Skip to main content

Activists in Hyderabad, India, shout slogans on Dec. 18, 2013, after burning an effigy of the U.S. to protest against the alleged mistreatment of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade.Mahesh Kumar A./The Associated Press

The arrest and strip search of a New York-based Indian diplomat over charges that she lied on her visa application about how much she was paying her maid – allegedly $3 an hour – have triggered a strong backlash in Indian media, the parliament and in the streets.

Devyani Khobragade was released on $250,000 bail last week. If the charges are proved, she could face 10 years in prison for visa fraud and five years for making a false statement.

She is alleged to have stated that she paid her Indian-born maid $9.75 an hour – which is above the minimum wage and in line with U.S. labour laws – when, in reality, she was paying much less, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

The outrage is not over the low hourly salary paid to the maid. Instead, it is over the treatment of the diplomat. Here are six reasons why.

Public humiliation

The story of the 39-year-old being arrested – and then strip-searched – last Thursday after dropping off her daughter at a Manhattan school has dominated Indian television and newspapers and angered people over what is seen by many Indians as excessive and degrading treatment.

"They could have pre-informed the New York consulate and Khobragade could have gone down to the station," one unnamed Indian official said in an interview with Indian media. "It is not as if she is a hard-core criminal who is a definite flight risk," the official added.

The U.S. Marshal Service has said it followed standard procedure in its arrest and physical searches.

But Ms. Khobragade's account, which was shared in an e-mail with colleagues and published in the Indian media Wednesday, will further infuriate many in India's middle and upper classes over the treatment of the "lady diplomat" – which is how a senior Indian politician described Ms. Khobragade.

"I broke down many times as the indignities of repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches, swabbing, in a holdup with common criminals and drug addicts were all being imposed upon me despite my incessant assertions of immunity," Ms. Khobragade wrote.

National pride

Indian politicians have unanimously shown outrage and rallied to defend national pride.

Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid told parliament on Wednesday: "It is no longer about an individual, it is about our sense of self as a nation and our place in the world."

India has long touted its economic, military and scientific prowess – only last month launching a mission to Mars – and wants to be seen and treated as an equal by countries such as the United States.

The incident is particularly stinging in light of the close co-operation between the two countries on trade and technology – for example, the nuclear deal signed in 2008 to help India meet its growing energy demands. In 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama described the alliance with India as "one of the defining and indispensable partnerships of the 21st century."

On Wednesday, after days of growing anger in India, the U.S. moved to defuse tensions. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called India's national security adviser, Shivshankar Menon, and "expressed regret."

Violation of immunity

The Indian diplomat at the centre of the furor – and backed by the Indian political establishment – believes that she is entitled to diplomatic immunity under a global treaty that effectively exempts diplomatic staff from being subject to the laws and prosecution in the countries where they are serving.

For many Indians, even if the New York-based junior diplomat was not paying her maid a minimum wage, she should be not be subject to U.S. labour laws, arrested and face possible prison time.

But the U.S. State Department sees it differently and argues that the Indian diplomat is, in fact, covered by consular immunity – which is different from diplomatic immunity.

Under consular immunity, she is protected from prosecution only when it relates to work connected with her consular responsibilities – and in this case, the matter of her maid's salary and the false statement she is alleged to have made is not directly connected to her job as a consular official.

On Wednesday, it was reported that the Indian government has moved Ms. Khobragade to the country's permanent mission at the United Nations, where they believe she will enjoy full diplomatic immunity.

Troubling pattern

In India, the treatment of the junior diplomat fits into a broader issue of how Indian officials and dignitaries are treated when visiting, or working, in the United States.

Three years ago, it was the Indian ambassador to the U.S. who was pulled aside at a Mississippi airport and frisked.

Almost a year later, former Indian president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was frisked at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York during a trip.

At one point, as it was reported in the Indian media, Mr. Kalam was sitting on the flight that was to take him home when security staff boarded the Air India plane and asked that he be checked a second time – on this occasion removing his jacket and shoes for analysis. The search took place in spite of the protests of the Indian protocol officer.

Then – as now – outrage was followed by threats of retaliation. Eventually, the United States apologized and said it had not followed proper procedures for "expedited screening of dignitaries."

India singled out

The junior diplomat's father has told Indian media that his daughter was receiving a monthly salary of $4,120 – making it impossible for her to meet the maid's monthly salary of $4,500 as outlined in her visa application – and which is in accordance with U.S. minimum wage rules.

Among some Indian commentators, there is a feeling that diplomatic missions from other countries in the United States are likely involved in similar practices and that the U.S. is singling out Indian diplomats.

"The diplomat's life is one big Catch-22. We are expected to network, cultivate and dine and wine important people. Still there is no way we can afford to pay $10 an hour in New York to our help," said an unnamed diplomat who works in the same New York consulate as Ms. Khobragade.

Perhaps the dissenting view in India these days comes from writer Sandip Roy, who argues that Indian diplomats abroad do not have a right to "domestic help at cut-rate wages."

"We might come from a country where labour is cheap and no one raises an eyebrow that millions of Indians come to our homes every day to cook and clean, seven days a week, 365 days a year and have their pay docked when they fall sick and don't make it to work," he writes.

But he adds that does not mean "our cultural attitude towards domestic help will not cause a stink outside our borders."

Election season

The Indian government has taken several retaliatory measures – pulling perks given to U.S. officials and removing concrete security barriers from outside the U.S. embassy in New Delhi.

Special ID cards that allow U.S. diplomatic staff to move easily when travelling to – and from – India have been revoked. Access to duty-free alcohol – a staple of any Western foreign mission – has been cut.

But it is an election year in India – and the government and opposition parties are careful to hit the right notes when responding. That involves a mix of anger and threats.

Politician Narendra Modi, who will lead the main opposition against the ruling Congress Party later this year, tweeted: "Refused to meet the visiting USA delegation in solidarity with our nation, protesting ill-treatment meted to our lady diplomat in USA."

Interact with The Globe