Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade, who shares the life experiences of the well-to-do, upwardly mobile Indian professional classes, was arrested earlier this month in Manhattan on charges of lying on a visa application about how much she pays her maid, Sangeeta Richard. New York prosecutors claim the maid received only $3 per hour. Additionally, Richard’s husband claims she was kept in slave-like conditions, not allowed to return to India and required to work days not stipulated in her contract.
This has led to a diplomatic row, with India claiming high-handed American treatment against its diplomat and retaliating against American diplomats and facilities in India. The American prosecutor, who by sheer coincidence is of Indian descent, insists Khobragade is being treated fairly, no different from anyone else arrested in Manhattan for similar crimes.
Let us put this event into perspective. America, with all its perceived racial and class-war problems, is one of the few countries where race and class is much less important than in just about any other place. For instance, in America if a high-society rich man is accused of raping a poor immigrant domestic worker, our justice system takes such an alleged crime very seriously. This is untrue in most other countries where class is immensely more important than justice.
For example, recall the recent case against Strauss-Kahn, former director of the International Monetary Fund and possible then-candidate for French president. By any account, Strauss-Kahn was certainly in a high position. But in 2011 he was accused of raping a hotel maid (a charge later dropped for lack of evidence) and thereby arrested and held by American authorities. The French were outraged at the time. They could not understand how America could arrest and hold such a man (meaning a man of high stature) on only the word of a “lowly” maid. Today over two centuries after the French Revolution, a revolution where the French aristocracy met the fury of its people–and the guillotine, the French still treat their privileged as kings.
The Indian authorities, journalists, and pundits, each of whom share Khobragade’s upper-middle-class background and social status, clearly empathize with her, whom they consider one of their own, with little or no apparent concern for the work conditions of her help. Thanks to a society with deeply entrenched inequities, long ago solidified from its age-old caste system, Indian employers routinely ignore that their domestic help even have rights to exercise. Thus the Indian government’s and media’s obvious lack of concern for Richard’s welfare.
Justice is blind, or should be. We Americans have much of which to be proud. Our comparatively egalitarian justice system (although not perfect by any means) is certainly one such item.