India,  Stateside

Misplaced outrage in India

The arrest and strip-search of a female Indian diplomat in New York has provoked outrage from politicians across the political spectrum in India.

The diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, the deputy consul general in New York, was arrested last Thursday and accused of submitting false documents to obtain a work visa for her housekeeper and paying the housekeeper far less than the minimum legal wage. Indian officials said that Ms. Khobragade was arrested and handcuffed on the street as she was leaving her daughter at school, and that she was kept in a holding cell with drug addicts before she was released on $250,000 bail.

By far the most troubling part for Indians are assertions that Ms. Khobragade, 39, was strip-searched after her arrest. Some Indian newspapers published reports claiming that she was subjected to repeated cavity searches. The Indian national security adviser, Shivshankar Menon, has called such treatment “despicable” and “barbaric.”

While I have no idea how despicable or barbaric Ms. Khobragade’s treatment was, the United States Marshals Service responded that strip searches are standard procedure for arrestees.

Isaac Chotiner writes at The New Republic:

Narendra Modi, the thuggish leader of India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), tweeted that he “refused to meet the visiting USA delegation in solidarity with our nation, protesting ill-treatment meted to our lady diplomat in USA.” This is a serious decision on Modi’s part considering that a travel ban against his entering the United States means that he can only meet Americans on Indian soil. (The ban is in place because of Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which hundreds of people were killed). Meanwhile, a member of Modi’s party has suggested that the Indian government arrest any gay spouses of American diplomats working in India.

Bizarrely, “the New Delhi police retaliated by removing security barriers that were meant to protect the American Embassy,” thereby endangering American diplomats and their Indian employees who had nothing to do with the arrest in New York.

Especially striking is that while leading Indians are righteously angry at the treatment of Ms. Khobragade, none of them seems the least troubled by the charges against her.

Federal prosecutors say that the charges stem from a promise Ms. Khobragade made to American authorities that she would pay her housekeeper $4,500 a month. The prosecutors said she actually paid the housekeeper just $573 a month and made her work far more than 40 hours a week.

Ms. Khobragade’s lawyer said last week that she had pleaded not guilty and planned to challenge the arrest on grounds of diplomatic immunity. The charges against her carry maximum sentences of 10 years for visa fraud and five years for making a false declaration.

It is not unusual in India for domestic staff to be paid poorly and be required to work more than 60 hours a week; they are sometimes treated abominably. Reports of maids being imprisoned or abused by their employers are frequent.

But the idea of a middle-class woman being arrested and ordered to disrobe is seen as shocking.

Would I be engaging in class warfare if I suggested that paying a maid in New York about $3 an hour in 2013, in knowing violation of the law, is far more shocking?

Update: U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has issued a statement on the case.