FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Strip Search of Devyani Khobragade

by BINOY KAMPMARK

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

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
February 24, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Exxon’s End Game Theory
Pierre M. Sprey - Franklin “Chuck” Spinney
Sleepwalking Into a Nuclear Arms Race with Russia
Paul Street
Liberal Hypocrisy, “Late-Shaming,” and Russia-Blaming in the Age of Trump
Ajamu Baraka
Malcolm X and Human Rights in the Time of Trumpism: Transcending the Master’s Tools
John Laforge
Did Obama Pave the Way for More Torture?
Mike Whitney
McMaster Takes Charge: Trump Relinquishes Control of Foreign Policy 
Patrick Cockburn
The Coming Decline of US and UK Power
Louisa Willcox
The Endangered Species Act: a Critical Safety Net Now Threatened by Congress and Trump
Vijay Prashad
A Foreign Policy of Cruel Populism
John Chuckman
Israel’s Terrible Problem: Two States or One?
Matthew Stevenson
The Parallax View of Donald Trump
Norman Pollack
Drumbeat of Fascism: Find, Arrest, Deport
Stan Cox
Can the Climate Survive Electoral Democracy? Maybe. Can It Survive Capitalism? No.
Ramzy Baroud
The Trump-Netanyahu Circus: Now, No One Can Save Israel from Itself
Edward Hunt
The United States of Permanent War
David Morgan
Trump and the Left: a Case of Mass Hysteria?
Pete Dolack
The Bait and Switch of Public-Private Partnerships
Mike Miller
What Kind of Movement Moment Are We In? 
Elliot Sperber
Why Resistance is Insufficient
Brian Cloughley
What are You Going to Do About Afghanistan, President Trump?
Binoy Kampmark
Warring in the Oncology Ward
Yves Engler
Remembering the Coup in Ghana
Jeremy Brecher
“Climate Kids” v. Trump: Trial of the Century Pits Trump Climate Denialism Against Right to a Climate System Capable of Sustaining Human Life”
Jonathan Taylor
Hate Trump? You Should Have Voted for Ron Paul
Franklin Lamb
Another Small Step for Syrian Refugee Children in Beirut’s “Aleppo Park”
Ron Jacobs
The Realist: Irreverence Was Their Only Sacred Cow
Andre Vltchek
Lock up England in Jail or an Insane Asylum!
Rev. William Alberts
Grandiose Marketing of Spirituality
Paul DeRienzo
Three Years Since the Kitty Litter Disaster at Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
Eric Sommer
Organize Workers Immigrant Defense Committees!
Steve Cooper
A Progressive Agenda
David Swanson
100 Years of Using War to Try to End All War
Andrew Stewart
The 4CHAN Presidency: A Media Critique of the Alt-Right
Edward Leer
Tripping USA: The Chair
Randy Shields
Tom Regan: The Life of the Animal Rights Party
Nyla Ali Khan
One Certain Effect of Instability in Kashmir is the Erosion of Freedom of Expression and Regional Integration
Rob Hager
The Only Fake News That Probably Threw the Election to Trump was not Russian 
Mike Garrity
Why Should We Pay Billionaires to Destroy Our Public Lands? 
Mark Dickman
The Prophet: Deutscher’s Trotsky
Christopher Brauchli
The Politics of the Toilet Police
Ezra Kronfeld
Joe Manchin: a Senate Republicrat to Dispute and Challenge
Clancy Sigal
The Nazis Called It a “Rafle”
Louis Proyect
Socialism Betrayed? Inside the Ukrainian Holodomor
Charles R. Larson
Review: Timothy B. Tyson’s “The Blood of Emmett Till”
David Yearsley
Founding Father of American Song
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail