Standing with Sangeeta Richards

January 23, 2014

When the U.S. and Indian governments claim to be concerned about the plight of domestic workers, we should be suspicious. Tithi Bhattacharya explains why.

THE LEADING organ of the British ruling class, the Financial Times, waded into the Devyani Khobragade dispute last week with an editorial titled "Modern India, Medieval Values." The FT expressed concern that the Khobragade affair has put an "unnecessary strain" on the U.S.-India "bilateral relationship." The world, claimed this editorial, has been given "a glimpse of the exploitative conditions that are the lot of many Indian domestic workers."

The brazenness of this lament about the deterioration of international diplomatic relations, aimed at a country that Britain helped impoverish with the use of brute force for over two centuries, is only matched by its ill timing. Last week, we were treated to yet another instance of the British ruling class's "diplomatic" intervention in India.

Newly released secret papers revealed that Margaret Thatcher, as Britain's prime minister in the 1980s, had sent British Special Forces to India to advise the Indian state on how best to raid the Sikh holy site of the Golden Temple in Amritsar. This would, the British government hoped, boost the sale of British weapons to India.

Devyani Khobragade, former deputy consul general for India in New York City
Devyani Khobragade, former deputy consul general for India in New York City (Elsa Ruiz | Asia Society)

The 1984 raid and subsequent military follow-up claimed the lives of over 100,000 Sikh women and men, and, as one commentator has said, closed off all of Punjab "from the world and turned [the state] into a mammoth concentration camp." Perhaps the Financial Times ought to spend more time scrutinizing the "values" of its own paymasters who, as these revelations show, have a healthy appetite for trampling over both citizen's rights as well as international law.

But why would a business-friendly newspaper such as the Financial Times concern itself with Indian labor rights? Similarly, the New York Times, not exactly a tribune for the American working class, informs us that "[t]he charges brought against Devyani Khobragade...should concern anyone who values worker rights."

We at thought we would follow the Times' counsel and explore the real politics of this story.

The Context

On December 12, 2013, Deputy Consul General for India Devyani Khobragade was arrested in New York for visa fraud and for lying about payments to her domestic worker, Sangeeta Richards. If convicted on both counts, Khobragade faces a maximum of 15 years in a U.S. prison.

According to prosecutors, Khobragade had arranged for Richards to come to the U.S. as her domestic worker under an A-3 visa. U.S. immigration law demands that the employer provide such workers with a contract that discloses their hours and their duties, and pays them above the current minimum wage. Khobragade is accused of signing a second illegal contract with Richards in which she agreed to pay Richards a salary of 30,000 Indian rupees per month, which is about $3.31 an hour.

U.S. authorities arrested and handcuffed Khobragade in front of her young daughter's Manhattan school. While in custody, the New York Police Department, which is responsible for many racist stop-and-frisk arrests, subjected Khobragade to humiliating strip searches. In an e-mail statement to the Indian media, Khobragade recounted the experience:

I broke down many times as the indignities of repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches, swabbing, in a holdup with common criminals and drug addicts were all being imposed upon me despite my incessant assertions of immunity.

Here we come to the heart of this tangled narrative of class, race and imperialism: the rights of the wealthy Indian diplomat versus the rights of her domestic worker, and standing above all else, the imperial American state which suddenly becomes the guarantor of labor rights while preserving its right to strip search whomsoever it pleases.

Two Ruling Classes vs. the Migrant Worker

The Indian ruling class is up in arms against the U.S. government over this affair. The Indian rulers want justice for Devyani Khobragade, who they claim was racially targeted, while the Americans imperiously claim that they were merely applying the law in this situation.

But is the Indian government a tribune for anti-racism? More importantly, is the U.S. government, a global leader in both anti-immigration laws and racist mythologies about immigrants, a true ally of migrant workers such as Sangeeta Richards?

The story that is completely lost in this media battle between the two ruling classes is the story of Sangeeta Richards. In many of the widely circulated news reports, Richards is not even mentioned by name--apparently Khobragade's "Manhattan housekeeper" is a sufficient label.

According to Dana Sussman, the labor rights lawyer representing Richards, Richards worked under unbearable conditions in Khobragade's spacious Manhattan apartment. She had no set work hours and was expected to be on hand to serve her employer's family at all times.

For Richards, the only way out of this minutely scrutinized and intolerable labor regime was to literally escape from the apartment, which she did in the summer of 2013. In a classic move that bosses have used throughout history, Khobragade immediately filed a case against Richards, accusing her of theft, in an Indian court.

Khobragade's powerful family in India began to harass and intimidate Richard's family to ensure that the "servant" didn't file any legal complaints against her employer. Meanwhile back in Manhattan, Sangeeta Richards, says Sussman, was "basically just trying to find her way. She was left with the clothes on her back, with very little money," alone in a strange country and on the run from her boss.

She survived due to the kindness of strangers: with aid from the South Asian American community and a local Gurudwara. Later, Richards contacted Safe Horizons, an organization that works with and helps victims of trafficking. Safe Horizons helped Richards file a complaint with the State Department against Khobragade, leading to her arrest.

Indian politicians and government officials were quick to condemn the conduct of the United States. India's national security adviser called it "despicable and barbaric." The government in New Delhi even removed the existing security barriers that protected that sacred island of international security: the U.S. Embassy.

Many proclamations have come from Indian politicians about how the U.S. has violated the rights of Indian citizens. This is a highly selective, and revealing, use of the term "citizen." Who is the "citizen" that the Indian elite is most concerned about? Devyani Khobragade of course!

This demonstrates clearly how uneasy lies the veneer of national identity when confronted with the thorny problem of class. Gharelu Kaamgaar Sanghatan, the Indian labor union which organizes domestic workers, issued a statement arguing:

In its dealing of the case, the Indian government is only seeking to protect the dignity and honor of Ms. Khobragade, and has shown a complete lack of respect for the underlying issue – that of the abuse and exploitation of a domestic worker by a senior official. Ms. Khobragade's a politician and has a played a harmful role in suppressing the facts of the case and in diverting attention from it.

What Ms. Khobragade has done is not an uncommon practice among diplomats and government officials. It is difficult to expose such crimes, as domestic workers, in their vulnerable and terrified state, are unable to bring such employers to justice...

While we condemn the alleged strip search and cavity search that Ms. Khobragade was subjected to, it is our belief that the outrage over her arrest and mistreatment by officials cannot camouflage the deeper questions raised by the case. In only speaking up for the deputy consular general, the Indian government has belittled a grave and serious concern of labor rights violation, by turning it into a foreign policy issue. We believe India needs to be equally outraged for the plight of the exploited domestic worker, who is also an Indian citizen, and deserves a fair trial.

As for the anti-racist credentials of bourgeois politicians in India, one need look no further than the incident last week involving the newly elected law minister of Delhi and his attempted raid on African nationals living in the city. The raid was conducted on the unbelievable grounds that "black people break laws."

According to reports, during the raid, one of the women "was forced to give a urine sample in public. The women were also subjected to cavity searches and tests--none of which yielded any sign of drugs." Apparently cavity searches are to be protested only when conducted on members of the ruling class!

If the hypocrisy of the Indian rulers is blatant, what about the U.S. government suddenly becoming, in the case of Sangeeta Richards, a protector of labor rights?

First, given the violent anti-working class historical record of the U.S. government, any attempt to associate it with labor rights ought to be material for a comedy show--not news reports.

Second, when U.S. officials claim to be upholding the law, they are telling us a half-truth. They are conveniently eliding over the fact that the major violators of precisely these kinds of labor laws are not corrupt individuals like Khobragade--who commit such crimes on a small scale--but corrupt corporations--who enjoy the state's blessings--and commit such crimes on a generalized basis.

Take the case of Signal International, one of the largest U.S.-based ship building companies. In the scramble for profits in the disaster-torn New Orleans after Katrina, this giant shipbuilder allegedly trafficked a group of Indian workers and lured them to the Gulf Coast under false premises. In the words of the workers:

They told us there were jobs in the Gulf Coast, and that we could bring our families and build lives in the United States. We paid recruiters $20,000 for these American dreams. We sold our homes, plunged our families into debt and mortgaged our futures to raise the money. But we arrived into a nightmare.

Signal held us in forced labor. We lived like animals, 24 men to a small room. We faced constant threats and humiliation.

When we started to organize in March 2007, Signal sent armed guards to the labor camps...They pulled our terrified organizers out of bed, imprisoned them on company grounds, and attempted to deport them.

The bosses at Signal, far from being cavity-searched by a righteous U.S. police force on charges of visa fraud, were awarded the prestigious "Excellence in Safety" award, eight years in a row, by the Ship Builders Council of America (SBCA). The SBCA is a semi-government outfit that has several people in it with former careers in the U.S. Navy and the Department of Defense, and with close ties to Congress.

Third, Devyani Khobragade demanded that she be given "diplomatic immunity"--which in her case, is essentially ruling-class speak for a literal get-out-of-jail-free card. The U.S. government denied her such immunity in light of her crimes. But is the same U.S. government consistent in denying "immunity" to all criminals? As the Indian feminist activist Kavita Krishnan points out:

When CIA operative Raymond Davis was charged with killing two men in Lahore in broad daylight in 2011, the U.S. quickly claimed diplomatic immunity for him, even though he was not even officially a diplomat.

Moreover, the U.S. demands immunity for all its armed forces in Afghanistan, which in effect gives the U.S. a full run of torture and intimidation of Afghani civilians. As Michael Prysner, an Iraq veteran and anti-war activist correctly says of the Afghan Security Pact of 2013:

[The U.S. wants] complete immunity from any crimes committed by any U.S. troops or by the U.S. military. And this alone highlights the real colonial nature of the relationship between the U.S. and the Afghan government. They won't agree to any pact that doesn't include immunity for the criminal acts that are committed. And this is why they withdrew from Iraq--because they refused to give up on this one point of immunity.

Pious declarations about labor rights and diplomatic protocols from the most violent ruling class on our planet deserve to be scorned by everyone from New Delhi to New York.

Justice for All Sangeeta Richards of the World

Our job, as socialists based in the U.S., is to bring the focus sharply back to Sangeeta Richards against the concerted efforts of the rulers of both India and the U.S. to make her invisible.

We should be highlighting the work already being done in this respect. The National Domestic Worker Alliance (NDWA), a U.S.-based organization of domestic workers, composed largely of migrant women of color from the Global South, has led the protests against the treatment meted out to Richards. Another labor group, the United Worker's Congress, has helped coordinate protests outside the Indian consulates in Washington, D.C., New York, San Francisco and Atlanta.

We should also be standing in solidarity with labor activists in India. Organizations such as the Gharelu Kaamgar Sangathan, the National Domestic Workers' Movement and the New Trade Union Initiative have been for many years doing the painstaking job of building among this vulnerable section of the Indian working class.

In conclusion, let us revisit the Financial Times' allegation about Khobragade's conduct being medieval. It is perhaps worth pointing out to them that Khobragade, in treating her domestic worker in this appalling manner, has behaved as the model modern capitalist boss.

Her treatment of Sangeeta Richards stands on the shoulder of giants: giant retailers such as Walmart and Gap, which run killer sweatshops in Bangladesh, and giant companies such as Coca Cola, which routinely hire assassins to murder labor organizers in Latin America.

In this dispute, both the powerful defenders of Khobragade in India and the imperial defenders of the U.S. state have used the word "barbaric" multiple times against each other. This is one instance where we agree with both sides. That epithet truly describes the two ruling classes and the system they help maintain.

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