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Archives for : devyani Khobragade

The Brains Behind Modi Sarkar

How did a little-known think-tank end up supplying so many bureaucrats to the NDA government? Brijesh Singh reports


What do Ajit Doval, Nripendra Misra and PK Misra have in common? Of course, they are top bureaucrats whom Narendra Modi handpicked to run his team. There is another common factor. They all hail from New Delhi-based think-tank Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF).

FormerIB director Ajit Doval was steering the ship at VIF as founder-director before he was appointed as Modi’s National Security Adviser. He was advising Modi even before the government was formed. In fact, it was Doval who came up with the idea of inviting South Asian leaders to Modi’s oath-taking ceremony.

After his stint as the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) chairman was over, Nripendra Misra became a member of the VIF’s executive council. Now, he is Modi’s principal secretary. There was a legal hitch in his appointment as TRAI law bars former chairmen from holding government positions. But Modi wanted him so bad that he tabled an ordinance to amend the law.

Former Union agriculture secretary PK Misra was associated with the VIF as a Senior Fellow. Now, he is the additional principal secretary to the prime minister.

Other VIF members whom the Modi regime has tapped for inputs include former RAW chief CD Sahay, former urban development secretary Anil Baijal, former ambassador to Russia Prabhat Shukla, former IAF chief SG Inamdar and former BSF chief Prakash Singh.

Former army chief Gen (retd) NC Vij has replaced Doval as VIF director. Sources claim that many other VIF members are likely to be enrolled in the government at significant posts soon. There are reports that former DRDO director general VK Saraswat, who is currently the dean of the Centre for Scientific and Technological Studies at VIF, might replace Chief Scientific Adviser R Chidambaram.

Interestingly, the first book that Modi released after assuming office was Getting India Back on Track. Its editor is none other than Bibek Debroy, who is the dean of VIF’s Centre for Economic Studies.

So, what is the VIF? Who are the people associated with it? When and how did the think-tank become a breeding ground of candidates to fill Modi’s bureaucracy?

VIF is Doval’s brainchild. After his retirement from the IB in 2005, he focussed his energies in creating the think-tank. On 10 December 2009, Mata Amritanandamayi and Justice MN Venkatachaliah inaugurated the foundation.

The VIF is affiliated to the Kanyakumari- based Vivekananda Kendra, which was established by RSS organiser Eknath Ranade in 1970. In 1993, the Narasimha Rao government allotted land to the Vivekanada Kendra in Chanakyapuri. And VIF was founded at the same spot.

The think-tank’s website introduces the organisation in the following words, “The VIF is a New Delhi-based think-tank set up with the collaborative efforts of India’s leading security experts, diplomats, industrialists and philanthropists under the aegis of the Vivekananda Kendra. The VIF’s objective is to become a centre of excellence to kick-start innovative ideas and thoughts that can lead to a stronger, secure and prosperous India playing its destined role in global affairs.”

About its vision and mission, the website adds, “The VIF is an independent, non-partisan institution that promotes quality research and in-depth studies and is a platform for dialogue and conflict resolution. It strives to bring together the best minds in India to ideate on key national and international issues; promote initiatives that further the cause of peace and global harmony; monitor social, economic and political trends that have a bearing on India’s unity and integrity.”

The VIF has many scholars as members of its advisory and executive councils, besides former army chiefs, former ambassadors, foreign secretaries, retired RAW and IB officials, bureaucrats as well as other key officials who have held top posts at the Centre (see box).

The VIF chiefly works in eight different areas: national security and strategic studies, international relations and diplomacy, neighbourhood studies, governance and political studies, economic studies, historical and civilisational studies, technological and scientific studies, and media studies.

The VIF invites scholars and experts from all over the world for conferences and lectures. It presents India’s outlook before the New Delhi-based diplomatic community and takes their inputs to further the country’s political, strategic, economic and cultural interests. It also holds dialogues with policymakers on current affairs. It gives policy advice to government representatives, MPs, members of the judiciary and civil society. It also carries out exchange of ideas with academic institutes and research centres.

“The foundation has done commendable work in the past 5-6 years,” says former RAW chief Anand Verma, who is now a member of the VIF advisory board. “Top-level research has been conducted in various fields. Numerous seminars of national and international significance have been organised. It has held dialogues with various global think-tanks. Senior officials, including government and nongovernmental ones, from all over the world are invited for interactions. Since the think-tank has its own rules, many of its discussions are not made public.”

Modi has had a long association with the VIF. Sources reveal that he constantly took counsel from this institute regarding economic and security issues when he was the Gujarat chief minister. In fact, the VIF core team helped Modi draft the blueprint of his election campaign.

“We were confident that Modi would be elected as prime minister,” says a VIF member. “That’s why we had been working on developing foreign, security and economic policies, etc. During the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls, he was provided all the necessary inputs on various issues by the VIF. In fact, the major intellectual inputs for his political campaign in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu was organised by the foundation.”

Sources in the foundation confirm Modi’s affinity towards VIF, which prominent BJP and Sangh Parivar leaders approach for inputs on governance issues.

The links between Modi and the VIF became apparent last year. When Congress leaders attacked Modi in the Ishrat Jahan fake encounter case, Doval jumped to his defence. The then VIF director argued that Ishrat was a member of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Congress-led UPA government was politicising the whole matter.

In the run-up to the General Election, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Arvind Kejriwal alleged that under Modi’s watch, industrialists made huge profits in Gujarat, while no actual development had taken place in the state.

Following the accusation, a group named Concerned Citizens sprang to life and came out with a statement that AAP was making unsubstantiated allegations in a bid to help the Congress in the General Election. The members included Doval, author MV Kamath, journalist MJ Akbar, former Jammu & Kashmir governor SK Sinha, former bureaucrat MN Buch and economist Bibek Debroy. It was clearly part of the foundation’s strategy.

The VIF’s major achievement has been the building up of an anti-UPA (read anti- Congress) atmosphere in the past few years. Sources close to the foundation claim that VIF members played a significant role in mobilising the anti-corruption movement across the country in 2011.

“In April 2011, the decision to create an anti-corruption forum under Baba Ramdev was taken here,” reveals a VIF member on the condition of anonymity. “It had been planned for almost a year.In collaboration with KN Govindacharya’s Rashtriya Swabhiman Andolan, the foundation organised a two-day seminar on black money and corruption on 1 April 2011. Baba Ramdev, Arvind Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi attended the programme. At the end of the seminar, an anti-corruption front was formed with Baba Ramdev as patron and Govindacharya as organiser. The members included Ajit Doval, Bhishm Agnihotri (ambassador-at-large to the US when the NDA was in power), Prof R Vaidyanathan from IIM Bangalore, Ved Pratap Vaidik, journalist and Baba Ramdev’s close aide, and (author and financial expert) S Gurumurthy.”

imgMeanwhile, Govindacharya organised a meeting between Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev. VIF members devised a strategy that both of them will push the anti-corruption movement forward. Three days after the seminar, Hazare began a hunger strike at Jantar Mantar. By the end of April, Ramdev had also announced an anti-UPA protest on 4 June at the Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi.

