Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The furore over Devyani !

If one was following English mainstream media in India or twitter, the entire nation of India seems to have been outraged over the arrest of deputy consular office Ms. Devyani Khobragade in Newyork. The entire nation is outraged by the treatment meted out to her, notwithstanding her diplomatic immunity claims. The nation is particularly infuriated with the arrest in public space (when she was dropping her kids at school), strip searching, stay in the lock-up for 6 hours with drug addicts; and some reports even claiming cavity searches and DNA swabs done on her. The US department of state insists that consular immunity applies only for offences committed as a part of her job and not on domestic/private note. The interpretation of the diplomatic privileges enjoyed by personnel under the Vienna convention act has always been subjective among nations. This is not the first case of interpretation differences and is certainly not the last one. In this article, we shall stay strictly clear off this topic of immunity, because as a practice they appear to be “accorded” or “negotiated” between nations.

I find the outrage in India bizarre and misdirected for multiple reasons.

Firstly this is such a bigoted country that on one-hand wants to enact a law of minimum wages to domestic maids and on the other-hand appears to condone offences of the same nature, in places where such laws exist. It is surprising to see that, not a single word has been uttered in top-ranking ministers, officials or media anchors on the treatment meted out to the domestic maid of Ms. Khobragade, Ms. Sangeetha Richards. The case against Devyani is that she misrepresented facts in the A3 visa application and also under-paid her maid way below the minimum wages applicable in her district of work (Manhattan, New York). On a historic day when the Rajya Sabha has passed the Lokpal bill which demands highest standards of integrity and probity from public officials, it is bizarre that there is no outrage about the fact that a high-ranking diplomat has violated this wilfully?

Let us look at the details of the case against Devyani. (Read here for details of the charge against her as given by the US authorities). The minimum wage prevalent in district of New York is $9.75 per hour. Assuming a 40 hour work week, and 4.3 weeks per month, Sangeetha needs to be paid a monthly salary of $1677. That works to just over $20K per year which is reported to be in line with the average market salary of full time domestic maids employed in US(read here). However the A3 visa application of Sangeetha Richards quoted a monthly salary of $4500 that is consistent with the first employment contract signed between the two parties. However there exists a oral agreement and a second employment contract (which was hidden at the time of applying for visa) which promised wages of Rs.30,000 per month ($573 per month) with no cap on weekly working hours. Why did Devyani offer such a high salary for the domestic maid, far above the market value, far above prevailing minimum wages, and as some people say far above what she can afford from her salary? The only plausible explanation is that there was “no application of mind” done in drafting the contract, or filing the visa petition, because the intention was always to defraud the whole process. What surprises me is that no-one is outraged about this unjustified behavior of a high-ranked public official.

Secondly, the subsequent sequences of actions also seem to be suspicious. Sangeetha Richards worked for the period Nov 2012 to June 2013. Whatever the personal motivations are, she reported the issue to the concerned US officials and went absconding in the USA around June 2013. The US officials had seized upon this issue and had sent an advance warning to Indian officials as early as Sep 2013 on the case to be filed against Devyani. What stopped the Indian consulate from taking immediate action and deporting Devyani back to India? This would have saved all the trouble!. But instead, the moment trouble seems to appear in the horizon, Devyani files a petition of dishonouring of contract against her maid in a Delhi court. There are reports that the husband & child of Sangeetha Richards have been arrested in India, and have been asked to urge Sangeetha to surrender in the Indian court. These strong-arm tactics that were set in motion in India strongly indicate that the intention of the diplomat was to bully the complainant to withdraw the case & not come back to India. People familiar with Indian law are aware that, police actions on employment dishonouring cases are extremely rare; that too when the accused is absconding. There were numerous such cases filed by software companies in the Y2k days for breach of contract; and no police action was taken. Hence it is not easy to see, how well-connected the diplomat is, to be able to instigate such strong-arm actions in India. For people who naively believe that Ms. Khobragade is a rags-to-riches IFS officer, please read the link here on her stupendous growth of her personal wealth & her real estate purchase spree (including the much famous Adarsh apartment in Mumbai). Is this behaviour an archetype of integrity and probity of public officials that we are celebrating with the passage of Lokpal?

The actions involved in “intake” and “processing” (such pathetically euphemistic words they use in the US!) of people being arrested appear to standard operating procedures in the US (Check here). If there is a violation then Devyani and Indian consulate can always sue US officials and we can be assured that the guilty shall pay! However there appears to be little justification for such a suit because no one involved is even talking about it! Hence except for the fact that we are “pained” by the treatment meted out to a “babu”, we seem to have no other grievance in this issue. May be, we are so used to seeing handling by velvet gloves for well-connected babus in India, we are unable to accept such the non-existence of differential treatment in western countries.

Whether diplomatic immunity applies or not is another issue which I am staying clear from. Hence all the counter actions that Indian government have taken to rebuke US are justified from the point of view of reclaiming immunity. US has always employed double-standards in the topic of diplomatic immunity of their own international staff and has played hard ball with many countries. Hence I am not critical of these diplomatic actions taken by India. But what I am critical about is the continued silence of our top ranking officials/ministers/media (even as a token measure) on the violation of integrity & probity by a public official! Unless we do that in strict terms, we can't have any ethical right over the moral high ground in this topic!. 

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