Inside Story

'Nannygate': Racism or the rule of law?

As relations between India and the US hit a new low, we look at the row over the arrest of diplomat Devyani Khobragade.

Last updated: 21 Dec 2013 10:10
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The detention of Devyani Khobragade, India's deputy consul general in New York, has caused the most serious diplomatic row between New Delhi and Washington in years.

Khobragade was dropping her daughter off at school when the police arrested her. She is accused of lying on a visa application for her Indian nanny, Sangeeta Richard, and paying her less than half the legal minimum wage of $9.75 per hour.

She was strip searched; this is humiliating for anyone. Even in the US where it is very common in a felony arrest. In India where it is not common it is completely understandable that people will be shocked by this.

Jo Becker, the advocacy director for Human Rights Watch

India says Khobragade was strip searched and thrown in jail with common criminals.

For India it is a matter of dignity and respect. The story has captured the attention of the nation and newspapers are presenting it as a national humiliation.

As the uproar grew, Indian politicians refused to meet with a visiting US congregational delegation in New Delhi and protesters outside the US Consulate in the Indian city of Hyderabad carried banners saying "Uncle Sam don't act ugly with India".

The brouhaha partly reflects a clash of cultures. The US Marshals service insists that Khobragade's case was dealt with according to standard procedures.

In India, it would be unheard of for an educated middle-class woman to be subjected to a degrading strip search except in the most outrageous crimes.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has expressed "regret" and stressed the issue should not be allowed to derail a "vital relationship". But this is not enough for Indian politicians who want an unconditional apology.

Unless you change US procedures per se you cannot expect them [the US authorities] to treat anyone differentially - especially in a case of fraud.

Atul Singh,  the founder and editor-in-chief of the global news analysis site Fair Observer

Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath said, "They should tender a clear apology. We will not accept this conduct against India under any circumstances."

He continued, "The US has to understand that the world has changed, times have changed and India has changed."

His comments allude to the fact that the drubbing politicians in the world's most populous democracy are giving the United States reflects India's changing sense of itself as a nation and its place in the world.

Jo Becker from Human Rights Watch says, "The outcry over Devyani Khobragade's treatment is drowning out the serious allegations of exploiting her employee, also an Indian national, and the pervasive violations against millions of other domestic workers around the world and in the homes of diplomats in America."

The message India is sending to Washington is that it will not be bullied.

However, there is a big open space in this debate: Who is speaking up for the nanny? How would both US and India protect their nose-diving relations and what will happen if a similar issue erupts again?

To discuss this, Inside Story presenter Divya Gopalan is joined by guests: Lalit Mansingh, a former Indian foreign secretary and ambassador to the US; Jo Becker, the advocacy director for Human Rights Watch; and Atul Singh, the founder and editor-in-chief of the global news analysis site Fair Observer.

"I do not think we are asking for any exception for India ... It does not happen anywhere in the world. Clearly US is following different principles ... All we are saying is we treat your diplomats with respect, you do the same thing for us. This is a legal dispute. Now every case of fraud does not mean that you handcuff the person concerned, lock them up, strip search them and put them in a cell. How would the Americans react if we did that to a woman deputy consul general of the United States posted in India? How would that work out in American media and in American government circles?"

Lalit Mansingh, a former Indian foreign secretary and ambassador to the US


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