Rumour has it that the plan to corner the Congress was allegedly drafted by VIF at the behest of the BJP and the RSS. On one hand, Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev were raking up the corruption issue and protesting against the government. On the other hand, the BJP was adding fuel to fire. This is why senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh kept referring to the anti-corruption movement as an RSS conspiracy. But as the movement reached its peak and the UPA government came up with absurd steps to tackle the situation, nobody paid him any heed.

The VIF’s alleged links with the RSS has come in handy for Modi’s critics. Sangh leaders regularly visit the VIF, while RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat and BJP leader LK Advani actively engage with it. Recently, Bhagwat was at the VIF to release former diplomat OP Gupta’s book Defining Hindutva. Since the VIF emerged out of the Vivekananda Kendra, critics believe it would be a mistake to consider the VIF separate from the RSS.

“VIF is an RSS project,” says a critic. “The first thing you notice when you enter the building is a photograph of Eknath Ranade. VIF is filled with right-wing officials. As they were marginalised intellectually, they created their own think-tank. It is a desperate attempt to get acknowledged in the intellectual world. If it is not so, then why does the RSS chief keep visiting the VIF?”

The critic provides some examples of the VIF’s alleged right-wing bias. “When the controversy over Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History erupted, Senior Fellow Makkhan Lal wrote that the incident has provided pseudo-secularists and anti-Hindus an opportunity to play their old trick where, in the name of freedom of speech, they bitterly criticise the Hindus,” he says. “While analysing the Lok Sabha election mandate, joint-director Prabhat Shukla wrote that the results were the outcome of the exploitation of Hindus, which has been going on for decades. Another fellow, Anirban Ganguly, wrote in his research paper titled Man and Environment in India: Past Traditions and Present Challenges about how Hinduism is intrinsically aware of the natural surroundings and that the tradition finds mention in the Vedas andArthashastra. If it is not right-wing ideology, then what is?”

However, KG Suresh, editor of the foundation’s magazine Patrika, rubbishes such allegations. “I don’t understand why there is so much negative reporting,” he says. “A picture is being projected as if everyone in the foundation is roaming around in khakis. It is wrong to link the foundation with the RSS. We are totally apolitical. Neither the BJP nor the RSS is funding us.

“We are neither pro-BJP nor anti- Congress. When the UPA was in power, we backed the government on the Devyani Khobragade issue. Similarly, we supported the UPA in the land swap deal with Bangladesh, while the Opposition raised a furore. Hence, it is wrong to call us anti- Congress. It is true that the top leadership of the BJP and the RSS take inputs from us on various issues, but even Congress leaders participate in our seminars.”

Verma is also at pains to emphasise that the VIF has no political leanings. “The think-tank is absolutely non-political and secular,” he says. “It has nothing to do with the RSS. The sole objective of the foundation is to find solutions to the various challenges before the country.

“I don’t look at the RSS the same way as the Congress does. What wrong is the RSS doing? It is only trying to restore the esteem of the Hindu community. Those who don’t understand it, abuse the Sangh. It is establishing the ancient sanskritik principles. It’s doing good work.

“When Swami Vivekananda delivered his speech in Chicago in 1893, it caught the world’s attention. But he was criticised for giving rise to a new Hinduism. If even Vivekananda is not considered secular, then who can be considered so?”

Agrees Maroof Raza, a consultant and strategic affairs expert with Times Now, who regularly participates in various programmes organised by the foundation. “Although there are rumours about VIF’s association with the RSS, no right-wing bias has come to light,” he says. “In fact, the foundation is doing excellent work.”

To buttress his point, Verma adds, “Recently, we organised a conference on the Kashmir issue and members from the PDP, Congress and National Conference took part in the discussion. (Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind chief ) Maulana Mahmood Madani also visited the foundation recently. So has the head of Pakistan’s Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, Maulana Fazlur Rehman. Even the Dalai Lama has attended several programmes here.”

Adds another VIF member, “When the UPA was in power, many PMO officials attended our seminars. In fact, minister Kumari Selja came here to release a book.”

Shedding light on the VIF’s objectives, Verma says, “Among significant issues taken up by the foundation, one is to present the correct cultural, traditional and spiritual aspects of India. We have studied from books that offered a distorted version of our history. Today, we learn history from books prepared by the British and (Thomas) Macaulay. Their objective was to make us feel inferior and destroy our fundamental Indian values. We need to know our actual history and the foundation is working towards it. The history of India is being rewritten in 10-11 volumes, of which half are ready.

“It was necessary to establish VIF. The situation was such that whenever someone talked about Indian culture, Leftist intellectuals would dismiss him or her. They felt he or she was preaching Hinduism. The Leftist historians see RSS conspiracy in anything that involves culture.”

Adds Suresh, “Indian history must be nationalised. The Left has already been marginalised politically. Now, it will be marginalised intellectually. We had been on the margins so far, now it is their turn.”

Another VIF member echoes the sentiment. “Most of the think-tanks are governed by Leftists,” he says. “Ours is a platform for non-Leftists and nationalists who were considered untouchables in the intellectual world.”

On the subject of funding, Verma says, “This institute is funded by people from all over the world. It is not funded by any government organisation. People like you and me fund it.” In 2013, VIF reportedly received donations worth 1.5 crore.

Verma rubbishes allegations that the Sangh Parivar played a part in the appointment of Doval and Misra, saying that their elevation was made purely on merit. “I know the bureaucracy inside out,” says Verma. “I can declare with conviction that they have no match in the entire civil services. Just as they say about Modi, there is nobody like Doval.”

But are they not close to the Sangh Parivar? “Doval is a completely apolitical person,” he replies. “Yes, personally he may have cultural preferences, but in public life, he is very professional.”

As VIF basks in the newfound limelight, foreign dignitaries are making a beeline to the think-tank. Just days after Doval’s elevation, two Chinese delegations came calling. The same day, a 17-member British team, including Royal College of Defence Studies commandant David Bill, visited the place. Later, a delegation from the US Army War College held discussions with VIF’s security experts on nuclear weapons. Experts from the French Atomic Energy Agency and diplomats also paid a visit to discuss various matters, including security issues.

As more and more VIF members join the Narendra Modi sarkar, it is a no-brainer that the think-tank will play a key role in formulating the country’s foreign, economic and security policies.

Translated from Tehelka Hindi by Naushin Rehman

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Nannygate: Humiliation versus Exploitation

By Anand Teltumbde

It has been over a week after Devyani Khobragade, Deputy Consul General (DCG) for Political, Economic, Commercial and Women’s Affairs was arrested and humiliated in New York on 12 December but the uproar in media is refusing to die. It is surely not the first time that the US authorities humiliated Indian note-worthies that included even our ex-president APJ Abdul Kalam, but the amount of public outrage and the angry reaction from the government over this episode has been unprecedented. As any sensible person could guess, the only factor that explains its exceptionality is the times in which it took place. Yes, these are the election times! The results of the recent elections in four states has bolstered the confidence of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and has caused grave anxieties to the ruling Congress Party. The opportunities for playing the great post-election coalition game during the regime change activated all other parties too to maximize their prospects. This episode served them all to exhibit their jingoistic nationalism. There has been another aside to the episode. Devyani happens to be a dalit, a daughter of ex-IAS officer, and in that perfectly represents the vocal dalit middle class. Right or wrong, taking cudgel for her exceptionally serves two important electioneering objectives, viz., appealing to larger masses by invoking patriotic sentiments and appealing to dalits in particular by showing concern for their honour.

