Devyani Khobragade Episode

Devyani Khobragade was arrested by US law enforcement agencies on Dec 12th, 2013 under charges of visa fraud and providing false statements to US authorities about the terms of employment of an Indian national to help her gain entry into the US as a domestic help. Devyani is an Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officer of 1999 batch, who was working as a Deputy Consul General at the Indian Consulate General in New York. The manner of her arrest and the treatment meted out to her thereafter has generated much outrage in the Indian media, public and government.

Regarding the manner of her arrest, it has been alleged that she was publicly arrested just after she dropped off her daughters at their school in the morning at around 9:30am. According to Indian media, she was handcuffed and subjected to strip search and cavity search in the US law enforcement agency’s custody. She was also allegedly kept in prison along with drug criminals. She was released later in the day on a bail of 250000$.

The Indian government has asked the US to issue an unconditional apology for the treatment meted out to Khobragade and also demanded the withdrawal of case against her since in its view, the arrest is against the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations

Details of the complaint

The complaint filed by the US State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) charges Devyani Khobragade on two accounts:

  • Committing Visa fraud, wherein it is alleged that she stated in the visa application form of Sangeeta Richards that Richards would be paid a monthly salary of $4500, which was actually not paid to her
  • Providing false statements to US State Department in the form of false employment contract between her and Richards

In detail, the complaint states that in Oct 2012, Devyani Khobragade made a verbal deal with Sangeeta Richards, the Indian citizen, to work for her in the USA as a nanny and a babysitter. In this deal, it was agreed that Sangeeta Richards would get a monthly pay of Rs. 30000 for her work.

Thereafter, as Richards did not know how to operate a computer and fill her visa application, Devyani helped her in filling the visa form in November. In this visa form, Devyani specified the salary to be paid to Richards as $4500 per month, when in fact she actually paid her only Rs. 30000 per month.

They also signed an employment contract which had to be submitted to US State Department. However, in this employment contract, Devyani mentioned that Richards would get the minimum US wage of 9.75$ per hour and have to work a 40 hour week which translated to a pay of roughly 1500$ (Rs. 93,000) per month, as opposed to the Rs. 30,000 agreed in the verbal deal.

Then, in yet another twist, it has been alleged that just before Richards was to leave for the US, Devyani signed a 2nd employment contract with Richards, which was outside the knowledge of US authorities, in which the monthly salary was mentioned as Rs 30000.

After going to US, Richards continued to work until June 22nd 2013 when she suddenly left Devyani’s home and went missing. The complaint states that she had gone to an NGO to complain about the harsh working conditions she was subjected to, including working hours from 6am to 11pm every day except just 2 hours off on Sunday for going to Church, and being paid much less than the US minimum wages for the work.

This NGO, along with other US humanitarian agencies complained to the US authorities, which built up the case against Devyani by collecting several evidences and finally filed the complaint against her which led to her arrest.

Defence by Devyani Khobragade

Devyani has claimed that she has not violated any law of USA as regards the wages she was paying to Sangeeta Richards.

On the first charge regarding visa fraud, she says that the complaint makes a wrong charge that she had mentioned 4500$ as the salary to be paid to Sangeeta in the visa form. Actually, the visa form had asked the salary of Sangeeta’s employer (Devyani) which was mentioned as 4500$.

On the second charge regarding payment of less than minimum wages to Sangeeta, she dismissed this as a lie. According to Devyani, she paid Sangeeta the required minimum wage of 9.75$ per hour for a 40 hour work week, every month from Nov 22, 2012 to June 22, 2013 after which Sangeeta went missing. This roughly translated to 1560$ or Rs. 93000 per month.

However, this was not paid entirely to Sangeeta’s account in New York. Out of the 1560$, 560$ (Rs. 30000) were paid to Sangeeta’s account in India as decided by them in the contract signed earlier in India in November 2012. This was because Sangeeta herself had asked Devyani to transfer Rs. 30000 to her India account every month as her husband was unemployed at that time. Out of the remaining 1000$, about 375$ were deducted monthly from her salary to pay for her chargeable utilities, her cable TV, her non work related expenses, etc. The remaining 625$ were paid to Sangeeta in cash and the receipts of these cash payments were kept by Devyani. These receipts would be produced in court by Devyani as a part of her defence to prove her innocence.

Defence of US authorities against the objections raised by Indian government

  • On the objection of Indian government that USA violated the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations which gives diplomatic immunity to Devyani Khobragade, US has claimed that Devyani enjoyed only “consular immunity” which gives her protection from arrest related to her consular duties only and not related to crimes committed on US soil
  • On allegations about the strip search, US has said that this is a standard procedure done on any arrested person in US, even if he/she is a diplomat
  • The US has denied that Devyani was handcuffed or subjected to cavity search or made to spend time with drug addicts in prison
  • All in all, USA has turned down demands of an apology and has made it clear that it will not drop the case

Reaction of Indian Government to the arrest of Khobragade

  • Several Indian politicians and legislators refused to meet the US Congressional delegation that was visiting India at the time of outrage following Khobragade’s arrest
  • On Dec 17, 2013, the Delhi police removed security barricades surrounding US embassy in Delhi, citing obstruction to smooth flow of traffic as the reason
  • Indian government blocked perks enjoyed by US embassy employees in India, such as import of food and alcohol at concessional rates
  • Indian government withdrew the ID cards of all US consular officers and their family members in India, which gave them full diplomatic immunity in all civil and criminal matters. They have been given new ID Cards now which only gives them consular immunity similar to what Indian consular officers are given in US
  • Indian government has also asked all US consulates to submit the salary and wages of domestic helps, gardeners, and other staff employed by them to check for illegalities

Latest updates on the case

In a move by Indian government with coordination with the US State Department, Devyani Khobragade has returned to India from the US. In a tit-for-tat move, Indian government has ousted one of the US diplomats in India, who had helped Sangeeta Richards’ family to travel to US earlier. Devyani left for India just hours before a US Court was to announce indictment charges on her. Earlier, before she left, she had been accorded full diplomatic immunity by the US as she had been transferred as a permanent representative to the UN mission of India in New York.

Effect of the case on India-USA relations

The huge publicity given to the case by media was a factor in the Indian government taking numerous steps against US missions in India, possibly going overboard in removing security barricades around US embassy. A side-effect of this case will be that in the short term at least, India-USA diplomatic relations will be far from conducive.

However, top leaders from both the countries have emphasised that this one-off incident should not be allowed to derail the friendly relations between them. One of the fallouts of this incident will be that US diplomats in India would see their privileges curbed to the level that Indian diplomats in US are given privileges, as a show of reciprocity by India.

Steps to be taken to prevent future occurrence of such an incident

Even though it cannot be said with full conviction whether Devyani had paid less than minimum wages to Sangeeta Richards, it is not the first time that such a case involving an Indian diplomat has come to light. In this regard, Indian government should bring out a strict system to prevent such an incident in the future.

A Rule, which would ban Indian diplomats from hiring Indian domestic helps, can be brought in by the Ministry of External Affairs. Indian diplomats should be encouraged to hire domestic helps from the citizens of foreign host country itself. They can be paid extra wages for this purpose. This would prevent vulnerable Indian domestic helps from being exploited in a foreign country.

Additionally, an independent officer should be stationed in each Indian Mission abroad, who would be responsible to receive complaints from domestic helps, gardeners, and other staff against Indian diplomats regarding violation of labour laws and this officer should also be empowered to order a primary inquiry into such complaints. Strong deterrent action such as withholding of salary, freeze of promotion for a few years, etc. should be instituted against the erring diplomats. This would provide an internal mechanism to deal with such complaints in future.

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