Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Poisonous Mix

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, January 14, 2014 --  

Popular support for wealthy abusers highlights the moral bankruptcy of Indian society.

India's expulsion of an American embassy worker is a shameful act of revenge in a sordid case of domestic abuse.  The expulsion was in response to last week’s indictment of an Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, for falsifying a visa application for her nanny.1  The U.S. charges are based on forms filed with the government indicating the nanny would be paid the legal minimum wage, despite a secret contract saying the real payments would be far lower, and hours far longer than permitted by law.

The case might scarcely have made news if not for the powerful father of the Indian diplomat, Uttam Khobragade, a well-connected bureaucrat.  Like many elite Indians with ties to the government, Uttam Khobragade has allegedly enriched himself by abusing his power to the detriment of the public — particularly in shady real estate dealings.2

This behavior seems to have been adopted by his his daughter -- at least if you believe the nanny's claims.

The nanny, Sangeeta Richard, claims she was forced to work 17 hours per day, seven days a week (with just two hours off for church on Sunday). 3 House slaves in the Antebellum South might expect fairer treatment. 

Everybody agrees she fled the household June 24, but that's where the agreement ends.  Khobragade says she later called to try to extort money. 4 (Perhaps the back wages she was owed?)  The nanny claims her family in India was threatened by her powerful employer.  These allegations were apparently credible enough that the head of security for the US Embassy in Delhi, Wayne May, arranged to have her family evacuated to the United States.5 

It is in response to his assistance in the family's evacuation that India has expelled May.  But what possibly could motivate this act?  Was the Indian government angry that it had been denied hostages?  Or was May simply a convenient target for retribution?  Either way, it makes the Indian government look pretty bad.

The Indian perspective on this sordid story is fascinating and telling of the problems facing the country.  The case has become a nationalist cause celebre, with widespread support for Khobragade.  Indians are angry that Khobragade was arrested despite partial diplomatic immunity (the American government says she only had immunity related to her job), strip searched, and placed in a holding cell with other suspects.  False rumors that she was cavity searched and arrested in front of her children only further fanned the flames.

But the lack of sympathy for the nanny is the most telling part of Indian sentiment.  The common response is that for all her abuse, she still had things better than domestic workers in India, so she shouldn't complain.  In other words, she should shut up and keep her place.  India is a country where abuse of the poor is not just rampant and tolerated, but expected as well.  It elicits none of the moral outrage that it does in the United States.

Adding another twist to the story is the background of the powerful Khobragade family, who are from the Dalit caste, once known as "the untouchables".6  Decades of government policy to improve the station of the Dalits has created a few powerful families like the Khobragades.  But as in many third-world countries, rising from victimhood is more apt to make you a victimizer than a defender of the rights of your fellow man.

Thankfully, this poisonous mix of institutional abuse and public acceptance does not exist in America.  The Indian-born Manhattan U.S. Attorney, Preet Bharara, said it best shortly after he had Khobragade arrested. "[T]his office's sole motivation ... is to uphold the rule of law, protect victims, and hold accountable anyone who breaks the law -- no matter what their societal status and no matter how powerful, rich or connected they are."7

Unfortunately, justice in this case will never be served.  As part of a deal to end the diplomatic row, the State Department allowed Khobragade to leave the country rather than face the charges.  Score another victory of India's rich, powerful and corrupt over its poor and abused masses.

Related Web Columns:

A Long Way to Go, January 1, 2013


1. Washington Post, India Expels U.S. Diplomat Who Allegedly Helped Evacuate Nanny’s Family, January 11, 2013

2. DNA India, Diplomat Devyani Khobragade ineligible for owning Adarsh flat: Panel, December 20, 2013

3. Outlook India, The Other Side Of The Story, December 30, 2012

4. Times of India, Timeline of Devyani Khobragade Case, December 18, 2013

5. Washington Post. Ibid.

6. Washington Post, India’s Devyani Khobragade Advocated for Women’s Rights, Accused in Nanny Scandal, December 20, 2013

7. Washington Post., U.S. v Khobragade: Read the U.S. Attorney’s Statement, December 19, 2013