The Strip Search of Devyani Khobragade


The servant or home helper is the fodder of gossip, a point of permanent distraction for their hirers.  A common assumption in those circles: When the help abscond or accuse, it must be because they have wronged their employers, rather than the other way around.  The old excuse among those employing Indonesian maids in Malaysia was that they were obviously flirting with the young man at the grocers, or simply lazy.  Half the fun of such employ is engaging in permanent complaint.  Servants in the home economy have provided rich pickings for the upper tables for centuries.

That part of the tale hasn’t played out as strongly as it should in the arrest of one time physician and now diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, posted as the Deputy Consul General at the Indian Consulate in New York in 2012.  Then there is Sangeeta Richard, who came to the US via the paperwork of Khobragade.  That, it seems, is where the problems started.  Khobragade, it is claimed by federal prosecutors, underpaid her in violation of US visa requirements.  This, it is alleged, amounted to visa fraud – a promise to pay $4500 a month, only to then pay the house keeper $573 a month.

The question to come up in these proceedings, though not an insoluble one, was that of diplomatic immunity under the Vienna Convention.  Much of this depends on the grade of official: a consul member is lower in the hierarchy than one in an embassy mission.  According to the US Marshals Service (USMS), the process of search was justified by the “same procedure” used on other “arrestees held within the general prisoner population.”  Consular officials can still be arrested or detained for felonies pursuant to warrant.  There was no such pretence of immunity on the part of authorities when it came to arresting the Deputy Consul General.  She was handcuffed upon arrest and strip searched.

These activities have been described in a letter the diplomat wrote to foreign service colleagues, taking the pitch that she had been treated like a common criminal.  Class mattered, and she was not being treated accordingly:

“Although I must admit that I broke down many times as the indignities of repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches, swabbing, in a holdup with common criminals and drug addicts were all being imposed upon me despite by incessant assertions of immunity, I go the strength to regain composure and remain dignified in thinking that I must represent all my colleagues and my country with confidence and pride” (BBC, Dec 18).

US Attorney and federal prosecutor Preet Bharara offers a different story.  Khobragade was afforded a range of courtesies many Americans would not receive.  She could make phone calls for two hours to make care arrangements for her children. The account disputes the handcuffing and restraint in front of the children – it had been discrete.

At the bail hearing, Khobragade pled not guilty, handing over her passport as a condition of bail and agreeing to make no contact with Richard. According to her legal representative, Daniel Arshack, “We do not at this time agree that my client is subject to prosecution.”  The old shield of diplomatic immunity was cited as a ground.

Indian MPs are furious.  This might be seen as disingenuous – at least in part.  India’s record on brutality against women, with its poor attitudes in prosecuting assault, is well noted.  But here, class and station remain important.  Khobragade is middle-class and educated, hardly your ordinary “common” criminal.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Sigh is fuming, in so far as he can ever fume.  “Treatment meted out to Indian Deputy Consul General by US is deplorable.”  Senior BJP MP Yashwant Sinha was full of questions, some of them more coherent than others.  “Has the US held [sic] Vienna Convention like this?  Who gave it the right to handcuff Devyani, treat her in this manner?”  The leader of the regional Bahujan Samaj Party Mayawati demanded a change in attitudes to US citizens visiting India.

The live feed on protests is busy.  The Hindustan Times went so far as to run a cartoon using the infamous picture from Abu Ghraib of an Iraqi prisoner being tortured, placing across its front “Indian Diplomat”.  A commentary in The First Post (Dec 18) saw power between the lines.  “If you do not have the means to project power effectively, the world will walk all over you.”

The Bollywood lobby is also making sounds about the rough hand of American exceptionalism.  “The Americans have different rules for themselves and others,” suggested Adman-filmmaker Prahlad Kakkar.  “And they mistreat third world countries” (Hindustan Times, Dec 18).

The diplomatic counter from India has been sly.  According to the Indian Express, Khobragade has been given immunity by shuffling her to the Permanent Mission of India with immediate effect. That said, the hurdle here is that she must apply for a new diplomatic card through the UN Secretariat, which requires final clearance from the US State Department. The Indian hope here is that Washington will tread carefully.

Easily forgotten in this diplomatic scuffle is the issue of the help itself.  Domestic staff in India can be paid poorly, working hours sometimes in excess of 60 hours a week.  Maids have been reported to have been imprisoned and abused by their employers (New York Times, Dec 18).  In Khobragade’s case, complaints from her domestic help were being received as early as September.

This has not convinced some Indian commentators.  Why wasn’t a fine sufficient? If Infosys can be penalised in such a way by US authorities for visa violations, then why not a woman diplomat?  “Indians,” charges R. Jagannathan in The First Post (Dec 18), “are the most gullible goops in the world when it comes to discerning the difference between an honest effort to implement the law and using laws to project power and blackmail other countries.”

Naturally, the other side of the response has been one of savagery against the help.  There was a conspiracy, it has been claimed, behind Richard’s attempts to immigrate to the US.  An oblivious Indian diplomatic service was being taken for a ride.  (Again, the class game plays out: unhelpful help; a duped upper class who should know better.)  Even better – the maid was a spy.  If the story ever gets patched up with any sensibility, it may well come out that all were exploiting each other.  The careless tend to have permanent access to the stream of history and the diplomats will have much cleaning up to do.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com




Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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