Devyani is a daughter of my long standing friend and personally I would sympathize with her. But the episode threw up too many important issues in public to be blinded by personal feeling. The main thrust of the argument in her favour is that she was humiliated by being handcuffed, allegedly strip-searched, and made to stay with ordinary criminals for nearly four hours before she was released on bail against the bond of $ 250,000. In the ‘socialist democratic republic’ called India, we are conditioned to see institutions treating people differentially and hence we cannot stomach the idea of equality of all before law. It is not to say that US has completely shunned racial profiling. But by far its law enforcement machinery treats people equally and operates uninfluenced by any pressure. US is also the biggest imperialist bully right since the World War II, exploiting people world over and even killing those whom she does not like with impunity. But the Indian ruling class parties and the government displaying their defiance in this episode have never raised even a whisper against its exploitative role. On the contrary, they have always bent backwards to curry her favour. This episode embeds many such duplicities and doublespeak behind the jingoistic noises for Devyani.

Messy Affair

As it happens with any media exposition, the facts become first victim of interpretations and worst, opinions. The case relates with the employment of one Sangeeta Richard, a Keralite Christian lady from Delhi by Devyani as a nanny cum domestic servant in November 2012. She got her A-3 US visa on the basis of false declaration of her salary of $ 4500 per month so as to meet the visa requirement. While Devyani’s side accuses Sangeeta of falsification, it could not be without her knowledge as the A-3 visa itself is based on diplomat’s proposal of taking a domestic servant. It has come into the public domain moreover that the Indian diplomats have followed this ‘standard template’ for securing A-3 visas for their domestic servants. Sangeeta was actually paid $ 537 per month by Devyani, which works out to $ 3.31 per hour as against the stipulated minimum wage of $ 9.75 per hour. Sangeeta happily works for Devyani but on 23 June suddenly goes missing. Devyani gets a call from Sangeeta’s lawyer on 1 July making certain unreasonable demands on behalf of Sangeeta. A complaint of cheating gets filed with Delhi Police against Sangeeta on behalf of Devyani the next day. During the next six months Sangeeta’s passport is revoked, she is restrained by the Delhi High Court from taking legal action against Devyani outside India, an arrest warrant is issued against her by the Metropolitan magistrate, Devyani and Indian authorities follow up with the US authorities but receive no response. Mysteriously, Sangeeta’s husband and children fly to US just two days prior to Devyani’s arrest. Whatever may be the crime of Sangeeta, the core charges of lying in visa form and paying less than the minimum wage against Devyani may not be disputed.

What is disputed is the ill treatment meted out to Devyani by the US Marshals. She was arrested by the state department’s diplomatic security bureau and handed over to US Marshals Service. The US marshals had handcuffed and strip-searched her according to their “standard arrestee intake procedures”. The entire complaint about ill treatment ignores this fact and imagines that Devyani was entitled for a better deal than what she received. The tacit assumption behind it is her stature as DCG. But the facts reveal that DCG did not have any diplomatic immunity; she did have consular immunity but it was confined to her consular duties only. Another argument raised against the alleged maltreatment is that the crime was not serious so as to deserve handcuffing or strip searches. True, it may not be so in India but we are speaking about the US law which, apart from the normal procedure to handcuff and search, considers it serious enough to provide for a sentence of 15 years (10 years for visa fraud and five years for making a false declaration). Lastly, it is also insinuated that what Devyani followed was a standard template used by the Indian diplomatic staff. It might point to the necessity of change in government policy but how can it be the argument for condoning the crime once caught?

Defiance Drama

The Indian government’s reaction to the episode has been amusing. While the Indian embassy had been warned in September that there were suspicions the diplomat has been underpaying minimum wage and that action could be imminent (As U.S. assistant secretary of state Nisha Desai Biswal disclosed to a paper), it failed to take corrective steps. It persisted with the mistaken assumption that Devyani had diplomatic immunity. Under the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, consular officials could be arrested for acts committed outside on official job functions. The government woke up only after the things precipitated and transferred Devyani to the country’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations, ensuring her complete immunity from US prosecution. But obviously, this would be short-lived protection as procedurally she would have to apply for a fresh diplomatic card through the UN Secretariat – a process that must ultimately go for clearance to the US State Department. In an unprecedented show of defiance, the government has taken a slew of measures withdrawing special privileges extended to the US Embassy in New Delhi. They included removal of barricades erected as a safety measure outside the U.S. Embassy, asking back the passes issued to Embassy staff to access airport lounges, withdrawing their import permits for liquors, and asking for the details of their employees, etc. It might assuage the sentiments of gullible masses overcharged with patriotism but does not explain why it had extended them unilaterally in the first place. Where was the honour or sovereignty of the country all these years when it succumbed to every other pressure from the US?

The least said about the politicians, better it would be! The rightist BJP, during its own NDA reign from 1999-2004 had pleaded to include India into a Triad Against Terrorism comprising US-Israel-India, overturning decades of Indian foreign policy that had favoured the Palestinian cause. Its Yashwant Sinha wanted India to arrest the embassy staff with same sex partners under Article 377. Mayawati did not forget her patented caste card accusing the government of delay because Devyani was a dalit. Many of them, including Meira Kumar, Sushilkumar Shinde, Rahul Gandhi, and not to exclude Narendra Modi refused to meet the US Congressional delegation that was visiting India at that time. Samajwadi party went overboard making a comic offer of Lok Sabha seat to Devyani in the forthcoming elections. Did they not know that the US presided over the post-War imperialist system for subjugation of nations and their people? Did they not know that the US maintains 1,000 military bases overseas for the purpose? But never before did they utter a word against the US. They rather picked up every of its signals subserviently and bent themselves backward in carrying them through against their own people. The show of defiance in this case is just meant for the electoral gallery!

The Class Matters

The entire drama is focused on humiliation. It is a curious term that tends to undermine objective exploitation of masses and tends to valorize subjective feeling of ignominy by an individual of stature. With the rise of dalit middle class it is becoming quite popular, some academics theorizing it as a key issue. It is amusing to note that the perceived humiliation of a Foreign Service official provokes nationwide outrage and creates a foreign relation crisis for the country in which a vast majority of people live ignominious lives. Many examples crowd in my mind but a single case of Soni Sori, a tribal school teacher in Chhattisgarh should be enough to bring home the point. This lady, on mere suspicion of Maoist link was arrested, stripped naked, raped and her vagina was filled with stones; not allowed to visit funeral of her husband who died of police torture and make arrangements for her children in teens who were rendered parentless. Was that not humiliation? How many of those demonstrators who shouted for Devyani had felt even a cringe of consciousness for Sori? I bet all those dalits actively protesting against humiliation of Devyani through e-mail and social media campaigns would not know even her name. Does she not belong to them?

Sangeeta Richard may well be a rogue but she will surely be in jail, her family devastated by this episode and nothing will happen to our dear Devyani! After all, she is not the class of ordinary mortals. Her humiliation therefore is more important than exploitation of millions of Soris around!

