Friday, December 20, 2013

India-US Diplomatic spat

India-US Diplomatic spat
This morning’s newspapers too carried articles tom-toming the case of Devayani Khobragade arrested in the US on two counts – falsely declaring almost 3 times the wages she had actually contracted a poor Indian maid from Delhi to work for her, and also meting out inhuman treatment to the living-in domestic making her work for up to 19hours per day! The maid sought legal help from US leading to the arrest of the diplomat. One article with a headline screaming the demand for dropping charges against the Indian diplomat as well as seeking unconditional apology from the US government had this photograph of women holding placards inscribed “USA Govt. Be Sensitive to Women” as they protested in New Delhi. WOMEN?

The main reasons for round-the clock media reports on the case, the non-stop panel discussions on TV and the government and politicians of all hues being on the side of the 39-year old Devayani Khobragade were that she was a ‘young’ woman, belonging to the prestigious IFS, and a Dalit to boot! There are geniuses who argue that Khobragade cannot afford the minimum wages prescribed for similar work in the US, i.e. $9.75 which sort of justifies fixing a private deal with poor Mrs. Sangeeta Richard which according to  US Attorney Preet Bharara, went like this: Devayani Khobragade, an IFS officer of the rank of Dy. Consul General of India while claiming in US visa documents that the worker would be paid $4,500 a month, had the maid sign a second contract, not revealed to the U.S. government, which settled the monthly salary at Rs 30,000 (approx $500 - $600). In plain language this is Visa fraud. When the poor maid files a complaint that she was forced to work for up to 19 hours per day, the offense compounds to an even greater violation of human rights! Here in India the rich and influential do much worse, sometimes unbilled sexual exploitation thrown in to the one-sided bargain. You may blame the Capitalist Satan for all the dirty deeds in the world and organise morchas carrying placards with worse things inscribed on them. But there, in this case, I think all right-thinking wo/men should spare a thought for the poor made who has no wires to pull in India, and her employer could file a quick “counter-case” in India, and move a High Court to issue an order prohibiting her from seeking legal remedy abroad! God, we are indeed a banana republic! Pigs can be slaughtered, but they can’t even squeal.

From published records one could easily be suspicious about the behaviour of Devayani Khobragade if not arrive at a conclusion that this brilliant woman of high pedigree could be economical with truth when she chose to... She had filed a statement with the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), admitting to own as of 31 March 2012, 11 properties, including flats and land in Maharashtra, Kerala and Uttar Pradesh, some of them as 'inherited' from her father(Uttam Khobragade, a controversial former IAS officer), and others purchased by her. Her declared salary was Rs.50350 (including grade pay) per month, and generated a monthly revenue of Rs.2.26 lakh per annum from her immovable properties. The total value of her assets as per this statement filed with her employer MEA is Rs1.78 crore besides three tracts of land inherited from or gifted to her by her father. But according to the present market value, her properties may be worth more than Rs.6 crore as her 1,000 sq ft in the controversial Adarsh Coop Housing Society (Adarsh CHS) in Mumbai alone is estimated to be worth about Rs.4 crore. Devayaniji claims she bought the flat in Adarsh CHS for Rs.90 lakh from the proceeds of the sale of a flat in Meera Coop Housing Society at Oshiwara in Mumbai which is a plain cock-and-bull story.  A Colaba flat would any day cost about three times as much as one located at Oshiwara.

Devayani’s father Uttam Singh Khobragade was the Chief Executive and vice president of Maharashtra Housing Area Development Authority between 2000-02 and 2004-05. In 2006, she purchases a non-agriculture plot measuring 5,000 sq ft at Alibag from the MHADA which is listed in her affidavit to MEA as worth Rs10 lakh - an understatement  to the tune of 80% at its current market price.

Indian deputy consul general Devyani Khobragade obviously has a record filing false statements back home before being accused and arrested in the US for filing false documents to obtain a visa for her housekeeper, and of paying her $3.13 an hour, about one-third the federal minimum wage.

The Indian MEA has demanded an official apology from the US for shameful treatment of a senior Indian diplomat and the Home Ministry went to the extent of removing security barriers around the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, also withdrawing airport access passes for U.S. diplomats and demanded return of their IDs. Knowing perhaps they are on slippery ground legally, The MEA has not only promoted Devayani to a higher rank enjoying the diplomatic immunity she lacks currently, and moving also to the UN! (The Hindu editorially condemned this move: "That the government chose instead to transfer Ms. Khobragade to India’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York, with a view to enhancing her immunity, is questionable and casts India’s claim of a nation ruled by law in poor light." Yes indeed! The most stupid move from the MEA is checking on the salaries the US Missions pay in India! In the anxiety to do something to save face, they forgot that the US Missions cannot be expected to pay US rates here; we can blame them if they pay less than the market rates/minimum-wages here!

With regard to the allegation of ill-treatment going round in the media the US Marshals Service clarified in a press release that Khobragade was handled according to “standard arrestee intake procedures” for the Southern District of New York. A strip search, examination of body cavities and the possible use of restraints other than handcuffs such as waist chains and shackles, are automatic, non-discriminatory and legal post-arrest procedures in the US, So also,detaining her with other female prisoners while she awaited handling of her case.

Interestingly, the case is handled by Preetinder Singh (Preet) Bharara an Indian American attorney and the current U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. We might recollect that the Time magazine named him in 2012 as one of "The 100 Most Influential People in the World," He is also known for “Busting Wall Street" for prosecuting and convicting famous Indians like Rajat Gupta and  Raj Rajaratnam. Interestingly, there are people in India who argue now that Barara is anti-Indian! I would assume that he is a great lawyer. From what we understand from his current behaviour, Salman Khurshid, who had taught law for a few years at the Trinity College, Oxford, and is now India’s Minister for External Affairs, has neither the legal skill to beat Barara nor the Diplomatic finesse to move matters smoothly. On top of it his party is trying to get some glory fighting the most powerful country on earth. But others don’t seem to allow the GoP to walk away with it all, the BJP and even the pathetic political rumps like the CI and the CPM are chipping in with anti-American vitriol. Misplaced outrage over an inconsequential diplomatic spat and responding with an escalating and strangely petty series of reprisals is pushing India to ridiculous brinkmanship close to persuading US to mumble "go to hell" and proceed with the normal legal actions against the Indian diplomat. The Only thing on Devayani’s side and India’s at this stage, is the Obama Administration’s reluctance to push matters back to the days of “estranged democracies”  thanks to Indian’s largeness and of course, our democracy.

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