Diplomat's Arrest In N.Y. Sparks Anger In India

Financial Times New Delhi correspondent Amy Kazmin speaks with NPR's Linda Wertheimer about the case of an Indian diplomat arrested in New York for allegedly paying her maid below minimum wage. The diplomat was strip-searched and jailed, touching off an angry reaction in India.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

An angry diplomatic row has erupted between the U.S. and India, mostly on the Indian side. Last week, India's deputy consul general in New York was arrested and charged with visa fraud. She's alleged to have falsely reported to U.S. officials how much she paid her Indian maid. She allegedly was paying her well below minimum wage.

But the diplomat's message home saying she had been strip-searched and jailed with what she called drug addicts has set off a huge reaction in India. We go to Amy Kazmin, the Financial Times New Delhi correspondent. Thank you for joining us.

AMY KAZMIN: You're welcome.

WERTHEIMER: So what is the latest we know about this case?

KAZMIN: India's foreign ministry has announced that they are now transferring the diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, into their permanent mission in New York with the hope of increasing her immunity from prosecution. Emotions are running very, very high here in India. India's government is under a lot of pressure to really stand up to the U.S. and try to stop the prosecution of the woman.

WERTHEIMER: Could you tell us about the reaction in India?

KAZMIN: India has responded to this by removing a lot of security barricades that have long been standing in the roads around the U.S. embassy and the U.S. embassy residence compound. They've also said that they're demanding the diplomatic I.D. cards of members of U.S. consulate staff elsewhere in India. They are saying that they are going to review the salaries of the Indian nationals working for the U.S. embassy in India as well as the activities of diplomatic spouses.

WERTHEIMER: Could you tell us why they Indian reaction is so strong?

KAZMIN: I think the strip-search has been particularly problematic. This is a country that still has a lot of notions about the honor of families and communities and societies being tied up in the body of women, and this idea that she was strip-searched is very, very emotional, this idea that her dignity and the nation's dignity was really affronted.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now, what about the issue, the thing that she was arrested for? How is this seen in Indian society? I mean class and domestic workers have been issues before.

KAZMIN: Interestingly, the Indian Foreign Service diplomats, the public opinion here, seems to be paying considerably less attention to what was the possible plight of the maid than they are to the experience that Khobragade has just gone through. I think Indians are used to the idea of household help, domestic workers toiling in tough conditions at not very high salaries. What they're not used to is seeing in positions of power subjected to the processes of law just like any other common criminal, as she wrote in her email home.

Within India and on social media, there have been actually a lot of debates about this. There have been a noticeable and strong minority saying actually we should really be looking at how we treat our own domestic workers, that we are so inured to the abuse of domestic workers that we don't even think twice about it. People are also mentioning that this has been a repeated issue with Indian diplomats abroad who have taken their domestic staff with them to foreign postings and then run into trouble with the U.S. authorities because the domestic staff haven't been paid according to U.S. minimum wage.

And in fact last year an Indian diplomat was ordered by a court to pay $1.5 million in damages to her former housemaid, who had been essentially treated, according to the U.S. authorities, as a slave.

WERTHEIMER: That's Amy Kazmin, correspondent for the Financial Times in New Delhi. Thank you very much.

KAZMIN: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.

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