Dr Anand Teltumbde is a writer, columnist, civil rights activist and a professor of management at IIT, Kharagpur

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Press Release- Immunity ≠ Impunity Devyani Khobragade Indicted

10 January, 2014

Will the Indian government do the Right Thing in India?

Gharelu Kaamgar Sangathana, Haryana welcomes the indictment, of Devyani Khobragade by the grand jury in the United States on two counts – that of visa fraud, and of making false statements in connection with the visa application of her Indian domestic worker Sangeeta Richard. The indictment symbolises that no one is above the law, and represents a historic victory for workers’ rights in the United States. It is also heartening to note that the indictment takes a very serious note of the harassment and intimidation faced by the Richard family in India from the Khobragade family when Sangeeta Richard tried to initiate charges against her.

GKS and advocates of domestic workers’ rights are dismayed by the Indian government’s pursuit and the ultimate granting of diplomatic immunity to Devyani Khobragade, a move that only serves to protect Indian employers who violate labour rights and human rights. GKS condemns the humiliating treatment of Ms. Khobragade during her arrest – however, the immunity conveniently sought later highlights only the continuing denial of domestic workers’ human rights by the Indian government everywhere.  However, the indictment and the qualified immunity that Ms. Khobragade has been given show that immunity does not equal impunity.

Gharelu Kaamgar Sangathana, Haryana revealed in the Press Release on January 9, 2014 about its first hand knowledge of the police harassment and intimidation the Richard family were facing in Gurgaon from the Khobragade family and in particular Mr. Uttam Khobragade. The intimidation has been of an extreme nature and had deeply affected the family. The harassment was meant to coerce Sangeeta Richard to withdraw her complaints and retaliate against her for raising her voice. The Richard family faced constant harassment by the police officials who were being sent by the Khobragade family. The police also took Mr. Richard and his son to the police station a few times, kept them there for hours, pressuring them to tell Ms. Richard to return. According to Ms. Retu Singh, lawyer and activist with GKS, Haryana, “I could sense the terrified state the family was in every time I spoke with them. Mr. Philip Richard has called me several times late at night, reporting about the police harassment and intimidation they were facing”. She narrated an incident wherein Mr. Richard called her from the police station for help, and as she tried speaking to the officials, they threw the phone away, refusing to listen to her.  “The police would enter the Richard house, on the grounds that they had orders from above, but when we asked them, they could never show us anything in written”, says Ms. Singh.

We express our strong outrage at the complete lack of recognition by the Indian government to this mental trauma and torture faced by the Richard family, which ultimately led them to flee their home country. We condemn the Indian state’s failure to provide any legal protection to the Richard family when they were in India and counter-accusing them of conspiracy.

We once again applaud the indictment for taking a human rights position, and reminding us about the need to stand up for the most fundamental principles of equality and dignity, even in the face of immense diplomatic backlash.

We demand that the Indian government

1)    prosecute the relevant parties of the Khobragade family and the law enforcement officers who terrorized the Richards family in Gurgaon, India so much that they had to flee India.

2)    pass Comprehensive Legislation for domestic workers’ protection

3)    ratify ILO Convention 189, Domestic Workers Convention 2011

Anannya Bhattacharjee
Gharelu Kaamgar Sangathana, Haryana
New Trade Union Initiative Executive Council Member
Retu Singh
Gharelu Kaamgar Sangathan, Haryana


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No sick leave, $1 per hour for maid in US-India row – court papers

NEW DELHI (Reuters) By Alistair Scrutton


India Prospective 2013

India Prospective 2013 (Photo credit: Asia Society)


– An Indian diplomat accused of visa fraud and lying about underpaying her maid coached the nanny to mislead U.S. officials, confiscated her passport and made her work 100-hour, seven-day weeks, according to a U.S. grand jury indictment.


Devyani Khobragade, who was India’s deputy consul-general in New York, was effectively expelled from the United States on Thursday as part of a deal in which she was granted diplomatic immunity from the charges.


U.S. court indictment papers, published on the website of the U.S. attorney’s office of the Southern District of New York, painted a picture of a maid refused sick days and holidays while working for a salary of little over $1 an hour in New York, or about one-seventh the minimum wage.


(To download the court document, click


Khobragade’s arrest set off protests in India after disclosures that she was handcuffed and strip-searched. The dispute soured U.S.-India ties, leading to sanctions against American diplomats in New Delhi and the postponement of visits to India by senior U.S. officials.


Khobragade denies all charges and has been backed by the Indian government. Khobragade’s lawyer Daniel Arshack said on Thursday she would leave with her head “held high.”


“She knows she has done no wrong and she looks forward to assuring that the truth is known,” he said in a statement.


The indictment underscored the wildly divergent stories from both sides. The diplomat’s relatives and government officials say the allegations are exaggerated and are being used by the maid, Sangeeta Richard, to get compensation or U.S. residency.


Many Indian commentators said Richard had a relatively comfortable life, with full board and lodging, free cable TV and medical care. They say it is misleading to calculate weekly working hours for live-in staff.


Uttam Khobragade, the diplomat’s father, said Richard lived a luxurious life, that she went to the beauty parlour every alternate week, and purchased an iPhone.


“Does even Nancy Powell‘s maid servant have such luxuries?” he said to Reuters, referring to the U.S. ambassador to India. “She was having a gala time there.”




The indictment said that Khobragade first made the maid sign a contract that stipulated she would be paid around $9.75 an hour. Khobragade told U.S. officials in the visa application that the maid would be paid $4,500 a month.


But on the evening of flying from India to the United States, Richard was called to Khobragade’s house in Delhi.


She was told she needed to sign a second work contract, with a changed maximum salary, including overtime, of 30,000 rupees a month, an illegally low amount under U.S. minimum-wage laws.


Provisions about holidays and sick days were deleted from the contract. The indictment says that the actual hourly wage for the maid, given she was often working more than 100 hours a week, was a little over a $1 an hour.


On once occasion, Khobragade told the maid not to get sick because it was too expensive, the papers say.


On arrival in the United States, the diplomat took the maid’s passport and never returned it, saying it would only be returned at the end of her three-year contract, according to the court papers.


However, Khobragade in October filed a court case in India against Richard claiming she fled with a government passport.


The case has shone a light on U.S. efforts to investigate and prosecute allegations of abuse of foreign employees of diplomats and consular workers after the strengthening in 2008 of the law that protects such employees brought to the United States.


But some Indian commentators say they suspect many abuse allegations have been encouraged by the law and are trumped up charges by domestic workers.


“The U.S. is a highly litigious country where suing people is a sort of favourite pastime,” said Prabhu Dayal, a former Indian consul general in New York, who in 2011 settled a case out of court after accusations he mistreated a domestic worker.


Writing in the Indian newspaper Mail Today, he said the beefed-up law encouraged consulate staff like domestic helpers to complain of mistreatment in order to claim to be a trafficking victim, which in turn could lead to U.S. residency.


Safe Horizon, an organisation that helps victims of abuse, said Richard was likely to apply for a special “T-1” visa for trafficking victims. Such a visa would be valid for up to four years and allow her to work in the United States. It can also lead to lawful permanent residence.


