As Indian Diplomat Exits After Arrest, a Culture Clash Lingers
By Ellen Barry and Benjamin Weiser, NY Times, Jan. 10, 2014
NEW DELHI—Two dozen revved-up television crews were clustered outside a V.I.P. exit at Indira Gandhi International Airport on Friday, waiting for the flight from New York. They had been in place for two hours, and every time a trickle of passengers came into view, they all jumped up and pressed their cameras against the glass.
Few passengers in recent memory could match the celebrity of Devyani Khobragade, the diplomat who was arrested on charges of visa fraud and making false statements in New York in connection with her treatment of a domestic worker. When Ms. Khobragade’s father appeared—she had been spirited away through another door—he beamed at the cameras, and told them, “I am impressed by your love and affection.”
Ms. Khobragade’s return seemingly brought to a climax a monthlong diplomatic spat between the United States and India that at times threatened to open a breach in the countries’ relations. While American prosecutors stood firm, India removed security barriers at the United States Embassy in New Delhi, canceled the embassy’s food and alcohol import privileges, and issued new identity cards to American consular employees and their families specifying that they could be arrested for serious offenses.
Only on Friday, with the reluctant agreement from the State Department to expel a diplomat of equal rank from its embassy in New Delhi, was the matter seemingly resolved.
Yet, the incident has uncovered a gaping cultural disconnect between the world’s two largest democracies. While Americans reflexively came to the defense of a maid who the authorities said was subjected to abuse, Indians reflexively sympathized with the diplomat.
This is partly because middle- and upper-class Indians typically have their own servants, who often work long hours for far less than the $573 a month that Ms. Khobragade had promised to pay. But the bigger reason, especially compelling in an election year, is national pride. In the month that has passed since Ms. Khobragade’s arrest, she has been transformed into a symbol of India’s sovereignty, pushed around and humiliated by an arrogant superpower.
"There is always this sense, since the end of the Soviet Union, that America is too big for its britches," said Sandip Roy, senior editor at Firstpost, a news website. "What happened to Devyani is seen in a larger, cosmic sense as that kind of unilateral thing, like, ‘I will go and invade Afghanistan, and I don’t care what anyone thinks.’ "
The dispute was brought to a rapid finish in the last 72 hours, in what appeared to be an effort by American officials to relax tensions.
Daniel N. Arshack, Ms. Khobragade’s lawyer in New York, agreed that once negotiations with prosecutors broke down last weekend, “this week turned into a focus on diplomatic solutions.” Mr. Arshack said that his client’s husband, a college professor, and two young daughters, ages 4 and 7, who are all American citizens, had remained in New York.
The domestic worker, Sangeeta Richard, told prosecutors that she was forced to work about 94 to 109 hours a week, with limited breaks for calls and meals, according to an indictment handed up in Federal District Court in Manhattan. Last summer, it said, Ms. Richard told Ms. Khobragade she was unhappy with the work conditions and wanted to return home, but her employer refused the request and would not return her passport.
Ms. Khobragade was arrested Dec. 12 when she was dropping off her daughters at school, and charged with misrepresenting Ms. Richard’s pay to obtain a work visa for a housekeeper. Indian newspapers reported that she was strip-searched, something Indians found especially offensive, and then kept in a police holding pen with drug addicts before being released on bond. India responded with a raft of retaliatory steps, including the removal of security barriers around the embassy in New Delhi, and the case was the lead story in the Indian news media for weeks.
On Wednesday, India granted Ms. Khobragade the full immunity and privileges of a diplomat, a set of rights not accorded those posted in consulates, as she was at the time of the arrest. Though the United States appealed to India to waive that immunity, India refused, and transferred her to a new position at the Foreign Ministry in Delhi. The State Department then told her to leave the United States, which she did Thursday night.
Ms. Khobragade’s father, Uttam Khobragade, said that his daughter was under strict orders not to give interviews.
Mr. Khobragade, a retired bureaucrat who has led small protests in recent days at the American Consulate in Mumbai, said his daughter is seen so positively in India that political parties have approached both her and him to run in parliamentary elections, and that he was inclined to do so.
Ms. Richard, in a statement issued through Safe Horizon, a victim services agency that has been representing her in New York, said that she was disappointed to learn that Ms. Khobragade had left the United States. “I stood up for my rights as a worker and I only wish that Defendant Khobragade would stand up in court and address the charges against her,” Ms. Richard said.
One thing that has baffled American observers—in particular Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan—is why there is so little outrage about the alleged treatment of Ms. Richard. In fact, Indian newspapers routinely carry stories about abuse of domestic workers, and many people interviewed said the sympathy would have been with the accuser had the case occurred in India.
But because it was the United States, and Ms. Khobragade represented India, many people interviewed saw her treatment as a humiliation for the country.
"You have to take Devyani out of this, the support is for her position," said Subhajit Sengupta, one of the journalists who camped outside Terminal 3. "What she has done is wrong. What the U.S. has done is also wrong. Since what the U.S. has done is against a country, it will be taken as a matter of prestige."
Maneesha Puri, 53, said the pay given to domestic help is “our concern.” And she expressed sputtering indignation that a woman of Ms. Khobragade’s social position would be strip-searched.
Whether the case now fades off the national agenda depends in part on whether Ms. Khobragade speaks publicly about it.
Shweta Bajaj, one of the journalists who spent Friday night staking the diplomat out, said she had been shocked and a little mystified at the intensity of the attention given to the Khobragade case this winter. She said it was the first time in her career as a journalist that she had seen India “make such a stand against America.”
"It’s not even Pakistan," she said.