Diplomat's Arrest Causes US-India Strain

Since the recent arrest of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade, US-Indian relations have been strained. Guest host Celeste Headlee speaks with Deepa Iyer, Executive Director of South Asian-Americans Leading Together and Sandip Roy, Culture Editor for the Indian news site FirstPost.com.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, after the shopping is over and the presents are wrapped, many people celebrate Christmas Eve with a drink or two or three. If you're not content with plain old eggnog, we caught up with a mixologist who wants to add more flavor to your holiday drink menu. That's just ahead. First, though, we're going to focus on an issue that has strained U.S. relations with India. At the center of the storm is Devyani Kohbragade, the Indian deputy consul general to the U.S. who was arrested on visa fraud charges.

Prosecutors allege that she falsified a contract with a domestic worker, also from India, to cover up that the worker was paid below minimum wage. Protests have erupted in India over Kohbragade's arrest. But here in the U.S., there's a wide range of responses among Indian-Americans, including compassion for the maid who's at the center of the controversy. Here to discuss it with us is Deepa Iyer. She's an attorney and the executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together. She joins us from Louisville, Kentucky. And also with us, Sandip Roy, culture editor for the Indian news site Firstpost.com. And he's with us from Kolkata. Welcome to both of you.

DEEPA IYER: Thank you.

SANDIP ROY: Thank you.

HEADLEE: Deepa, if you could sum up for us the allegations in this case - what she is charged with.

IYER: As you mentioned, Devyani Kohbragade was charged last week with visa fraud and making false statements on applications to bring over her housekeeper and nanny, who's name is Sangeeta Richard, to live and work in the U.S. And the issues here are that she falsified information about how much Sangeeta Richard would be paid. She was paid, apparently, about $3.31 an hour.

HEADLEE: Well, one of the things that has elicited outrage, I think, is objections to the manner of her arrest. Why?

IYER: So Ms. Kohbragade claims that she was mistreated during her arrest. There are allegations that she was handcuffed at her daughter's school, strip searched, cavity searched. And those allegations certainly are ones that need to be taken very seriously. And there are ones that details are slowly emerging about. But that has certainly caused a lot of outrage in terms of how she was actually treated during the arrest itself.

HEADLEE: And in fact, Sandip, in India, there have been a number of protests and the Indian government removed the concrete security barriers from the front of the American embassy. Where does public opinion stand now? Are people still protesting over her arrest?

ROY: Well, there definitely have been protests, Celeste. And when the Indian government removed the concrete in front of the American embassy, some people portrayed that as India reclaiming some territory from the Americans again. But there definitely have been protests, but that's also largely because India is heading into an election year next year. Both the government, as well as the opposition, have a lot of stake in appearing to show muscle and stand up to the United States on an issue that is as emotional - and I think a large reason why this issue is emotional - is also because Devyani Kohbragade is a woman. So there is this issue of, like, they are manhandling our women.

But the press has been divided. There has also been a lot of articles written about the other Indian in the case, where people have said you're standing up for Devyani because she's an Indian woman - what about, Sangeeta Richard, the domestic help? She is another Indian woman too in this case. But I think what's basically happened is that the story has two strands. One is all about the visa fraud and the payment and labor laws. And the other is about how Devyani Kohbragade was treated. And people are conflating the two or emphasizing one or the other depending on their interest in the story.

HEADLEE: Deepa, A lot of the public opinion among Indian Americans has focused on the maid as opposed to Kohbragade. How do - are native-born or immigrant Americans from India talking about this case?

IYER: Well, I think you're right. I mean, I think that with South Asian Americans here in the U.S., we know that there is tremendous economic diversity in our communities. If you, you know, look at Jackson Heights or the streets of Devon Avenue, to Freemont, California, we know that South Asians hire domestic workers and caregivers and benefit greatly. And in this country, there are about 1.8 to 2.5 million domestic workers here in the United States as nannies, companions, caregivers to our elderly and disabled. And many of these are immigrant women like Ms. Richard, many of them come from South Asian countries like India, Nepal, Bangladesh.

And what we have seen time and time again are stories of some of the abuse that they often suffer. And this issue is broader, right, than even Ms. Richards. It shows that our country's labor laws and our immigration laws have a long way to go. And so with South Asian Americans, there's definitely an understanding, as Sandip said, of both the strands of the case, but there is this sense of standing up for Sangeeta and those like her so that we can all work with dignity.

HEADLEE: And, Sandip, what is reaction to that issue over how much the domestic worker was paid? Is there any outrage in India among the people over the idea that, perhaps, she was just being paid too little? Or is that amount of wage considered to be high when you're living in India?

ROY: Of course that amount of wage is considered to be high when you're living in India. But, you know, just because Ms. Richard has the privilege of living in Manhattan as opposed to a slum in Mumbai does not mean that she should be paid at Mumbai rates. Devyani Kohbragade's sister has actually just gone on Facebook to defend her and say she was actually being paid more, and all the details will come out in the trial. But it is a fact that domestic workers in India are paid abysmally.

They don't really have any protections. They are expected to work seven days a week. If they're sick, their pay may be docked. They, you know, work 365 days a year. But the focus of this case has actually caused several domestic workers organizations in India to also speak up and say, you know, we should be holding the mirror to ourselves as well. And one of the domestic workers was quoted in the newspaper as saying, you know, at least I'm just amazed that a foreign government is actually talking about a domestic worker's wages. You know, we never do that here in that sense. They thought that Sangeeta Richard is actually quite lucky.

HEADLEE: So, Deepa, what kind of diplomatic protections does she have in this case, if any?

IYER: As of this moment, Ms. Kohbragade has been transferred to the Indian Mission within the United Nations, which effectively means that she can't be prosecuted while she's carrying out UN duties. But I think that there's some approval that still needs to be made for that to occur. So we'll have to see, kind of, how the details of the case emerge in terms of her mistreatment during arrest, what the extent of her diplomatic immunity is. But beyond that, I think that it's really important that we tell the full story here, and what gave rise to this complaint in the first place around the plight of domestic workers, and how we're treating domestic workers and the value of work.

ROY: Celeste, I was just going to point out in this issue of diplomatic immunity that that is one of the reasons why people in India have been so incensed, because they feel that while the United States wants to portray itself as like nobody is above the law kind of figure - in this case the United States itself has practiced a lot of double standards when it comes to these issues of diplomatic immunity. And a case brought up over and over again in India is how the U.S., you know, stood by Raymond Allen Davis who was the contractor with the CIA in Lahore who reportedly killed two armed men in 2011.

And at that time, the U.S. government contended he was protected by diplomatic immunity. So they're saying that, oh, in your case, diplomatic immunity works, but in our case, it doesn't.

HEADLEE: That's Sandip Roy, culture editor for Indian news site FirstPost.com. He was with us from Kolkata. Thank you. And Deepa Iyer is the executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together, and she joined us from Louisville, Kentucky. Thanks to both of you very much.

IYER: Thank you.

ROY: Thank you.

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