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India cares about its honour. But its missions abroad apparently do not care about the rights of Indian labour. Consider the manner in which they have responded to the arrest and strip-search of India’s deputy consul-general in New York, Devyani Khobragade. The response has overwhelmingly been of a cosy clique out to protect one of its own. One could be forgiven for thinking that the mandate of the foreign service is to protect itself at the cost of the country’s less fortunate citizens.
In pursuit of that end, retired and serving officers have pulled out every argument about diplomatic immunity and Vienna Convention and gone ballistic against the US, a nation before which they usually bend quite happily and show no spine when real issues are at stake. Now, however, it has been verbal warfare for some days now. It helped that the media was also anxious to wrap up the entire story about Devyani Khobragade in the national flag and posit it as an assault on India’s dignity.
This is actually quite a bogus position if we believe in fundamental human rights. Why is no one talking about the rights of the domestic help (in the US or India)? Is the maid not Indian, only the diplomat is? And do we think that not only is it okay to pay people below the minimum wage in India but that the “right” should be extended to a certain class of Indians when they travel abroad? After all, the way this debate has been framed would suggest that middle-class Indians have some sort of divine right to domestic help—so much so that it is quite kosher for the nation’s diplomats (meant to uphold the law) to sign false documents about the salary they pay for service in their homes?
Is it being crazy or “anti-national” to wonder if the diplomat herself did not assault the national honour when she indulged in falsification, perjury and fraud? For, what kind of honour are we talking about when power and prestige seem to come from chest-thumping and bullying and has little to do with any humanitarian principle! What has become shockingly clear through this entire episode is that India has long abandoned its role as a nation that would speak for the less fortunate. For there was actually a time when India was a moral force in the world. Then the world extended real respect to its leaders and ideas. A “regret” by John Kerry after an almighty tantrum is not a reflection of that sort of respect.
Certainly, Devyani’s arrest should have been handled with greater sensitivity. Equally, it is true that the US applies different principles to itself and the rest of the world. But in the Devyani episode, we too have violated the spirit of one fundamental principle. For, a nation like India, with its millions who live on a subsistence wage, should be endorsing the imposition of a minimum wage. Instead, we have taken the position that seems to suggest that because our diplomats can’t afford to pay the US minimum wage, we expect the host nation to look the other way because heck, we are Indians and we need our maids and nannies! It’s actually quite pathetic that after having taken such a morally bankrupt position, we would subsequently gloat and say, see we showed them, Kerry called and apologised.
In this rather sorry tale, the maid, the other Indian in the story, has been mostly forgotten. If she is remembered, it is because the establishment has in an attempt to slander Sangeeta Richard, raised questions about her motives and even suggested that she is part of an “evangelical” conspiracy against India that operates in the US (the same conspiracy that denies Narendra Modi a visa, says one commentator).
Because labour is cheap in India and poverty rampant, certain wage laws have been enacted to protect the poor. Public servants should be held to a higher standard both in India and outside. The babus of the foreign service cannot hide behind diplomatic immunity and hold cheap Indian labour hostage to their needs.
Devyani now has a job in the UN, presumably with maids in tow. She also has a flat in the Adarsh Society in Mumbai besides 30 acres of farmland in Maharashtra that she inherited, a 5,000 sq ft plot in Alibaug and a plot in Noida. If she could not live without a maid, she should have paid the minimum wage in the US. Sangeeta Richard has complained about Devyani taking away her basic rights and treating her “like a slave”. Both as an Indian citizen and as a citizen of a world governed by ideas of justice and equality, Sangeeta has every right to seek a better life.