Indian Diplomat vs. Housekeeper Case Dismissed by Federal Court

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March 13, 2014; CNN

Devyani Khobragade, the Indian diplomat who was arrested for lying on a visa application for her housekeeper and reportedly strip-searched by New York City police, is off the hook for the moment. Although indicted by a federal grand jury in January, Khobragade claimed that she had diplomatic immunity. A federal court has agreed—sort of.

After the Indian government moved Khobragade to a position with the Permanent Mission of India to the United Nations that did have diplomatic immunity, even though her prior position didn’t, the court dismissed the charges against her. “Even if Khobragade had no immunity at the time of her arrest and has none now, her acquisition of immunity during the pendency of proceedings mandates dismissal,” U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin wrote. “The government may not proceed on an indictment obtained when Khobragade was immune from the jurisdiction of the court.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, however, said it would consider a new indictment against Khobragade for criminal conduct. This would presumably be for violating New York State’s—and perhaps the federal government’s—minimum wage laws and the state’s laws regarding domestic workers. (Khobragade paid her Indian nanny/housekeeper the equivalent of about $3 an hour.) Khobragade left the U.S. in January to take a position in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi, according to CNN, making it unlikely that she would return to stand trial.

However, Khobragade’s problems with visas and passports seem to be continuing. An Indian paper revealed that Khobragade’s two daughters hold both Indian and U.S. passports, amounting to dual citizenship, which is a violation of Indian law. While Khobragade is currently in Delhi, the children are with Khobragade’s husband, a U.S. citizen, in New York City. The Indian Express cited unnamed experts who contend that Khobragade gave her daughters U.S. and Indian passports to give them the option to take “the best of both worlds.”

Although Khobragade seems to have avoided most of her troubles with U.S. authorities—it’s doubtful she’ll return to the U.S. if there is a new indictment—she has unleashed an international debate about the behavior of diplomats who act without regard to host country laws. India, for example, retaliated against U.S. diplomats in Delhi by requiring them to supply information about what they paid their domestic household help. For both Indian diplomats in the U.S. and U.S. diplomats in India, there are obviously questions about the treatment of women who fill domestic help jobs.

While the Khobragade case was treated like a diplomatic row between the U.S. and India, it revealed the persistent problem regarding the mistreatment of domestic help. Khobragade is seen internationally as a women’s rights advocate, but her treatment of her nanny/housekeeper, regardless of whether it was cloaked by diplomatic immunity, was distasteful.

According to Preet Rustagi, the joint director at the Institute for Human Development in India, “The problem is that Khobragade’s behavior is common in urban India. Domestic workers are locked into what their employers see as a feudal relationship.  Employers enjoy the feel-good factor of providing much-needed work to the destitute and desperate. So what if the income they offer is below the minimum wage?”

While India and the U.S. huffed and puffed about the lack of diplomatic niceties, the Khobragade case was about something much more: how diplomats and expats behave in other countries. Beyond the hypocrisy of someone like Khobragade, a self-styled advocate for women’s rights, keeping her domestic help in a semi-feudal work relationship, as we wrote for the NPQ newswire in January, also of concern is the impunity with which diplomats and all too many international execs behave. All of these diplomatic jet-setters should be obliged by their home countries to adhere to local laws as a matter of decency and respect, if not basic morality.

Moreover, the Khobragade case reveals that the agenda of women’s rights is still far from being adequately addressed, especially in the matter of domestic help. States are passing new laws regarding domestic labor protections because the abuse is so rampant, not just among diplomats, but throughout the U.S. It should be high on the agenda of women’s rights—even though International Women’s Day has come and gone.—Rick Cohen