(Additional reporting by Shyamantha Asokan and Sruthi Gottipati; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Raju Gopalakrishnan)


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Having a servant is not a birth right- But living with Dignity Is !

By Sharmistha Uttam Khobragade

Devyani’s detractors have two main arguments against her:

1) Devyani should not have hired a domestic servant if she could not afford to pay her the US minimum wages.

2) Devyani is not above the law and if she has violated it, she should be prosecuted and punished for violating it.

These are humanitarian arguments, the positions that any good human being should take and the moral high ground that many Americans are taking.


Devastated as I am about Devyani’s ordeal, the optimist in me is seeing a very faint silver lining around this dark cloud. People in India are starting to talk about amending labor laws in India to ensure that domestic servants get a fair minimum wage. This to my mind is the only good thing to come out of this mess. I would urge all of Devyani’s detractors to walk the talk now and to advocate strongly for this amendment. Should these laws be changed, Devyani is anyway on the right side of them. She always was, here and in the US.

Let us assume for one minute that Devyani is a privileged Indian who has never lifted a finger in her life to do domestic work. This is patently untrue, but let us assume it anyway, just to humour everyone. Devyani is posted to the US and takes a domestic worker along to take care of house work and child care.




In the US, minimum wages are 9.75 dollars an hour. The figures for minimum wage differ. In the US (from USD 5.15 in Wyoming to a  federal rate of USD7.25 per hour and a NY rate of 9.75 per hour) as well as outside the US. However I am sure that what does not differ is the intent behind the law that prescribes minimum wages.


I am not a lawyer but I like to think that I can think logically. There is always a rationale behind a law. The rationale behind this one, it seems to me, is to protect the person who is getting a wage, to ensure that they make enough to have a decent quality of life and decent standard of living.
And what is a decent standard of living?


A nice place to live? Adequate nutritional intake? Enough money to take care of your needs? And your family’s? Reasonable working hours?


9.75 dollars an hour is supposed to achieve this. But 9.75 is not an absolute figure which can achieve this. In some countries, this can be achieved with far less. In some countries (Scandinavian countries come to mind) with a little more. The minimum wage figure is always relative to the circumstances of the person getting the wages.
To illustrate, under the US federal law the hourly minimum wage for employees, who are in a position to be tipped, is much less (USD 2.13 per hour) than an employee who is not tipped (USD 7.25 per hour). The reason is that it is assumed that the person who is tipped, will be able to make up the difference through tips. If he does not then the employer is supposed to make up the difference.
Another illustration is the ‘au pair’ program sponsored by the US state department. The United States au pair program offers qualified young people (age 18-26) the opportunity to live and study in the U.S. for one or two years in exchange for providing up to 45 hours of childcare per week. Au pairs are provided a private bedroom, meals, remuneration tied to the minimum wage ($195.75 per week). Do the math. Divide 195.75 by 45. Do you get 9.75? or 4.35?


Devyani was bound by the contract to pay Sangeeta 9.75 USD per hour. She agreed to pay part of this in Indian rupees (Rs.30,000, to be precise) to meet Sangeeta’s family’s needs in India. The other part (after deducting this Rs30,000) was to be made in the US to Sangeeta directly in dollars. Devyani fulfilled both these financial obligations, in India and in the US. I can not divulge the details here for because they will be revealed at the trial. But be rest assured, requisite payment in dollars was made.


Now let us imagine if Sangeeta had been in living in the US and Devyani met her in the US and hired her. Per law, Devyani is to pay no more than 9.75 USD per. She is not obliged to give her a place to stay, food, medical expenses, mobile phone, utilites or any thing else. Just 9.75 dollars an hour. That works out to about USD1560.


Please think about the cost of living in New York. And then do the math and tell me if Sangeeta would have been able to send any money back home?
I put to you that the arrangement that Devyani worked out with Sangeeta was the most humane one possible. It not only achieved for Sangeeta personally the outcome that the minimum wage law was trying to achieve, it also achieved it for her family.
The second argument against Devyani is that she is not above the law. I fully agree. It’s just that a different rule applies to her because she is a diplomat. Vienna Convention was not written last week to defend Devyani. It predates her birth. Just as she is not above the law, so I would argue she is not above the Vienna convention either. If the US does not recognize the legitimacy of the Vienna convention, then why did President Obama invoke the Vienna convention in 2011 with regards to Raymond Davis?
The laws and social reality should be in sync. Any dissonance is bound to cause problems. However, when the laws and the social reality are not in sync, do we condemn the people who have transgressed the laws (which in any case Devyani has not transgressed) or do we make an effort to remove the dissonance? Isn’t that what India is doing with regards to the section 377? As human beings, do we go by the spirit of the law or by the letter of it?
Defending Devyani and advocating for fair minimum wages and social protection to domestic servants are not mutually contradictory. By all means, condemn the outrage at her treatment as ‘misplaced’ and ‘unworthy of a democracy’. By all means, be outraged at the treatment India metes out to their domestic servants in general. I am with you.

But please know that in this particular case, there was no mistreatment.
Whether you live in India or in the US, put your money where your mouth is. Start giving your servants (or urging your family in India to give their servants) fair wages. Start giving them PF and maternity leave. Start giving them paid holidays.
These actions will be far more constructive than baying for the blood of a woman who has not wronged another woman


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Devyani Khobragade case: A worker’s rights versus a diplomat’s privileges

India Prospective 2013

India Prospective 2013 (Photo credit: Asia Society)


,  ET


By Chaumtoli Huq

The recent arrest in New York of India‘s deputy consul general Devyani Khobragade for alleged immigration fraud has created an uproar and tension in India-US relations. Patriotic muscles are flexing in India, urging the government to reciprocate with similar indignities on American diplomats.

Reciprocity is a key principle of international law and the policy reason for affording diplomats immunity from local prosecution. It may seem that Delh ..Much has been said about Khobragade’s salary not good enough to pay Richard the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour ($8 from next year). But no one is entitled to a domestic worker. Indeed, many working mothers can’t afford a domestic worker. I sympathise with Khobragade on that point, but that does not justify her not paying her employee.

It is astonishing that diplomats — who know about these rules — would seek to subvert them by asking their worker to sign parallel contracts to avoid payin ..

Much has been said about Khobragade’s salary not good enough to pay Richard the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour ($8 from next year). But no one is entitled to a domestic worker. Indeed, many working mothers can’t afford a domestic worker. I sympathise with Khobragade on that point, but that does not justify her not paying her employee.

It is astonishing that diplomats — who know about these rules — would seek to subvert them by asking their worker to sign parallel contracts to avoid paying her the minimum wages. Because employers often coerce employees to give up their rights, under US law, employers cannot contract to violate the law. Those contracts are voided. It is irrelevant if the worker has signed the contract. If employers are permitted to sidestep labour laws, then workers will not have redress — so it is up to the pr ..




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Tale of US Govt.’s Racism and Indian Govt’s Class Bias


By – Kavita Krishnan, from facebook post

Several urgent concerns need to be addressed in the wake of the arrest of Indian Deputy Consul Devyani Khobragade on charges of visa fraud and under-paying her domestic worker. The issues of the mutual and reciprocal dignity of nations, reflected in diplomatic protocol, and those of the rights of domestic and migrant workers; the rights and dignity of Devyani Khobragade as an Indian diplomat and those of Sangeeta Richard as an Indian citizen and worker should not be used to undermine each other.

