An Indian woman, who came to the United States as the nanny of a high ranking Indian official in New York has set off one of the worst diplomatic rows in the history of Indian-American relations.
On a cold December morning in New York, US law enforcement officials moved in on an unsuspecting target. Devyani Khobragade, India’s 39-year-old deputy consul general in New York was dropping her daughter off at school when police came in, frisked and handcuffed the diplomat, before driving her away in plain sight. She was then strip-searched and lodged in a cell with drug addicts.
The arrest of one of India’s most powerful officials in the United States on the morning of December 12 sent shock waves that were felt thousands of miles away, in New Delhi. The public humiliation and the arrest ignited a major diplomatic crisis between two erstwhile allies.
“‘Here are two countries that have historically enjoyed good relations,” said Chidanand Rajghatta, a foreign correspondent for the Times of India.
Speaking to Al Jazeera from Washington DC, Rajghatta said: “There have been previous cases of diplomats and officials who have been guilty of even more egregious violations, which were always settled quietly. But the way the law enforcement officials in New York moved in and arrested Khobragade has really ticked off the Indians.”
The Indian diplomat was arrested for falsely declaring an exaggerated income for a visa application for Sangeeta Richard, the Indian nanny who was sponsored by the Indian government to work for Khobragade in the United States.
Documents filed in a Manhattan court show Khobragade declared paying her nanny $4500 every month, when in fact Sangeeta Richard was receiving around five hundred dollars a month, around $3.31 per hour – far less than the stipulated $9.75 legal minimum wage in the state of New York.
But Dan Arshack, the Indian diplomat’s lawyer, insists Khobragade was paying Sangeeta Richard “exactly what she should have been paying her”.
Khobragade was released on a $250,000 bond by the Manhattan court, money given as assurance by the Indian government. Despite being released, Indian officials in New Delhi, fed by a sense of injustice went on the diplomatic offensive.
As the diplomat’s arrest and “humiliation” made headlines in India during what is seen as an election season with general elections scheduled next year, the Indian foreign minister Salman Khursheed summoned the US ambassador.
Other swift actions followed: top Indian officials including Indian Parliament speaker Meira Kumar and other top leaders refused to meet a visiting five-member US congressional delegation. Police barricades outside the US embassy in New Delhi were removed and US officials working in India were asked to surrender their identity cards.
“Other retaliatory measures would follow,” said a top Indian foreign official.
Taken by surprise at the Indian response, US officials sought to downplay the incident, labelling it as a local issue that was handled by the book, by US Marshalls in New York.
“The State Department’s Diplomatic Security followed standard procedures during the arrest. After her arrest, she (Devyani) was passed on to the US Marshals for intake and processing. So for any additional questions on her treatment, obviously, this would be the US Marshals and not us. I would refer you there” said Marie Harf, the deputy State Department spokesperson.
But the US clarification cut little ice in India.
“This is a typical American response,” says veteran Washington-based Indian journalist Seema Sirohi. Speaking to Al Jazeera, Sirohi called the American response “a simple case of double standards”. “Look, If an American diplomat was treated like this in India, can you imagine the outcry in the US?” she asked.
Sangeeta Richard arrived in the United States on a flight from India in November 2012. She came to the US on an A-3 visa sponsored by the Indian government, to work as a nanny for the daughter of Khobragade, a career diplomat who hailed from a family of Indian Foreign Service officers.
Within a few months of her arrival, Sangeeta Richard started demanding more perks from her employer and the freedom to work elsewhere. But employment elsewhere was prohibited under the rules of her A-3 visa.
On June 23, 2013, Sangeeta Richard left Khobragade’s posh Manhattan residence to buy some groceries and disappeared, only to re-emerge a few weeks later at the office of an immigration attorney. Within a few hours four Indian consular officers arrived at the lawyer’s office, as negotiations began for the nanny to return to India.
Reports indicate Sangeeta Richard demanded an unknown sum as her due salary, and an ordinary Indian passport in lieu of the official one she had.
According to media reports, as negotiations went on, Sangeeta Richard’s husband and child were taken into custody by officials back in India. The nanny’s official passport was also revoked the same day, making her status in the United States, illegal.
‘Sangeeta isn’t the first maid at the Indian mission to have taken this route,” said Aseem Chhabra, a veteran Indian journalist based in New York. “See the thing is that these women are brought over from India on 30,000 rupees ($600). The embassy keeps their passports – so they are bound in some way and cannot escape. So many of them run away as they can still make more money living illegally in the United States,” Chhabra told Al Jazeera.
The case thereafter took another turn, when in September, a Delhi high court judge issued a restraining order against Richard from starting any action against Khobragade outside India. According to this judgment any grievance about the terms of Richard’s employment, salary or ill-treatment could only be adjudicated by an Indian court, since both Richard and Khobragade worked for the Government of India.
“A lot of domestic help who come to the United States (from India) with diplomats takes this route (of going against their employers and approaching/informing the authorities) as a means of getting a green card and or permanent residency. It’s a very messy, complicated affair,” said Rajghatta, the Times of India correspondent.
Sirohi agrees with this assessment. “When help is brought from India by diplomats – as they are allowed one domestic help – in some cases these people have an escape plan. Then NGO’s in the US get involved – on the basis of human rights etc – when they [domestic helps] see the lights of New York, they can get many ideas.’ Sirohi told Al Jazeera.
What hitherto was an employer-employee dispute blew up into a diplomatic spat between two global powers.
“Khobragade is a senior diplomatic official of the Indian mission here in New York and as such she is entitled to immunity,” said Arshack, the Indian diplomat’s lawyer.
Fuelling Indian anger is a perceived pattern of public humiliation of prominent Indians on US soil over the years.
Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan was strip searched and detained twice, first in 2009 and then 2012 by American airport officials. In 2012, he was stopped and questioned for several hours by American immigration officials before being set free without any charges.
“Whenever I start feeling arrogant about myself, I always take a trip to America. The immigration guys kick the star out of stardom,” Shahrukh Khan told students at Yale University, soon after his last detention.
There were others who had suffered ignominy at the hands of US officials. In the late 90s, the-then Indian defence minister George Fernandes was strip-searched at a US airport. A P Abdul Kalam, the ex-Indian president, was also taken off the plane and searched at another airport in 2009.
Indians see these as slights to them – a feeling that has been further fuelled by their frequent occurrence.
But US officials have a different point of view.
“Before he was arrested, nobody in the United States knew who Shahrukh Khan was. Most Americans still don’t know who he is,” said Robert MacMillan, the editor for the India Insight blog at Reuters.com. He told Al Jazeera from New York that stories which might be considered hot-topics in India rarely resonate in the United States.
Even Times of India’s Rajghatta agrees that what Indians are outraged about could be seen as routine procedures in the US. “US law enforcement authorities operate on the principal of ‘have handcuffs, will use’, they do that all the time for any offence – no matter how minor,” he said.
But a “minor” procedure has pitchforked Khobragade in the limelight, and strained India-US ties. Amid the din, Sangeeta Richard has all but been forgotten.
“No one talks about Sangeeta Richard, the nanny, what happened to her, what she and her family had to go through. She is living somewhere in the United States illegally. It’s a terrible thing what has happened,” says Aseem Chhabra.
For the time being, a top diplomat and what she had to undergo is redefining ties between India and the US.