Delhi, India: India revoked special privileges for US diplomats today as tension mounts over the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York last week for allegedly underpaying her nanny. India’s Foreign Ministry asked US diplomats to return their identification cards and special airport passes while it conducts a review of their privileges. New Delhi police were also seen removing protective traffic barricades from outside the US Embassy, and top Indian officials cancelled meetings with a visiting US congressional delegation.
Reaction in India has focused heavily on the perceived mistreatment of the Indian diplomat – who was arrested while dropping her daughter off at school – rather than any mistreatment of the nanny, who has been charged in an Indian court for extortion and conspiracy, according to local media reports. But some Indian activists are using this moment to call for greater protection for India’s domestic servants.
Devyani Khobragade, deputy consul general at the Indian consulate in New York, was arrested last Thursday on charges of underpaying her nanny and submitting fraudulent visa paperwork, according to the US district attorney’s office in Manhattan.
Ms. Khobragade said she would pay her nanny $4,500 a month, in accordance with US labor laws, in her visa application, but actually paid the nanny $573.07 a month, according to the district attorney’s office. If found guilty, Khobragade faces a maximum sentence of 10 years for visa fraud and five years for making false statements.
Indians have objected in particular to the treatment of Khobragade, who was handcuffed in public and – as was widely reported in the Indian media – allegedly strip-searched and held in a cell with offenders charged with drug abuse.
The United States and India are sparring over whether diplomatic immunity under the Vienna convention applies in this case.
“Our diplomatic security folks followed our standard procedures,” a US State Department spokesman told reporters Monday, saying that the Indian diplomat enjoys immunity only for acts performed in exercise of her consular duties.
Indian diplomats maintain that Khobragade’s private employment decisions fall under diplomatic immunity.
This is not the first time that an Indian diplomat in the US has been charged with mistreating domestic helpers. In 2011, a former housekeeper sued India’s then consul general in New York, Prabhu Dayal, accusing him of intimidating her into a year of forced labor. That case was settled out of court.
In 2012, an Indian maid won a $1.5 million lawsuit against Neena Malhotra, a former press and culture counselor at the New York Consulate, for what a US court determined was “barbaric treatment” tantamount to slavery, but the Indian diplomat has refused to pay the amount, a position supported by an Indian court.
Former Indian Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha has raised eyebrows by suggesting that in response to Khobragade’s arrest, India should arrest same-sex partners of US diplomats in India in light of an Indian Supreme Court ruling last week criminalizing homosexuality.
“Diplomatic immunity works on the principle of reciprocity. If the US is going to assert local laws over diplomatic immunity, it can’t expect India to not do the same,” says retired Indian diplomat Jayant Prasad.
But in India the dispute has also brought attention to how Indians treat domestic help. “If an Indian diplomat cannot afford domestic help why must she have one even at the cost of violating U.S. law? Where does this sense of entitlement to domestic labor come from?” asks Ananya Bhattacharjee, president of a union of domestic workers in Haryana near Delhi.
Reports of torture and confinement of domestic workers are not rare in India. Just last month, a lawmaker’s wife allegedly beat to death their house-help with a hot iron rod. The lawmaker and his wife are both being prosecuted.
Activists say the slave-like treatment of domestic labor, mostly young women, is not only on account of their poverty but also their caste. Although the Indian constitution abolished the caste system, social divisions persist. Domestic helpers are usually from the lower castes, and are considered as being born for labor. In this case, however, Khobragade is herself from a Dalit or formerly “untouchable” caste.
In most Indian states, domestic workers are not protected by a minimum wage law, and a proposed federal law to protect domestic workers has not made much progress.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that domestic workers account for 3.5 – 12 percent of the working population in developing countries, compared to less than 1 percent in wealthy countries. Estimates for the number of domestic workers in India vary widely, ranging from 2.5 million to 90 million, according to the ILO. The National Platform for Domestic Workers estimates the number at 50 million, roughly 4 percent of the total population.