and no local structure of social support: friends, family, alternative options for employment. At that point, notions of consent and contract become unsustainable. Employers often hold on to the passports of their servants, hold wages in arrears, or pay in rupees (which means the servant has no access to her own earnings while in America). When Sangeeta Richard wanted to take a second job, she needed Khobragade’s permission, and permission was refused. Moreover, we are not talking about just any employer: Khobragade, as vice-consul and employer-patron, had nearly total power over Richards’ visa status in America. Khobragade clearly counted on that power, which is why she refused to allow her maid to take a second job. Also clearly, she was willing to abuse that power: when Richard left and Khobragade complained to the police, she had to be reminded that Richard is an adult. Khobragade filed charges of petty theft against her maid, when clearly the missing property was the maid herself. She assumed that she was dealing with a common servant, and did not consider the possibility that the servant might be a smarter, cannier player of the system than herself, converting a disadvantage into an effective immigration plan for herself and her family.

December 19, 2013

The Indian Election

The BJP sweep in the state-level elections in India last week is, quite possibly, a foreshadowing of what is to come in the national election next spring. The confidence of my lefty friends that Narendra Modi will not be the next Indian prime minister may have been more wishful than realistic. With that in mind, I wanted to write a few lines on the prospect of Narendra Modi as PM.

We should be clear-eyed about what the BJP revival means, and what it does not mean. It does not mean a new wave of Hindutva and anti-Muslim bigotry. Antipathy towards Muslims has not gone away – far from it – but there has been no spike, no reprise of the hysteria of the early 1990s, with its bizarre ‘chariot rides’ and spectacular vandalism. The recent ‘riot’ in Muzaffarnagar was reprehensible, but it was nothing like the carnage in Bombay in 1992 and Gujarat ten years later. The BJP victories are about other, more prosaic things: the economic slowdown, the glamor that Narendra Modi has acquired as the messiah of corporate India, and above all the dismal performance of the UPA government. Had Manmohan Singh stepped down after his first term in office, he might justifiably have been remembered as an effective prime minister who had followed through on a coherent agenda of governance. But in his second term, Manmohan has become something between a joke and a sad apparition: a man asleep at the wheel, or not even behind the wheel. The responsibility for this state of affairs is mostly Sonia Gandhi’s, who has done to Manmohan what Putin did to Medvedev, but that simply underlines the reality that the PM is not responsible even for his own disappearance. Meanwhile, the Gandhi family has offered nothing of substance except corruption and arrogance, hounding a bureaucrat who blew the whistle on shady land deals and trying to preserve the status of Parliament as a safe-house for criminals. The BJP is just as corrupt and high-handed, but has the advantage of being in the opposition.

Given Manmohan Singh’s vanishing act, the climate is right for a new politics of omnipresence, i.e., an emphasis on personal leadership. So we have Rahul Gandhi versus Narendra Modi, which is arguably a presidential rather than parliamentary confrontation, consistent with the Indian middle class’ aesthetic preference for America over Britain. In that confrontation, Rahul Gandhi is at a disadvantage, because although he has had more than enough time in the limelight to establish himself as ‘leadership material,’ he has been either too lazy or too unintelligent to do so. It is, I think, the former. What Rahul says – about criminals in Parliament, about the Muzaffarnagar atrocity – suggests the existence of insight and even principles, but they also suggest a terrible lack of consistency and organization. Modi, on the other hand, is nothing if not focused and organized: a man who knows what he wants and leaves no doubts about his seriousness. He will never win a majority of votes in an all-India election, but given the uninspiring opposition, he might win just enough to be the dominant figure in a new governing coalition.

Modi appears to fulfil a long-standing fantasy of a segment of the Indian population – the urban middle class – that, while beleaguered by the rise of subaltern and semi-subaltern voters, still retains the power to articulate the template of national leadership. What this class has wanted since the turn of the last century is a particular type of man at the head of the nation: a man capable of the well-informed, clear-eyed, rational and decisive use of violence. That capability, after all, is at the heart of the liberal nation-state that emerged from Bismarck’s Europe. In India, the ‘man’ who best represented this ideal in the PMO was Mrs. Indira Gandhi, but Vajpayee, Nehru and even Shastri came close.

