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In Defense of Dr. Devyani Khobragade
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On this forum, we raise various issues related to women from marginalized communities, and we routinely tackle the dominant stereotypes of women from marginalized communities. In the present controversy we are conscious of this very process of “stereotype-breaking” by the women from marginalized communities being turned on them. We can see how the historical struggles of marginalized women for rightful wages and to keep the sanctity of their bodies intact are pitted against each other. SAVARI and Round Table India will attempt to bring the perspectives of both Devyani and Sangeeta. In this article, Shraddha, a person who is close to Devyani, presents her side of the story in the context of her being constructed as an exploiter of another woman, less privileged than her.

There is a need to understand that the allegation leveled against Devyani of ‘exploiting’ her maid is a complete lie. Following are some of the facts, which are not recorded in the charges against Devyani. These are now being brought to the public domain mainly because, a section of the media and some people on social networking sites are painting Devyani as the ‘exploiter of her housemaid’. This is to clarify some of the misconceptions related to Devyani’s case.

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1. Devyani paid Sangeeta whatever she had promised her. A sum of Rs.30,000 was paid into Sangeeta’s husband’s bank account in India, monthly, for the period that Sangeeta was employed with her (from end of November, 2012, till end of June, 2013). In addition to this, according to the $9/hour contract, Devyani paid Sangeeta several hundred dollars each month in New York, in cash at her request. Devyani, due to her trust in her maid, did not ask for receipts for these payments. But fortunately there are some ATM withdrawal slips and other pieces of evidence for the same.

2. Devyani treated Sangeeta very well. Sangeeta had two large, comfortable rooms to herself in a well-appointed apartment with all modern facilities and a separate entrance. She ate the same food as the family or whatever she wished to have. She was given complete discretion in managing the house and was entrusted with the funds for groceries and other living expenses. Sangeeta was allowed to pace her work out as she wished (such as cooking every three or four days rather than every day). She was allowed to come and go as she pleased, having the house keys, metro pass, and the option to take taxis at Devyani’s expense.

3. Devyani’s children who were in her charge were attending school full time and therefore did not need constant attention at home. They are well-behaved and polite children who were very attached to Sangeeta. It would be pretty difficult to imagine how she could possibly have worked for more than 8 hours in a day.

4. Sangeeta’s passport and copies of contract documents were in her own custody and not Devyani’s. She was provided a mobile phone, had bought an I-pad, which she often used for Facebook, and could communicate with whoever she wished whenever she wished, in India or New York. And yes, she had weekly offs and lots of holidays. During all her stay, she never informed any one (including her family members) that she was paid less, exploited or overworked.

Now, here are some other facts that never entered into the public domain. Why Sangeeta chose to accuse Devyani of fraud will not be a mystery if we try to understand her main motive.

1. Devyani relied on Sangeeta a lot. Devyani’s girls were aged 6 and 3 then, and were too young to be left home alone. So a housekeeper-cum-nanny was a must for her. It is not an easy task to take care of two growing kids while responsibly working full time in a tiring ‘high profile’ official job, and  therefore having a maid was not a privilege but a necessary condition for her. She never had a servant when she was unmarried and without children, such as in her Germany posting. The actual fact is that Devyani is happiest when she does not have servants around. But ever since she became a working mother, this has not been an option for her.

2. Sangeeta left her job without any warning or notice, without even leaving a good-bye note for the girls who were so fond of her. This threw Devyani’s life completely out of gear for some time. Devyani nevertheless told Sangeeta’s husband that if Sangeeta was unhappy and did not want to work for her, she would arrange for a ticket for her to go back to India after settling her account. It was to no avail.

3. She faced Devyani across a negotiating table and made three demands which were to be complied with in return for not bringing a suit on Devyani: (a) USD 10,000 in cash, (b) a normal Indian passport (she was on a diplomatic passport which was revoked soon after she absconded) and (c) immigration support.

