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