The charges against Ms. Khobragade are serious. But let us first look at the manner in which the US Government has dealt with them, before coming to the Indian Government’s role in the entire affair.

Would the US Government have treated a diplomat from a non-‘Third World’ country, charged with the same offences, in the same manner? US Attorney Preet Bharara states that she was not hand-cuffed or arrested in the view of her children, but he does admit that a strip search and cavity search – routine in the US – were conducted. But this is neither here nor there. The question is – would a diplomat from, say, the UK or France have been subjected to invasive searches and treated like a common criminal, and would the US allow its own diplomats to be thus treated in other countries? Again, this is not to undermine the seriousness of the charges brought against Ms. Khobragade. Rather, the question is, are the rules somehow different where US diplomats are concerned? When CIA operative Raymond Davis was charged with killing two men in Lahore in broad daylight in 2011, the US quickly claimed diplomatic immunity for him, even though he was not even officially a diplomat. So the US claims ‘diplomatic immunity’ even for its clandestine operatives charged with heinous crimes like murder, but claims it has no choice but to arrest, invasively search and jail an Indian diplomat? It is really this double standard that is the primary factor behind the anger that many Indians feel at the treatment meted out to Ms. Khobragade. It is difficult to evade the conclusion that imperialist high-handedness, as well as the structural racism of the US criminal justice and prison system, played a part in allowing the US Government to forget diplomatic conventions that it would expect as its due for its own diplomats. Of course, the US was no doubt encouraged in its high-handedness by the fact that the Indian Government never made an issue of the US’ refusal to extradite David Headley or Warren Anderson, of the shooting of an Indian fisherman by a US warship in 2012, or of repeated instances of frisking of senior Indian Government representatives in US airports.


What about the Indian Government’s response to the ongoing episode involving Khobragade and Richard? When the issue surfaced several months ago, India’s Ministry of External Affairs took no measures to prevent the matter from escalating. The MEA is well aware of the fact that Indian diplomats regularly employ and under-pay domestic help, drivers, gardeners etc from India. The infamous ‘double contract’ is an open secret – where there is one contract that complies with the US regulations and another ‘real’ contract that actually governs pay and other conditions. In the past couple of years, there have been other cases involving Indian diplomats accused of employing ‘bonded’ or ‘slave’ labour. The diplomats’ complaint has been that the MEA does not pay them enough to employ workers at US rates. This cannot, of course, be an excuse for underpaying workers – the point is that the MEA was well aware of the issue and did nothing to resolve it.

Further, the Indian Government seems to think it owes no duty to the other Indian citizen in the matter: Sangeeta Richard, the domestic worker. Instead, they have endorsed the action initiated by Khobragade against Richard, including charges of blackmail, fraud, theft; making insinuations that Richard was attempting to facilitate illegal immigration of her husband and child; and revoking Richard’s passport. Richard attempted to legally raise her grievances, terminate her employment by Khobragade, seek a fresh passport and visa so that she might work elsewhere, and sought a payment of $10,000 since she claimed to have worked 19 hours a day. The Indian Government seems to have decided that for a worker to raise such grievances against an Indian diplomat, amounts to betrayal of the Indian State and Indian nationalism! Disturbingly, the Indian Government seems to ignore the indications that Khobragade’s conduct towards Richard (and perhaps of other Indian diplomats towards their employees) amounts to human trafficking.

The discourse of much of the media and most political parties in India is equally disturbing. Richard’s actions are being described as a conspiracy. BJP leader Yashwant Sinha talks ofhow it’s common for servants to get ‘star-struck’ by the ‘glittering lights’ of the US, and to want to illegally immigrate and feel dissatisfied with their lot! A professor at the University of Chicago Law School wrote to me saying, “People have said to me that the domestic worker should be happy with her wages because she would make less in India. Would these same people agree that an Indian who works in Microsoft in Seattle should make the same as an Indian who works in Infosys in Bangalore?”

The Delhi High Court injunction of September 20 restraining Richards from moving courtagainst Khobragade outside India, says: “It is pertinent to mention here that the plaintiff and her family treated defendant No. 1 [Sangeeta Richard] as a member of their own family…The (plaintiff’s) house is equipped with all modern domestic gadgets. Defendant No. 1 was being given leave/off on Sundays when she used to visit a beauty parlour, church and her friends.” In India, the most common euphemism for exploitative domestic labour and even child labour is “we treat them like family.” “Like family” justifies every feudal relationship with the domestic worker, suggesting that a formal work contract regulated by the law would somehow corrupt the “family relationship.” Similarly, of course, any attempt by women to invoke laws regarding dowry harassment or domestic violence inside the household, is painted as a violation of the sacred “family ties.” Domestic workers in India face exploitative work conditions, with no norms of work hours, pay, leave, and vulnerable to sexual violence and even bondage and torture. India is yet to ratify the ILO Convention on domestic workers’ rights.

Yashwant Sinha declared that India should retaliate to the arrest of Khobragade by arresting US diplomats with same-sex partners, since homosexuality is illegal in India. Flaunting homophobia as ‘national pride’ and implying that minimum wage and anti-trafficking laws are ‘foreign’ to India is condemnable and truly shames India as a democracy.

It also needs to be pointed out that while employing highly exploited domestic workers is of course more prevalent in the Indian middle class, it is also a major and growing phenomenon in the US among professionals and elites. In the US, large numbers of households employ Latina, Filipina and other migrant women as maids and nannies. Their work conditions are usually exploitative, and they are often profiled as ‘illegal’ and very vulnerable to harassment. Some years ago, these ‘undocumented’ workers participated in huge numbers in a series of massive protests against being branded as ‘illegal’ by US immigration laws, which, far from protecting such workers, render them much more vulnerable to exploitation. The draconian provisions of the US visa regime under which Khobragade was arrested are in fact primarily targeted at controlling and limiting the rights of these workers themselves.

Instead of muscle-flexing and grandstanding, India and the US must work on resolving the diplomatic impasse, without compromising either on India’s sovereignty and the dignity of its diplomats, or on the rights of Indian workers. India must work to end the exploitative practices and trafficking by diplomats and protect all Indian workers from such practices. And India and the US both need to protect the rights of domestic workers in keeping with the ILO Convention norms in their respective countries.

-Kavita Krishnan


(To appear in the forthcoming January issue of Liberation)


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Standing with Sangeeta Richard for Rights of Domestic Workers

 20th dec, 2013,

  Sangeeta Richard has been granted a temporary immigration status reserved for victims of human trafficking

With Chaumtoli Huq*

You might not have heard of Sangeeta Richard, but you’ve certainly heard the numerous opinions and reactions that her case has sparked. Ms. Richard’s experiences as a domestic worker in the home of her employer, Devyani Khobragade, an Indian diplomat living in New York City, are at the heart of charges brought by US Attorney Preet Bharara. Ms. Khobragade has been accused of committing immigration fraud to bring Ms. Richard into the United StatesMs. Richard was allegedly paid $3.31 an hour for her work in Ms. Khobragade’s home, far below the required minimum wage or what she was apparently promised. Most media coverage about the case has been singularly focused on the Indian government’s response, which includes concerns over the alleged mistreatment of Ms. Khobragade during her arrest and interpretations of diplomatic immunity.

