Row over Indian diplomat’s treatment of maid became a matter of status, national pride

A group supporting domestic workers rights demonstrate across the street from the Indian Consulate General on December 20, 2013 in New York. Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade, India's deputy consul general in New York, was arrested in the US on visa fraud charges in connection with a domestic worker she hired named Sangeeta Richard. The arrest has created a diplomatic uproar, with punitive steps taken against US State Department officials in New Delhi.
Stan Honda

An Indian diplomat who allegedly mistreated her live-in maid and may have abused her own diplomatic status has left the United States after her case became a matter of extreme contention in India's relationship with the US.

Devyani Khobragade was indicted by the US Attorney’s Office on Thursday after an international battle of diplomacy, but the State Department afforded her diplomatic immunity in a case that has stirred up issues of privilege, class and caste.

Khobragade, the deputy consul general in New York City, was arrested last month on charges that she committed visa fraud in sponsoring maid Sangeeta Richard’s move from New Delhi in 2012. The office of US Attorney Preet Bharara, an Indian-American himself, alleges that Khobragade agreed to pay Richard a salary of $54,000 annually but actually paid $573 per month — or about $3 per hour.

India’s government launched a popularly supported diplomatic offensive in response to US authorities’ treatment of Khobragade, including arrest and strip searching. Many in the Indian media rushed to defend the diplomat as the true victim. Ahead of a national election in May, a wave of religious, anti-Western nationalism known as Hindutva is sweeping India. As the US enters an era of increased economic inequality and decreased international standing, the shouts of Indians fed up with American moralizing were nearly audible on the streets of Manhattan.

"[Khobragade] clearly tried to evade US law designed to protect from exploitation the domestic employees of diplomats and consular officers," Bharara said in statement, pledging to indict Khobragade, 39, by a legally mandated Jan. 13 deadline despite international pressure. "This office's sole motivation in this case, as in all cases, 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."

Bharara was born in Punjab, India and raised in New Jersey. As the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York since 2009, Bharara has made his name pursuing Wall Street fraudsters including leaders of Galleon Group and associates of Bernie Madoff. His office also sued Bank of America for faulty mortgage practices that helped trigger the economic collapse of 2008 and 2009.

The diplomat's father is Uttam Khobragade, a former bureaucrat and executive who — along with Devyani — has been accused of participating in a fraudulent housing scheme in Mumbai. He staged a protest in from of the US Consulate in New Delhi earlier this week, one of scores of Indians protesting across the country about the US handling of the case.

Richard’s family, who live in New Delhi, accused Uttam of harassing them repeatedly, threatening "they would face dire consequences if [Richard] complains."

Richard's daughter Sangeeta wrote in a petition filed last year with the New Delhi High Court that Uttam sent police to the family's home and "said to my father that he would destroy our future."

Her family also wrote that the maid worked 17-hour days, 7 days per week in "slavery-like conditions" beginning in November 2012. 

The US State Department transported the Richard family from their home in Delhi to the United States hours before Khobragade was arrested in New York in order to prevent further reprisals. They are currently under the protection of the Department of Justice at an undisclosed location.

The Indian government had been furious that one of its representatives was denied the protection of diplomatic immunity. India ordered the US Embassy in New Delhi to shut its regal American Center — which features a pool, restaurant and library popular with Americans — to the public. And scheduled discussions between the US and India about energy in New Delhi next month were cancelled pending the outcome of the case.

Indian public opinion has largely sided with the diplomat Khobragade, which led Indian news publication Firstpost to wonder, "Why isn't India upset about the maid's plight?"

Journalist G. Pramod Kumar wrote, "In a country where exploitation and abuse of domestic workers are 'horrific' as noted by the Human Rights Watch, we readily bought Devyani’s version. When the empirical evidence for possible abuse is so strongly weighed in favor of the maid … we were too ready to slam her because it was a case of the rights of a 'servant' versus India’s national pride." 

The New York District Attorney Bharara used similar language in a press release last month, writing, "one wonders why there is so much outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian national accused of perpetrating these acts, but precious little outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian victim and her spouse?"

Indeed, in both the US and India, less attention has been given to the alleged victim Richard, who reportedly fled from Khobragade's home in June 2013, leading her employer to seek police assistance in tracking her down.

ABC News reported Richard "surfaced in July at the nonprofit Safe Horizons where an attorney asked Khobragade to pay money, let the nanny out of her job and arrange a new visa that would allow her to stay in the country on her own, requests the diplomat refused. Khobragade then called the State Department because the terms of the nanny's visa required her to work as a domestic employee or return to India."

But the diplomat's efforts apparently backfired when the State Department began to look into the case.

On Friday India ordered the US to remove one of its own diplomats from New Delhi as a “reciprocal action” for the departure of Khobragade from New York.