By Anand Teltumbde

It has been over a week after Devyani Khobragade, Deputy Consul General (DCG) for Political, Economic, Commercial and Women’s Affairs was arrested and humiliated in New York on 12 December but the uproar in media is refusing to die. It is surely not the first time that the US authorities humiliated Indian note-worthies that included even our ex-president APJ Abdul Kalam, but the amount of public outrage and the angry reaction from the government over this episode has been unprecedented. As any sensible person could guess, the only factor that explains its exceptionality is the times in which it took place. Yes, these are the election times! The results of the recent elections in four states has bolstered the confidence of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and has caused grave anxieties to the ruling Congress Party. The opportunities for playing the great post-election coalition game during the regime change activated all other parties too to maximize their prospects. This episode served them all to exhibit their jingoistic nationalism. There has been another aside to the episode. Devyani happens to be a dalit, a daughter of ex-IAS officer, and in that perfectly represents the vocal dalit middle class. Right or wrong, taking cudgel for her exceptionally serves two important electioneering objectives, viz., appealing to larger masses by invoking patriotic sentiments and appealing to dalits in particular by showing concern for their honour.

Devyani is a daughter of my long standing friend and personally I would sympathize with her. But the episode threw up too many important issues in public to be blinded by personal feeling. The main thrust of the argument in her favour is that she was humiliated by being handcuffed, allegedly strip-searched, and made to stay with ordinary criminals for nearly four hours before she was released on bail against the bond of $ 250,000. In the ‘socialist democratic republic’ called India, we are conditioned to see institutions treating people differentially and hence we cannot stomach the idea of equality of all before law. It is not to say that US has completely shunned racial profiling. But by far its law enforcement machinery treats people equally and operates uninfluenced by any pressure. US is also the biggest imperialist bully right since the World War II, exploiting people world over and even killing those whom she does not like with impunity. But the Indian ruling class parties and the government displaying their defiance in this episode have never raised even a whisper against its exploitative role. On the contrary, they have always bent backwards to curry her favour. This episode embeds many such duplicities and doublespeak behind the jingoistic noises for Devyani.

Messy Affair

As it happens with any media exposition, the facts become first victim of interpretations and worst, opinions. The case relates with the employment of one Sangeeta Richard, a Keralite Christian lady from Delhi by Devyani as a nanny cum domestic servant in November 2012. She got her A-3 US visa on the basis of false declaration of her salary of $ 4500 per month so as to meet the visa requirement. While Devyani’s side accuses Sangeeta of falsification, it could not be without her knowledge as the A-3 visa itself is based on diplomat’s proposal of taking a domestic servant. It has come into the public domain moreover that the Indian diplomats have followed this ‘standard template’ for securing A-3 visas for their domestic servants. Sangeeta was actually paid $ 537 per month by Devyani, which works out to $ 3.31 per hour as against the stipulated minimum wage of $ 9.75 per hour. Sangeeta happily works for Devyani but on 23 June suddenly goes missing. Devyani gets a call from Sangeeta’s lawyer on 1 July making certain unreasonable demands on behalf of Sangeeta. A complaint of cheating gets filed with Delhi Police against Sangeeta on behalf of Devyani the next day. During the next six months Sangeeta’s passport is revoked, she is restrained by the Delhi High Court from taking legal action against Devyani outside India, an arrest warrant is issued against her by the Metropolitan magistrate, Devyani and Indian authorities follow up with the US authorities but receive no response. Mysteriously, Sangeeta’s husband and children fly to US just two days prior to Devyani’s arrest. Whatever may be the crime of Sangeeta, the core charges of lying in visa form and paying less than the minimum wage against Devyani may not be disputed.