4. The A3 visa that Sangeeta had come on was good only as long as she worked for Devyani. And when Devyani would eventually be transferred out of New York in two or three years’ time, the visa would become invalid and Sangeeta would have to leave New York as well. She did not want to do that. She wanted Devyani to help secure her a green card so that she could stay in the US permanently.

5. Devyani agreed to give her the money, instantly. But she could not give her immigration support, as the Indian government does not issue a US visa. At this meeting, Devyani was accompanied by other staff from the consulate, so everything in this meeting can be verified and substantiated by a third party. The consular staff requested Sangeeta to take the money and go back to India and then apply for an Indian passport and a normal US working visa. Sangeeta refused. She said and here is her quote, ‘I will not go back. Why will I go back? I know that if I go back I will never be able to come back to the US.”

6. It is on the basis of this meeting, which is on record, that a case of extortion, blackmail and breach of trust was registered against Sangeeta in India and for which an arrest warrant has been issued by a magistrate.

The allegations that Devyani has exploited, abused, maltreated or even underpaid her housemaid are completely fabricated. Even Sangeeta has not made these allegations in her complaint. Devyani’s mistake was nothing but to follow a convention that was set and followed by many IFS bureaucrats while recruiting a housemaid but it was mutually agreed upon and the other party never showed any disagreement against this arrangement, till the day she decided to abscond from her job. In fact, her salary is not even enough to afford a full time maid in New York. Further, she had shown all possible ways to Sangeeta to resolve the problem of her stay in the US.

Most important in this issue is the way in which the US state security forces handled it. In the most bizarre and aggressive manner, the police publicly arrested her, handcuffed and stuffed her in the police car. She was treated like a criminal by the officers who forced her to go through inhuman treatment (she was repeatedly handcuffed, stripped, swabbed, held up with petty criminals and drug addicts and subjected to the worst form of humiliation, i.e. body cavity search) and a criminal case was filed against her. Her dignity and pride were severely compromised and challenged. She was always open for judicial opinion in Sangeeta’s case, but the way in which the police bullied her is unwarranted and has now become an unpardonable injustice.

On the US state department’s part, this is a selective case of witch-hunt as no such aggressive surveillance and police intervention is sought when a majority of immigrants and daily wage laborers are paid less than the minimum wage on a daily basis and are condemned to misery by the rich Americans on American soil (Please check the minimum wage struggles of employees working for McDonalds and Walmart in the US – here’s one news report).

Let us also accept that the housemaid and workers of similar nature across the US are struggling to secure minimum wages and we must support these struggles, including the plea that Sangeeta has filed in the court. However, this hardly justifies police treatment of Devyani as a hardened criminal. Devyani’s fight is against the systemic target, the US security forces, for subjecting her to personal dishonor and indignity. If we look at only the housemaid’s quest for justice and target Devyani for her deeds, then we would be reading only half of the facts and not the complete story.

Capitalism is the worst form of working class exploitation and the US is its most revered leader. It seems that this ‘criminal offender’ is telling the world that everything is simply rosy in the ‘land of opportunity and justice’. In fact, Devyani’s case is an opportunity to expose the exploitative socio-economic system that the US represents and which its supporters in India follow. The US itself has given this ammunition to us now. If the US is so serious about the question of minimum wages, then let it shut all the corporate business and manufacturing units (sweatshops) that it runs across the third world, in the worst exploitative working conditions, without paying any attention to basic rights. Let the defenders of minimum wages protest against Warren Buffet/Walmart and McDonalds in support of the Latin American/Asian workers who are fighting against their daily exploitation.

Finally, a cautious appeal: we Dalits are fighting for human rights, dignity and self-respect. Devyani represents our pride to the outside world. She is a symbol of our rightful entry into spaces that were so unreachable to all of us, for all these years. Her humiliation and discrimination is primarily orchestrated to break our morale, courage and hopes. Let us unite against such casteist-racist ‘witch hunt’ that the US establishment and its brahmanical agents have unleashed against Devyani.

Long live our struggle for dignity and self-respect!

(I sincerely thank Harish Wankhede for initiating this debate and for his vital comments and suggestions to construct my arguments.)



Picture courtesy: the net.

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