Maid in Manhattan

Why isn't anyone focusing on the domestic help in the Indian diplomatic scandal?

STAN HONDA / AFP / Getty Images
STAN HONDA / AFP / Getty Images

On Dec. 12, Devyani Khopragade, India’s deputy consul-general in New York, was arrested and jailed, accused of misrepresenting on a visa application the wages she paid a member of her household staff. The circumstances of her imprisonment — which reportedly included a strip search and a cavity search, and being held in a cell with drug addicts, before being released on $250,000 bail — have inflamed public opinion and ignited a furor in Indian government circles. Indian National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon described her treatment as "barbaric," while India’s mild-mannered Prime Minister Manmohan Singh referred to it as "deplorable." Prominent former Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha even suggested that India apply a colonial-era law prohibiting same-sex relationships against U.S. diplomatic personnel as retaliation.

But nearly two weeks later, one critical matter has been almost entirely overlooked: the plight of the maid, Sangeeta Richard. According to a statement from her lawyer, Richard worked "far more than 40 hours a week" and was paid roughly $3.30 an hour — about a third of New York City’s legal minimum wage. Practically none of the thousands of articles, blog posts, and tweets written about the arrest in India focused on Richard’s plight.

It is hardly surprising that Indian commentators are ignoring her. The upper-middle-class background and social status of journalists and pundits in the country’s deeply hierarchical society leads them to empathize with one of their own over the working conditions of domestic help. The treatment of the diplomat is a "national outrage," according to Commerce Minister Anand Sharma, but the treatment of Richard — whose husband has reportedly been interrogated by police in India — is ignored.

In a society fraught with deep social inequities thanks to the "mind-forged manacle" of caste, to borrow poet William Blake’s evocative phrase, the colonial legacy of sharp class differences, and the recent emergence of a nouveau riche, most middle- and upper-class Indians treat their domestic help as little better than chattel. Few employers actually recognize that their domestic help have clear-cut rights and are deserving of fair treatment.

Apart from the weight of historical legacies and social mores, powerful economic forces also help reinforce these mostly unfeeling attitudes. India’s rapidly urbanizing population means that there is an almost unending supply of cheap and pliant labor. If domestic workers dare to challenge existing practices and mores they can be dismissed at will and replaced easily. Acutely aware of their circumstances, few choose to challenge the well-entrenched privileges of their employers. And although the country has a minimum-wage law, it is laxly enforced. As a consequence, employers, for the most part, can dictate wages, working hours, and living conditions with impunity. Even India’s robust and expanding non-governmental organization (NGO) sector, with its predominantly middle- and upper-class social base, has devoted few resources to highlighting the conditions of this component of the working class.

Ironically, the country’s rapid economic growth in the past few decades has done little to improve the lot of those employed as maids, cooks, and drivers. Much of India’s growth has come from high-end employment in service sectors — which has done pitiably little to improve working conditions or wages for those employed in India’s sprawling informal economy. Though salaries have increased, they have not kept pace with inflation and few other privileges have accrued to this segment of the working class. Against this socio-economic backdrop, it should come as little surprise that those in the privileged and rarefied atmosphere of India’s diplomatic service should have little compunction about how they treat their staff. Accustomed to routinely overlooking existing laws about fair employment practices at home, many see no reason to act differently abroad. 

To be sure, there are Indian commentators who have spoken out against Richard’s treatment. Shekhar Gupta, the editor-in-chief of The Indian Express, a daily English-language newspaper, opined that Richard "is a victim of awful, callous exploitation." Like everyone else, however, he added that Khopragade was "subjected to the horrible indignation of America’s arrest procedures."

Yes, the alleged circumstances of Khopragade’s arrest showed a striking degree of insensitivity on the part of the local law enforcement authorities. But a better outcome of this event would be to prompt soul-searching among Indian elites on the treatment of domestic help in their society. In mid-December, in an obvious sign of irritation, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs halted liquor imports to the U.S. Embassy, removed some of the police barriers around the embassy compound, and suspended the airport access privileges of U.S. diplomats. What if instead of lashing out at the United States, the Indian government actually began enforcing laws designed to protect its domestic servants? 

Sumit Ganguly is the Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington, and a visiting professor at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College.

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