The World

The Nanny Scandal Tearing the U.S. and India Apart

The Consulate General of India building, on East 64th Street in New York, pictured on Dec. 13, 2013.

Photo by Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

It hasn’t made too much noise here, but there’s a major diplomatic rift developing between the United States and India over the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York for underpaying her nanny. Senior government officials have refused to meet a visiting U.S. congressional delegation, and security barriers have been removed from outside the U.S. embassy in New Delhi. The government is also reviewing the diplomatic immunity of U.S. officials in the country.

This all started last week when Devyani Khobragade, consul-general for political, economic, commercial, and women’s affairs at the Indian Consulate in New York, was arrested for visa fraud. Khobragade had stated on the visa application for her nanny, an Indian national named Sangeeta Richard, that she would be paid $4,500 per month. But Khobragade allegedly later made Richard sign a second contract reducing her salary to $537 per month, or less than $4 per hour. If convicted, Khobragade faces “a maximum sentence of 10 years.”

According to Indian media accounts, Khobragade was handcuffed on the street while dropping her daughters off at school and strip-searched before being released on bail. The U.S. State Department maintains that proper procedures were followed and that she was not covered under diplomatic immunity because the crimes were not committed in relation to her job. Under some circumstances, consular officials, as opposed to embassy officials, can be arrested for felonies

However, India is pointing to an article in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which states that if such charges are filed against a consular official, they “shall be conducted with the respect due to him by reason of his official position and, except when he is under arrest or detention, in a manner which will hamper the exercise of consular functions as little as possible.”

This isn’t the first case of this type involving Indian officials in New York. As Gwynn Guilford points out, “in 2012, a New York judge directed an Indian diplomat to pay her former domestic worker $1.5 million in damages due to ’barbaric treatment.’ … In 2011, India’s consul general in New York was charged with forced labor of his domestic helper.” Beyond India, the U.S. government has identified dozens of cases of abuse of domestic workers by foreign diplomats, often shielded from prosecution by immunity.

On the other side, India sees this as the latest in a pattern of their diplomats being disrespected in the U.S. As the Guardian recounts, “In 2010 there was uproar after India’s U.N. envoy, Hardeep Puri, was reportedly asked to remove his turban at a US airport and detained in a holding room when he … refused. A hands-on search of India’s US ambassador Meera Shankar at an airport in Mississippi that year also prompted claims that India had been ‘insulted.’ “

There’s obviously some election-year politics going on with both the ruling congress party and insurgent BJP eager to show their willingness to take on the U.S. Leaders of both parties have declined to meet with the visiting U.S. delegation.

It seems obvious that U.S. officials probably could have handled this case better considering the political stakes involved, but given the recent calls in India for legislation to protect domestic workers from abuse and exploitation, it’s striking how quickly the Indian media coverage of this incident seems to have concluded that it was the accuser rather than the diplomat who is at fault here. 

Update: The State Department has forwarded the following statement from deputy spokesperson Marie Harf: 

“The United States and India enjoy a broad and deep friendship, and this isolated episode is not indicative of the close and mutually respectful ties we share.”

“We understand that this is a sensitive issue for many in India. Accordingly, we are looking into the intake procedures surrounding this arrest to ensure that all appropriate procedures were followed and every opportunity for courtesy was extended.”

“While this is a law enforcement issue and will need to be worked through standard procedures and official law enforcement channels, we will continue to work this issue with India in the spirit of partnership and cooperation that marks our broad bilateral relationship.”