The debate on the Indian diplomat’s arrest in New York seems to have found a usual divide within the United States and India: One side standing for the poor domes- tic and the other rooting for the diplomat. One progres- sive, the other elitist. But the case, I think, goes beyond
class conflict. It is also haunted by another invisible, hard-to-dis-cuss, division between formal and informal relationships.
At first sight, progressives seem to have it right. Living in New
York, the Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, 39, did not pay
her Indian housekeeper, Sangeeta Richard, 42, the salary promised
on Richard’s work visa application. Indeed, Khobragade is reported to have paid Richard less than the minimum wage, thereby
managing to commit two violations at once. The matter appears
quite simple: In a conflict between two Indian women, the New
York police sided with the less powerful.
No wonder India’s anger at the diplomat’s arrest appears troubling for its middle class nationalism, and
unwarranted, because none of the parties
involved was an American.
Favoring the diplomat over the domestic,
the Indian government retaliated by
removing a US-forced closure of a public
road in front of the US embassy in New
Delhi, and retracted many comforts offered to US consular officers,
bringing them at par with Indian consular officers in the US.
Yet, as a progressive at heart, I had to examine why I found the
Indian government’s reaction bizarrely justified. Initially I thought
I was reacting against routine violations of dignity at the hands of
the American criminal justice system where ordinary arrests of
non-criminals — in this case a diplomat — lead to routine strip and
cavity searches, standard entry into enduring criminal biometric
records, and guaranteed humiliations of various kinds. But soon I
realized my reaction had something to do with the expanding iron
cage of formal legality in the US.
Whether in the case of ‘illegal’ immigration or of ‘statutory’ rape
cases involving teenagers, the unquestioned faith in formal and
procedural law at the expense of substantive justice has driven an
unusually large population behind bars in the land of liberty. While
the US accounts for only 5 percent of the world’s population, its
share of the world’s total prisoners comes to a staggering 25 per-
cent, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts survey.
Doesn’t this belief in formal law, however, guarantee that every-
one, irrespective of status, is treated equally? Well, yes and no.
True, a formal contract may force the elite to think twice before
abusing their power. But when formal law hollows out all spaces of
informal negotiation, it worsens the situation. An over-reliance on
incarceration as formal control, research shows, hampers the ability of some communities to strengthen informal social control
because they weaken family and community structures. Often,
these communities encounter more, not less, social disorganization.
While some may find Khobragade’s arrest as a welcome salvo of
formal law into a vast informal and unequal economy of India’s
domestic work, it is not clear if such formal
mechanisms actually solve problems of
substantial inequality. In the US, the rise of
formal sanctions has coincided with a
strange rise of inequality.
America’s prisons confine one in every 15
black males and one in every 36 Hispanic
males — relative to one in every 106 white males, making it the
only country where minorities make up the majority in prisons.
The case is a fascinating revelation of how the two countries mirror
each other in so many ways.
With its history of slavery and continued racial prejudice, the US
matches India’s history of untouchability and caste discriminations. But just as the fight against racism, gender violence, or
untouchability has been waged through politics, not police, the dignity of domestic work cannot be installed through individual examples of police work, particularly when it is not clear if Khobragade
mistreated Richard in any manner.
A Aneesh is associate professor of sociology and global studies,
University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.
The only possible end to the Devyani Khobragade imbroglio came last week, with the United States side
maintaining its position that she is guilty of
fraud and, at the same time, conceding that
she now has full diplomatic immunity and
that she can leave the country.
The seemingly sudden developments
must have been carefully choreographed by
the two sides. This was inevitable as neither
side wanted this incident to do lasting
damage to bilateral relations.
The end could not have come sooner.
Fatigue had begun to set in this case as the
public on both sides were feeling jittery
that both India and the US were blowing
the issue out of proportion.
Several Indian Americans at the Pravasi
Bharatiya Divas held in New Delhi last
week sounded bewildered that such a
minor issue was allowed to sour the relationship. They were quite concerned that
the US-India roller-coaster had descended
so low that it would take Herculean efforts
to raise it back to the level at which it stood
The strong position of the US media
seemed to make an impact on them. They
began shifting attention to the plight of
other Indians worldwide, who did not get
the kind of attention that Devyani got from
the Indian authorities.
On the Indian side, public opinion was
fast moving against Devyani and the Indian
diplomats in general. They recognized the
need for solidarity to get Devyani back to
the country, but felt uneasy about the continuing crisis.
The negative stories about Devyani,
which came out in the press, were also
being talked about in private. The end of
The maid and the diplomat
The dignity of domestic work cannot be installed through individual examples of police work
SHANNON S TAPLE TON/REU TERS
A protest across the street
from the Indian consulate
building in New York,
December 20, 2013.
The seemingly sudden
developments must have
side wanted this incident to
do lasting damage to