Asia Pacific / Politics | FOCUS

Champion of women's rights reportedly underpaid nanny

The Washington Post

A week after the arrest and strip-search of an Indian diplomat in New York caused a international firestorm, new details are emerging about the woman at the center of the controversy, a seemingly contradictory figure who advocated for women’s rights in public but is accused of underpaying and overworking her nanny at home.

Devyani Khobragade, 39, who had previously been posted in Germany and Pakistan, cut an impressive figure in her job as deputy consul general at the Indian Consulate when she arrived in New York last November.

In perfectly draped saris, she hosted meetings and gave speeches to female Asian entrepreneurs and doctors. “India always believes in encouraging its women,” she said after one event, in a video posted on YouTube.

But behind the scenes, prosecutors and lawyers have alleged, she had an Indian nanny living in her spacious apartment whom she was paying far less than required by the U.S. government.

Prosecutors and the attorney for the nanny, Sangeeta Richard, contend that Richard was asked to work from early in the morning until late at night, seven days a week, for several months. The domestic helper never had a day off, only a few hours on Sunday, they say.

Richard’s attorney, Dana Sussman, has said that the conditions in the home were so terrible that the nanny asked to go back to India, a request that was denied. After that, Sussman said, she had no choice but to leave. “This is a case alleging visa fraud related to the rights of a domestic worker to a fair wage and decent working conditions,” Sussman said. “Our client’s experience in this case is not unique, but the attention this case has garnered is.”

Over the past week, outrage over Khobragade’s treatment flared across India. Protesters burned President Barack Obama in effigy. The Indian government removed long-standing concrete barriers near the American Embassy. And U.S. actions were widely denounced by politicians and government officials, including several who declared that Khobragade’s honor as “a lady diplomat” must be defended at any cost.

Then, at midweek, a well-known Dalit — the name for the country’s lowest caste, once called the “untouchables” — rose in parliament’s upper house to speak. The Indian government reacted late to the Khobragade crisis, said Mayawati, a member of the chamber and a former state chief minister, “because she was a Dalit.”

The introduction of caste politics into the overheated debate was not unusual for Indian discourse, but Mayawati’s comment highlighted just how far India has come in recent years, and how Khobragade, for all her contradictions, symbolizes this change.

She was born in a town called Tarapur, near Mumbai, into comfortable circumstances, the daughter of a bureaucrat, Uttam Khobragade, who owed his career to the government’s generous 15 percent set-aside for India’s lower castes in government jobs and educational posts. His daughter, too, would one day benefit from this quota when she joined the foreign service.

The Khobragades are a prominent family from a subcaste of Dalits called Mahars, who were once street sweepers and village watchmen forbidden to enter temples and drink water from the same wells as the upper castes. In recent years, as India’s rigid system of social stratification weakened, Mahars have risen to prosperity and professional careers.

“Their life is far better than it was 40 years ago,” said Badri Narayan, a social scientist and expert on Dalit issues at the Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute in Allahabad. “They’re very assertive against any kind of discrimination. They are doing well in government, administrative jobs, academics and politics.”

Khobragade studied medicine at her father’s insistence but never wanted to become a doctor.

While she was stationed in Pakistan, she bought an apartment in the now-notorious Adarsh Housing Society cooperative in Mumbai, a move that has dogged Khobragade and her family for the past decade. The posh high-rise that rises above the ocean in Mumbai’s south end was supposed to be a six-story residence for war widows.

But the project grew to 31 stories and was tainted by allegations of corruption and graft — with Uttam Khobragade among the bureaucrats suspected of involvement. Separately, Khobragade has a large portfolio of real estate holdings, including three apartments and agricultural land in three states. Earlier, she gave a detailed account of her financial situation to her employer in which she estimated the combined worth of these properties at about $300,000.

Real estate experts who reviewed her filing for The Post said she appeared to be significantly underestimating their total value, noting that the Adarsh apartment alone is worth more than $600,000.

India said last week that it has reassigned Khobragade to a post in the country’s permanent mission to the United Nations, a transfer that would, if approved, allow her full immunity from additional charges.

Yet the visa fraud case seems far from resolved. The United States has said it will not drop charges against her, and both sides have presented widely differing accounts of what happened between Khobragade and the nanny, who lived with the family for six months until she left their New York home in June.

Whatever the outcome, it is likely that the scandal will prevent Khobragade from realizing the dreams she had when she began her foreign service career in 1999.

“The highest point in our careers is the ambassador’s post,” she told the Indian Panorama newspaper earlier this year. “But my other ambition is to have direct impact on a foreign policy for underprivileged women.”

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