Modi’s apparent proximity to this model of statesmanship is misleading. He is fundamentally a provincial man, without the worldly education and historical awareness required to represent or even understand the national interest in the world. His amply-demonstrated capacity for violence is suited not to the calibrated deployment of naval squadrons but to street-fighting, i.e., to the petty viciousness of domestic politics and organized rioting. Even his style – the garish fancy-dress, the gratified acceptance of the worship of supplicants – is easily recognizable as the aesthetic of provincial politics in India, reminiscent of southern film-star politicians, Mayawati’s pink elephants, and Mamata Banerjee’s zeal in covering Calcutta with posters and billboards of herself.

In thirty years of Left Front rule in West Bengal, Jyoti Basu and Buddhadeb Bhattacharya never became so omnipresent in the public eye, but they were liberal, middle-class politicians. (There were images of Mrs. Gandhi everywhere in Calcutta in the 1970s, but they were mostly cartoons drawn by the communists. Now, of course, cartoonists and communists are both visited by the police.) Mamata, Mayawati, Modi and the Southern gods represent what might be called a subaltern take on fascism. It’s not the real – i.e., 'European' – thing, either as fascism or as liberal democracy, although it has elements of both. Modi as PM would be just as prone to triggering fits of nervous laughter as Mamata Banerjee has shown herself to be. But even subaltern fascism must be taken seriously as a dangerous political product.

The biggest difference between Modi and Mamata, obviously, is Modi’s barely disguised hatred of Muslims. This is not necessarily his best selling point, but many voters who are uncomfortable with it have learned to accept it as an incidental imperfection in an otherwise desirable package of right-wing economic policies. Many more take for granted that being anti-Muslim is the core of right-wing nationalist ideology in India. Yet right-wing Indian political thought has a long, parallel history that is not anti-Muslim. We can trace that history not only to Benoy Sarkar and more problematically, Subhas Bose (who was both of the left and of the right), but as far back as the essayist Bhudeb Mukhopadhyay, who was Bankim’s contemporary. Bhudeb was a self-identified conservative; his views on the Hindu family, Indian womanhood, caste, and the relationship between society and the individual were consistently reactionary, although not anti-modern. Indian nationhood was real and distinctive, he argued, and sought to recover and conserve the distinctions. Like Bankim, he was uneasy about Muslims: their extra-Indian enthusiasms were too evident for his liking. But he also insisted that Hindus and Indian Muslims belonged to a single moral and social world, that Indian Muslims had more intimate bonds with Hindus than they did with Arabs, Iranians and Turks, and that Islam would become progressively indigenized in India until Muslims were no more alien than Jains and Sikhs. In this, he preemptively rejected a basic premise of Savarkar’s Hindutva: the notion that India was the exclusive punyabhumi or sanctified homeland of some religious communities but not others.

Bhudeb’s Hindu conservatism did not prevent him from teaching in a madrasa, and from regarding the ulema with deep empathy and respect. He recognized the social and political divides between Hindus and Muslims in his own time, but pinned the blame firmly on Orientalist scholarship (history in particular). He placed the major responsibility for bridging the divide upon his fellow-Hindus, who were, he recognized, already the economically and politically dominant community. In this, he foreshadowed Benoy Sarkar, although unlike Sarkar, Bhudeb wrote at a time when the ins and outs of Indian nationhood were still falling into place.

What Bhudeb, Benoy Sarkar and Subhas Bose acknowledged, and Bankim, Savarkar and Golwakar did not, is that an Indian nationalism that is anti-Muslim at heart is fundamentally self-defeating; it cannot be otherwise. No state that excludes, demonizes or discriminates against thirty percent or even twelve percent of its population can be stable, peaceful or effective, especially when twelve percent adds up to well over a hundred million people. Such a country will remain at war with itself and crippled by that war. And that war is precisely the sort of provincial, primitive use of rusty swords and tridents that sustains a politician like Narendra Modi. It features secular citizens slipping into a rhetoric of ‘us’ and ‘them’ in casual conversation, landlords rejecting prospective tenants because they are Muslim, of harassment by the police of a man with the temerity to marry a Hindu woman, ‘encounter killings’ of college students, and the occasional pogrom. It is far removed from the grand visions of global strategy that the Indian national elite has entertained since Bankim turned Krishna into Bismarck. The irony of the middle class’ willingness to embrace a small-time bigot like the murkhya-mantri of Gujarat is precisely that it diminishes its own pursuit of the global big time: a place in the sun, credible and projectable power. It reduces would-be giants to dwarfs. India with Modi as prime minister will probably not be Nazi Germany, but it will be a small-town circus complete with animals and clowns, in which jackals imagine they are lions (from the Gir Forest, naturally).

December 8, 2013