But, while we are waiting for additional details to emerge, let’s not forget who is at the heart of this case and what it represents more broadly. It’s about the rights of Sangeeta Richard, about the experiences of many domestic workers in similar situations in the United States, about the need for stronger immigration and labor laws, and about the responsibility that we have in standing with those in our own community who face workplace exploitation.

Many people in the United States, including South Asians, employ domestic workers to care for our children, elderly parents and disabled family members. In fact, there are between 1.8 and 2.5 million domestic workers in the United States, who are mostly immigrant women. In New York State alone, over 200,000 domestic workers are nannies, companions, and housekeepers, much like Ms. Richard. Many domestic workers come into the United States through various forms of employment visas, including the A-3 visa that Ms. Richard received, while others may be recruited or trafficked from countries such as India, Bangladesh, and Nepal with false promises of employment and immigration benefits.

Despite the growing numbers of domestic workers in the United States, our laws do not provide them with the same worker protections that many others already receive in the workplace. South Asian organizations such as Andolan and Adhikaar have documented stories of domestic workers who do not receive basic employment benefits such as fair wages, benefits, time off, or paid sick days. Some domestic workers report facing isolation and physical, sexual or emotional abuse. When or if domestic workers report or leave their employers, they fear retaliatory actions as well as the loss of their immigration status, which could render them undocumented. Watch “Claiming Our Voice” by Fine Grain Films about the experiences of domestic workers organized by Andolan.

For these reasons and many more, workers and advocates have long been pressing for improved labor and immigration policies. Indeed, the State Department regulations that are pertinent to the Khobragade case are the result of over a decade of organizing by workers and advocates to ensure that migrant domestic workers using A-3 visas have the rights to structure their employment fairly. Yet, as the Khobragade case also shows, these rights must be vigilantly enforced and protected for them to be meaningful.

The need to protect and enforce the rights of domestic workers and immigrant laborers has also taken centerstage during the ongoing debates about immigration reform this year. Organizations such as the National Domestic Worker’s Alliance and We Belong Togetherhave advocated for provisions that would support domestic workers. For example, in the case of domestic workers who are undocumented and eligible to be on the path towards citizenship, there should be options to show proof of employment in ways that reflect the realities of working in informal employment settings. There should also be protections for those who report labor violations and abuse and the expansion of visa options for victims of crimes so that more people facing workplace exploitation can come forward. And, for the many domestic workers, guestworkers, and other migrant laborers who are recruited on false promises and trafficked into this country, there must be specific requirements for labor recruiters and penalties for violating them.

Beyond the legal and policy angles in the Khobragade case, this is also an important moment for community-centered conversations and actions. As South Asians living in America, we know full well that tremendous economic disparities exist within our communities, from the streets of Jackson Heights and Edison to Chicago’s Devon Avenue to Fremont. We also know that many South Asians benefit from the support of domestic workers and caregivers in our homes. We have a responsibility then to stand with Sangeeta and others like her, to raise awareness about the need for improved laws with our policymakers, to initiate often difficult conversations with family members and friends to clarify and disrupt the prevailing narratives of this story, and to support efforts of workers’ rights organizations.

We all deserve to engage in our jobs with dignity, whether we work in the corner office of a high-rise, the inside of a cab, or behind closed doors in a home. Standing with Sangeeta means that we stand for the rights of those who experience workplace abuse, for the rules and laws that could prevent it from happening, and for equality and justice.

Deepa Iyer is the Executive Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT); follow her @dviyer. Chaumtoli Huq is Editor of Law at the Margins and Associate Professor of Law at New York Law School; follow her @lawatmargins.



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#India – Who is Sangeeta Richard ? Devyani Khobragade Case

Arpita De,TNN | Dec 20, 2013, 

Who is Sangeeta Richard?
Sangeeta Richard reportedly went missing on June 21, 2013.
  • NEW DELHI:  The arrest of Devyani Khobragade, India‘s deputy consul general in the Consulate General of India in New York has been in the limelight for some days now. In the thick of this raging controversy is Sangeeta Richard, Devyani Khobragade’s domestic help. In fact, the charges levelled on Khobragade pertain to the alleged visa fraud that she committed while filing Sangeeta’s application and that it contained materially false information.
Sangeeta Richard, who is from Kerala (according to a report in The Indian Express), was hired by Devyani in November 2012. The 42-year-old is married to Philip, who is a driver at the Mozambique Embassy in New Delhi. Moreover, it has also been reported that Richard’s father-in-law was employed at the US Embassy and her mother-in-law has also worked with personnel of the US government.

Sangeeta Richard reportedly went missing on June 21, 2013. Her diplomatic passport had been revoked thereafter. It is interesting to note here that Sangeeta was in the US on an A-3 visa. The A-3 visa is primarily a non-immigrant visa which allows attendants, employees and the immediate family of the principal visa holder to enter the US. Moreover, there is no restriction upon the holder of an A-3 visa to travel within the US, however, one cannot work in the US if they are removed from their position or if they willingly leave their position with their current employer.

It has been revealed that Devyani had tried to file a missing persons complaint regarding Sangeeta’s disappearence but New York Police Department had maintained that only a member of the immediate family can file such a complaint. In July, Devyani apparently received a threat call and she reported it to both NYPD and the Office of Foreign Missions (OFM). In fact, Khobragade had filed a complaint of blackmail and harassment against Sangeeta and her husband with Delhi Police after meeting Richard in New York, where she was reportedly threatened by her former domestic help. In September, the Delhi high court had issued an interim order restraining the Richards from filing any complaint against Devyani in a foreign court.

Although much is not known about Sangeeta’s personal life, a huge revelation came from the Facebook post of Sharmistha Khobragade, Devyani’s sister. According to the post, Sangeeta actually liked working with the Khobragades in New York. Moreover, “Sangeeta had two large, comfortable rooms to herself in a well-appointed apartment with all modern facilities and a separate entrance. She ate the same food as the family or whatever she wished to have. She was given complete discretion in managing the house and was entrusted with the funds for groceries and other living expenses.”

Sharmistha’s post also goes on to say that Devyani paid Sangeeta adequately and also gave money over and above her salary. “Her passport and copies of contract documents were in her own custody and not Devyani’s. She was provided a mobile phone, had bought an iPad which she often used for Facebook, and could communicate with whoever she wished whenever she wished, in India or New York.” Moreover, the post goes on to say that when Sangeeta met Devyani at the immigration office; she refused to go back to India and get a normal passport. Apparently she had claimed that, “I will not go back. Why will I go back? I know that if I go back I will never be able to come back to the US.” According to Sangeeta’s mother-in-law, she always wanted to work in the US.

The post goes on to mention a post from Sangeeta’s diary where she praises the Khobragade. “The whole family is very nice. I don’t feel that I am their domestic help. The children call me ‘tai’ (aunt). Madam is also quite nice and keeps smiling all the time. Sir is quite sensible. He takes care of things so it gives me a lot of free time.”