What is disputed is the ill treatment meted out to Devyani by the US Marshals. She was arrested by the state department’s diplomatic security bureau and handed over to US Marshals Service. The US marshals had handcuffed and strip-searched her according to their “standard arrestee intake procedures”. The entire complaint about ill treatment ignores this fact and imagines that Devyani was entitled for a better deal than what she received. The tacit assumption behind it is her stature as DCG. But the facts reveal that DCG did not have any diplomatic immunity; she did have consular immunity but it was confined to her consular duties only. Another argument raised against the alleged maltreatment is that the crime was not serious so as to deserve handcuffing or strip searches. True, it may not be so in India but we are speaking about the US law which, apart from the normal procedure to handcuff and search, considers it serious enough to provide for a sentence of 15 years (10 years for visa fraud and five years for making a false declaration). Lastly, it is also insinuated that what Devyani followed was a standard template used by the Indian diplomatic staff. It might point to the necessity of change in government policy but how can it be the argument for condoning the crime once caught?

Defiance Drama

The Indian government’s reaction to the episode has been amusing. While the Indian embassy had been warned in September that there were suspicions the diplomat has been underpaying minimum wage and that action could be imminent (As U.S. assistant secretary of state Nisha Desai Biswal disclosed to a paper), it failed to take corrective steps. It persisted with the mistaken assumption that Devyani had diplomatic immunity. Under the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, consular officials could be arrested for acts committed outside on official job functions. The government woke up only after the things precipitated and transferred Devyani to the country’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations, ensuring her complete immunity from US prosecution. But obviously, this would be short-lived protection as procedurally she would have to apply for a fresh diplomatic card through the UN Secretariat – a process that must ultimately go for clearance to the US State Department. In an unprecedented show of defiance, the government has taken a slew of measures withdrawing special privileges extended to the US Embassy in New Delhi. They included removal of barricades erected as a safety measure outside the U.S. Embassy, asking back the passes issued to Embassy staff to access airport lounges, withdrawing their import permits for liquors, and asking for the details of their employees, etc. It might assuage the sentiments of gullible masses overcharged with patriotism but does not explain why it had extended them unilaterally in the first place. Where was the honour or sovereignty of the country all these years when it succumbed to every other pressure from the US?

The least said about the politicians, better it would be! The rightist BJP, during its own NDA reign from 1999-2004 had pleaded to include India into a Triad Against Terrorism comprising US-Israel-India, overturning decades of Indian foreign policy that had favoured the Palestinian cause. Its Yashwant Sinha wanted India to arrest the embassy staff with same sex partners under Article 377. Mayawati did not forget her patented caste card accusing the government of delay because Devyani was a dalit. Many of them, including Meira Kumar, Sushilkumar Shinde, Rahul Gandhi, and not to exclude Narendra Modi refused to meet the US Congressional delegation that was visiting India at that time. Samajwadi party went overboard making a comic offer of Lok Sabha seat to Devyani in the forthcoming elections. Did they not know that the US presided over the post-War imperialist system for subjugation of nations and their people? Did they not know that the US maintains 1,000 military bases overseas for the purpose? But never before did they utter a word against the US. They rather picked up every of its signals subserviently and bent themselves backward in carrying them through against their own people. The show of defiance in this case is just meant for the electoral gallery!

The Class Matters

The entire drama is focused on humiliation. It is a curious term that tends to undermine objective exploitation of masses and tends to valorize subjective feeling of ignominy by an individual of stature. With the rise of dalit middle class it is becoming quite popular, some academics theorizing it as a key issue. It is amusing to note that the perceived humiliation of a Foreign Service official provokes nationwide outrage and creates a foreign relation crisis for the country in which a vast majority of people live ignominious lives. Many examples crowd in my mind but a single case of Soni Sori, a tribal school teacher in Chhattisgarh should be enough to bring home the point. This lady, on mere suspicion of Maoist link was arrested, stripped naked, raped and her vagina was filled with stones; not allowed to visit funeral of her husband who died of police torture and make arrangements for her children in teens who were rendered parentless. Was that not humiliation? How many of those demonstrators who shouted for Devyani had felt even a cringe of consciousness for Sori? I bet all those dalits actively protesting against humiliation of Devyani through e-mail and social media campaigns would not know even her name. Does she not belong to them?

Sangeeta Richard may well be a rogue but she will surely be in jail, her family devastated by this episode and nothing will happen to our dear Devyani! After all, she is not the class of ordinary mortals. Her humiliation therefore is more important than exploitation of millions of Soris around!

Dr Anand Teltumbde is a writer, columnist, civil rights activist and a professor of management at IIT, Kharagpur

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