Vinod Mubayi


The angry confrontation between the Indian and US governments over the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York for allegedly making a false visa application to bring her maid from India to the US has attracted an immense amount of publicity and comment from governmental representatives, journalists, op-ed columnists, domestic worker groups and individuals in both countries. The U.S. Attorney in New York, himself, incidentally, of Indian origin, issued an angry statement to the press defending his decision to arrest and prosecute Devyani Khobragade while India’s National Security Advisor described the treatment meted out to her as “barbaric” and “despicable.” 


Domestic worker groups in India have highlighted the routine exploitation of domestic workers in India, who are frequently paid very low wages, made to work long hours, are often brutalized by their employers and exist outside any kind of regulatory system. By contrast, in the US there exists in law a minimum wage, and a fixed number of working hours per week, although there is little doubt that these laws are and can be frequently evaded since domestic workers that happen to be immigrants who have entered the country illegally are in no position to complain if they are underpaid or overworked.  While illegal entry is obviously not the issue in the case concerning the Indian Deputy Consul in New York, one aspect of the US justice system that Ms. Khobragade’s arrest has inadvertently highlighted should concern everyone who happens to reside in the US, temporarily or permanently.


We cannot do better on this issue than quote the words of Prof. Juan Cole of the University of Michigan who wrote in his blog Informed Comment of December 19, 2013 (quoted in Reader Support Network News of December 20):


“The militarization of American police and humiliating practices of routine strip and cavity searches are the real culprits in the current diplomatic dispute between the United States and India. Police not only arrested the Indian deputy consul, Devyani Khobragade, who claims diplomatic immunity,… they put her in the general prison population and subjected her to a strip search.


Americans think of themselves as brave rugged individualists who enjoy the liberties of an Enlightenment constitution. In fact, they most often are timid and cowed in the face of the world’s most powerful government, which increasingly acts like a medieval tyrant. Americans don’t seem outraged that the government is spying on them. The government has put 6 million Americans either in prison or under correctional supervision, and has the highest per capita rate of incarceration in the world– more than Cuba, nearly twice that of Russia, and more than 4 times that of Communist China! Only 8 percent of inmates in Federal penitentiaries are there for violent crimes. In many states, former prisoners are stripped of the right to vote. These extreme penal practices of course primarily target minorities and function as a racial control mechanism. (Famously, penalties in the US for using cocaine powder, a favorite in the white suburbs, are much less than for crack cocaine, mostly used by poor minorities.)


Not only does the US have an enormous number of people in jail but they subject arrestees (people not convicted of a crime) to routine strip and cavity searches. Women are often forced to be naked in front of the other inmates and to spread their labia for a policewoman.


These practices have been challenged. The ninth district federal appeals court in California decades ago found LAPD routine body cavity searches unconstitutional. But last year, our Supreme Court– the same one that thinks corporations are people, that doesn’t think big money campaign donors should have to identify themselves, and thinks it is all right for traditionally discriminatory states to pass voter suppression laws against minorities– weighed in. It found routine strip searches, even in minor traffic violation cases, constitutional. A guy got a ticket. He paid it off, but it mistakenly stayed on his record. He bought a new house and went out with family to celebrate. He got stopped by police, who ran his registration and found the ticket. They handcuffed him in front of his family and hauled him off to six days in jail during which he was subjected to cavity searches. John Roberts [Chief Justice, US Supreme Court – ed.] thinks the whole thing perfectly reasonable. (The individual in question is an African-American).


So the strip search to which the deputy Indian consul in New York was subjected was just business as usual in the United States. She is not accused of carrying a weapon or being violent, but rather of underpaying her hired help. That charge is not frivolous, but it wouldn’t obviously call for a search in her internal organs.


The way our government treats Americans is no longer inspiring to other peoples but rather it appalls them. German Chancellor Angela Merkel accused Barack Obama of running a STASI domestic spying operation via the NSA. (The STASI were the feared East German domestic surveillance organization, which kept files on most citizens and encouraged their neighbors to inform on them). Indian crowds are protesting over having their diplomat strip-searched. The spectacle of the humiliation of once-free Americans by an increasingly tyrannical incipient police state is causing other democracies to cringe in disgust.”


The issue of Indian diplomats needing to import domestic help from India to serve them in the way middle- and upper-class Indians feel entitled to in India, will probably have to change regardless of how this particular case is resolved.  Surviving feudal attitudes, which lie behind the treatment of domestic help in India and which likely figure in the mindset of Indian diplomats stationed abroad, need to be transformed and if this case acts as a spur towards this end it can be welcomed in the long-run despite the bad treatment inflicted on a particular individual in the short-term. However, if this case brings greater awareness of the need to discard the humiliating treatment routinely meted out to mere non-violent suspects by the US legal system, it will also have performed a useful function.

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