There is another point of view that needs to be considered when trying to understand the whole issue. According to Sangeeta’s lawyer, Dana Sussman, who is an attorney with the non-profit organization, Safe Horizon, Richard was left at the mercy of strangers in a strange land. She was severely ill-paid ($3 an hour). “US laws apply to everyone. Ms Richard was not given paid leave or health insurance. She worked seven days a week with a few hours off on Sunday,” Sussman said. Distraught at the course her life was taking, Sangeeta contact Safe Horizon with deals with issues of human trafficking. It was with Sussman’s help that Richard levelled charges of low wages and exploitation on Devyani Khobragade.

Incidentally, Sangeeta Richard’s complaint of exploitation is not the first case that has rocked the Indian consulate general in New York. In 2010, Santosh Bhardwaj, a domestic help of India’s previous consul general ambassador Prabhu Dayal, had also levelled charges of sexual harassment on his employer. She, eventually, went on to drop the charges of sexual harassment. In another case, Shanti Gurung, also a domestic help, had levelled charges of ill-treatment, trafficking and abuse on diplomat Neena Malhotra.

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#DevyaniHumiliated -India-US diplomat row- Immunity, impunity and the gender factor

Thursday, Dec 19, 2013, | Agency: DNA

If you look at the Devyani Khobragade issue through a gender lens, what do you see? Swarna Rajagopalan delves into this rather sensitive issue

Devyani Khobragade

Devyani Khobragade

This week, the object of our collective outrage is the way local law enforcement in New York handled the case of IFS officer and Indian deputy consul general Devyani Khobragade who allegedly underpaid her domestic help and also committed visa fraud. This is not the first incident in which a diplomat’s behaviour has raised questions about whether immunity has come to mean impunity for a range of offences, from unpaid parking tickets to disorderly behaviour to domestic violence to child sexual abuse.

What is diplomatic immunity? A select group of foreign officials and representatives are exempt from the jurisdiction of local government and laws. Diplomatic immunity would protect the channels of communication — which diplomats fashion and facilitate — from interference and insecurity. The government that posts them can waive immunity and the government that hosts them can simply declare them persona non grata (an unwelcome person), so there is nothing sacrosanct about that status. None of this is contentious; what is usually the problem is how the two governments view the alleged offence.

Two years ago, news broke about a domestic violence case involving one of the most senior members of India’s London mission. The police had intervened following reports of screaming and fighting from the diplomat’s home. The ‘he said, she said’ that followed was fairly typical of domestic violence cases, but the difference was that the London police had to seek a waiver of diplomatic immunity, which India refused. The official Indian response was painfully paternalistic and predictable: this is a personal, sensitive family matter. The diplomat was recalled. (See this and this).

After that, none of us read much about the case. Indeed, this was one of the concerns articulated at the time — that in India, the victim would never really get justice as the case would get swept under the carpet. Research for this article revealed the diplomat has returned to his cadre, and had two short postings before heading out for training abroad. He has not been debarred from central deputation or from foreign training. Life goes on.

With this New York case, the reports of the diplomat being handcuffed and strip-searched have obfuscated the original allegations of labour exploitation and visa fraud. India’s multi-dimensional (and disproportionate?) response has been to transfer the diplomat to the UN Mission where she will enjoy full immunity (see US Department of State guide on Diplomatic Immunity). There is virtually no aspect of this news story not attracting commentary.

I want to write here about the story behind these stories. It is a story about women in the world of international relations. Not just the women at summit meetings (still alarmingly few) or those in the foreign ministry, or those who report foreign affairs. The world of international relations is still mostly male, and relationships — work and personal — are still largely set up in a patriarchal mode. The men (and now women in those work roles) go out and do the grand work of foreign relations (from brokering peace deals, rarely, to processing visa applications, everyday). The trappings surrounding their work include entertaining and hospitality in modes that presume an army of domestic support services — from within the family and without.

Higher up in the diplomatic hierarchy (as in military hierarchies), spouses — mainly wives — play an important role to supplement and complement the official outreach by their husbands. This may include ceremonial attendance, social work or return hospitality. At the bottom, this includes a range of invisible support tasks, including cleaning the chancery, answering phones, making tea (and cleaning the tea-service), clerical and secretarial assistance, cooking, domestic help and teaching the local language. Diplomatic spouses also mediate between the person with the important job and all these facilitating service providers. Without all this support, even in this day and age, it would be hard for a diplomat to function because of the way their profession operates. Diplomatic immunity does cover families (presumably up to a point); but does concern for diplomatic staff and their families extend to the many who make their work possible and to their working conditions?

This is where the inside-outside, private-public distinction in patriarchal politics really kicks in. Reproducing patriarchy’s gender hierarchies in interpersonal relationships and in work, we tell ourselves we cannot be concerned beyond a point. Diplomatic work, or any official work for a government, belongs to the public sphere — the sphere where we still mostly expect to see men. (And if you have ever sought a usable women’s toilet in a public building, you will have seen the evidence for this.)

Women remain interlopers even when they come to occupy important offices. Their true sphere is (assumed to be) the home, and in facilitating a supportive environment for public work. Domestic violence, child sexual abuse, labour exploitation and disorderly conduct belong to this private sphere. When we learn about them, we are disoriented. We are not supposed to be reading or discussing in the public sphere, what happens in the private sphere of a public person or public servant’s home. Our reactions are mixed because it sullies our lofty notions of work in the public sphere and hits very close to home, making us ask uncomfortable questions about our own practices.

And then in this New York case, there is the matter of the diplomat being a woman. Some questions to which I do not know the answers but which I cannot ignore: We hear that the way the visa paperwork was handled is not unusual; then why is the first person to be hauled over the coals a female diplomat? The Manhattan attorney states that the diplomat was not handcuffed and strip-searches are standard operating procedure. However, the idea that a female Indian diplomat was strip-searched — that someone who is not just an official representative of India but also, like all women, embodies community honour — surely has affected India’s response? Both the complainant and the accused here are women; and both (should) embody national or community honour. But then because we value work outside the home (associated with men) more than household work (associated with women), the work done by these two women creates a hierarchy between them. Men or women may do the work or inhabit these roles, but it is the work and the roles that are gendered as male and female, and therefore, more and less important respectively.

When you start looking at the world through a gender lens, then things that appear to be straightforward and simple turn out to be a complete mess — like turning around a length of perfect-looking embroidery to see the tangle of knotted, coloured threads on the underside.

Diplomatic immunity is a professional convenience and protection; questions about justice, especially gender justice, are sometimes utterly inconvenient. Pressed, diplomatic immunity looks like a front for impunity — which was really never the intention. With mostly privileged men usually making decisions about immunity, it is the kind of battle anyone on the wrong side of gender, class and caste equations will always be likely to lose.

In the long run, social justice is served by re-thinking professional practices and lifestyles built on privilege (of gender, race, class and caste, for instance) so that the foundations of our work are democratic and humane. But today offers a teachable moment to critically examine how different kinds of hierarchies and privileges reinforce each other, and force us to react in ways that we might ourselves eschew in their absence.

Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist who writes about gender and international relations. Much of her research is on women, violence and conflict. She is also the founder of The Prajnya Trust, a non-profit centre working on peace, justice and security issues, including women’s rights and violence against women. 

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