Devyani Khobragade: big world, small heart

Whilst we are accused of “barbaric treatment”, the Indian government continues to condone the actions of their envoy, actions that exemplify the big world, small heart of India’s elite

Devyani Khobragade: big world, small heart

Throughout the centuries, ‘big world, small heart’ stories have played out across the world. It is the tale of power that shrinks the heart, wealth that forgets the plight of the poor and arrogance that places the individual beyond the hand of the law. However, our laws are strong in the US. We know that society functions at an optimal level when laws are applied with an even hand and with impartiality. Our laws apply to our guests. This includes business travellers, tourists, and yes, the staff of diplomatic missions.

The news of the arrest of Deputy Consul General Devyani Khobragade continues to play out in the media. The diplomatic status for the envoy gave her immunity from the jurisdiction of US courts for actions performed in the exercise of her consular duties. This immunity did not shield the defendant from criminal actions committed on US soil. The deputy consul general is not new to her role. She is a career diplomat who has served at other diplomatic missions, so, surely, she was aware of the potential legal ramifications of her actions. Ms Khobragade has two official charges against her: visa fraud and making false statements. She stands accused of submitting falsified documentation to obtain a work visa for her Manhattan housekeeper. She then illegally manipulated a legal process to exploit her worker.

Today, we all know about the big world and small heart of a 39-year-old career diplomat — Devyani Khobragade gives lip service to gender equality and women’s rights. The truth is that she has preyed on another woman. And this woman is a member of her own nation. If this were a Bollywood movie, it would be titled, ‘A Dalit in Manhattan’.

There is no need to recycle extensively the known facts of this case. The deputy consul general was detained by the US Marshals Service. Her intake process into the prison system was done based on a standardised system for registration and legal custody of a subject. She was fingerprinted and her image obtained for her official intake record. Her DNA was placed on file. She received the standard strip and body search. These things can bring a sense of personal humiliation. I hope to never suffer such indignities But Ms Khobragade brought these things upon herself.

Accounts vary in pennies regarding how much the deputy consul general paid the foreign national who worked as domestic help within a diplomatic household. Media outlets report a wage of $ 3.31 per hour in a regional market where the standard scale for low wage earners is $ 9.75 per hour. The worker also performed overtime labour but was not offered remuneration for services. So what does about $ 522 per month buy in New York? Not much. A monthly metro card is $ 112. Manhattan is at the top of the list as one of the most expensive places to live in the US. Basic goods and services can run double to triple that of other regions. Who is ‘barbaric’ here: the US government or the woman who committed visa fraud to save a few bucks? So, whilst we are accused of “barbaric treatment”, the Indian government continues to condone the actions of their envoy, actions that exemplify the big world, small heart of India’s elite. India’s foreign minister, Salman Khurshid, gave it his best shot when he told parliament, “It is no longer about an individual, it is about our sense of self as a nation and our place in the world.”

Mumbai. We all remember Mumbai, do we not? The November 2008 terror attack left a body count of greater than 160 and multiple wounded. Four US citizens lost their lives, as did multiple foreign nationals. It was a time of national mourning. The international community also mourned these losses. So now, a “sense of self as a nation” and a “place in the world” causes the Indian government to have their own big world, small heart moment for all to see. The barricades have been removed from in front of the US embassy in New Delhi. Does India really want to be perceived as the nation that puts out the welcome mat for another attack on domestic soil? Removing the barriers, which provide physical safety for US employees dispatched on official duty, seems to me an act of political insanity.

Meantime, Devyani Khobragade has become an overnight sensation. She has sent out an e-mail blast blathering about the injustices visited upon her but there is nary a peep about the injustices she heaped upon her worker. It is interesting that the Manhattan US attorney bringing charges against the deputy consul general is also of Indian stock but American. In a statement released announcing the arrest, he had this to say: “Foreign nationals brought to the US to serve as domestic workers are entitled to the same protections against exploitation as those afforded US. The statements and fraud alleged to have occurred here were designed to circumvent those protections so that a visa would issue for a domestic worker who was promised far less than a fair wage. This type of fraud on the US and exploitation of an individual will not be tolerated.”

Here is the deal, India: support your diplomats when they function honourably but hang them out to dry when their actions show them to be unfit for duty. Condoning big world, small heart actions by your envoy is a slippery slope. It sends the wrong message to the staff of your diplomatic missions across the globe. Send us the best that India has to offer. We welcome your friendship and areas of expertise but do not send us your worst.

Return the barricades to the perimeter of the US embassy, which provide a necessary buffer zone against a terror attack. We are not the enemy but we do believe in the rule of law.


The writer is a freelance journalist and author of the novel Arsenal. She can be reached at