In one corner Devyani Khobragade, aglow with disarmingly oversize smiles. In the other, Preet Bharara, collector of celebrity heads as hunting trophies. The unequal match is so smartly manipulated that all we see is an explosion of righteous indignation—indignation over a diplomat being provocatively humiliated and indignation over a housemaid being exploited in customary Indian style.
How neat. But this clash of emotive issues defies logic. US-India relations are based on strong economic factors as important to the US as they are to India. Lately the US also began seeing India as a pivotal strategic partner in its new East Asia policy. It defies common sense that America would throw all this away just because an Indian consular official paid below minimum wages to her housemaid.
What then is it really about? Let’s look at two known facts: America’s consistent hypocrisy and India’s continuous servility. The hypocrisy story is well documented. According to the Russell Sage Foundation, an independent research institute, 40 per cent of American workers in apparel, textile and repair services are paid less than minimum wages. As much as 41 per cent of minimum-wage violations in the US are against maids and housekeepers. Add to this the rampant racial discrimination against Latino workers.
Hypocrisy expands further at the international level. America is the only democracy in the world to not recognise the International Court of Justice at the Hague. This enables the US to do things that are illegal and still not be answerable. The US government mined Nicaragua’s harbours in 1984 in a bid to topple the government there. The Hague Court found the US guilty of violating international law. But America ignored it and blocked the UN Security Council from enforcing the judgment.
India, too, has tasted US duplicity. David Headley, who played a crucial role in the terrorist attack on Mumbai, was protected by the US from extradition to India. And of course there is Bhopal. The gas-leak victims’ voice was heard again last week. “The US is so worried about the rights of one maid, but it turns a blind eye to hundreds of deformed children who have been maimed by (Union Carbide’s) greed.”
Bhopal also throws light on India’s long history of servility to the US. Indian authorities helped Union Carbide’s culpable boss, Warren Anderson, to escape from India. Delhi took it lying down when a former President was frisked by a US airline and when its defence minister was searched while on an official visit to Washington. Never once did India protest meaningfully against such insults, let alone subjecting an American official to the courtesy of a cavity search. Is it because many of our IFS/IAS officials crave for a posting in the US? And our politicians love American hospitality? Sure, Delhi showed some guts by cancelling airport passes and ID cards given even to US diplomats’ families. But why were these given in the first place when America does nothing of the kind? US sees such servility as weakness.
These facts throw a different kind of light on the Devyani/Sangeeta case. The maid had good connections (her husband and mother also worked for US diplomats). She asked for permission to take up other work which would have been illegal and, denied permission, went missing. Perhaps Devyani knew what was going on. On her complaint, a Delhi court issued an arrest warrant for Sangeeta. Sensing trouble, US authorities surreptitiously evacuated Sangeeta’s family to the US. Then they humbled Devyani, successfully turning the matter into a maid-exploitation cause celebre.
Very similar was the case of RAW officer Ravinder Singh who was spying for America. As soon as India was about to arrest him, he was smuggled out to the US. Clearly Sangeeta was, like Ravinder Singh, a high-value espionage asset for the US. They and the maid of former Indian Ambassador to the US, Meera Shankar, who also disappeared and remains untraced must all be safe and enjoying themselves under American auspices. How easily Indians have been fooled into seeing as a human rights issue what is really a spying rights issue.