By Swapan Dasgupta
The fuss over Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade's maid has had an immediate fallout on Indo-US bilateral relations. Given that this was an affair involving diplomatic protocol and even national sovereignty, this was only to be expected. Less anticipated, however, was the impact of this controversy on two very separate groups of Indians: the middle class Indians resident in India and their social counterparts now resident in the West. Far from acting in unison, circumstances have propelled both groups to turn on each other with a measure of hostility that was unimaginable.
At the heart of the dispute is the vexed "servants" question. To the middle class Indians with a reasonable exposure to the West, the charges levelled by the nanny-cum-domestic help were easily explained. Sangita Richards' status in the US was directly linked to the tenure of her employer. If she wished to acquire a permanent right to live and work in the US, she had to carve out an independent status for herself. This was only possible by charging her employer with violating her human rights and depicting herself as a victim of servitude. This she successfully did by preying on the gullibility of do-gooders who are accustomed to viewing the Third World as an undifferentiated area of darkness. Indeed, by blending piousness with America's self-perception as the world's good cop, Richards was even able to secure the 'evacuation' of her family from Indian tyranny.
This was the story most middle class Indians and the mandarins in South Block, including those slightly embarrassed by the dodgy track record of a member of India's Dalit aristocracy, chose to believe. To them, the domestic help was a street smart operator out to short-circuit the US immigration rules. If that meant levelling extraordinary charges against her employer, she was game.
Predictably, in a battle involving the country of their birth and the land of their adoption, overseas Indians had to exercise an unenviable choice. There was, quite naturally, a large degree of envy at work. Many who earned much, much more than Devyani's modest relatively salary resented the fact that purported diplomatic status allowed her to maintain a flat in Manhattan and import a maid from India who was paid less than the going New York rate.
It didn't stop at that. The journey from envy to resentment involved frenzied breast-beating over how Indians habitually treated 'servants' disgustingly and how the relationship was deeply exploitative. Overseas Indians who were hitherto happy to enjoy the luxuries of domestic help during their holidays in India, suddenly woke up to the belief that privileged Indians lacked any form of social conscience. The subtext was also apparent: by emigrating to the First World, these sons and daughters of India had exorcised themselves of the accumulated sins of their families in the subcontinent. Judging from the visceral comments on social media, it almost seemed that those who had migrated westwards had so as a protest against an iniquitous social order. India, it was tacitly suggested, could redeem itself by transplanting the transactional social relationships of the New World into a society that is pre-modern, modern and post-modern at the same time.
For many Indian-Americans, the Devyani Khobragade affair was akin to the Tebbit test of loyalty. There may have been some awkwardness with the high-handed treatement of a woman diplomat but, overall, there was vigorous nodding approval for District Attorney Preet Bharara's carping suggestion that the US wasn't accustomed to treating important people with kid gloves. In exercising choice, those who India likes to view as its overseas citizens, chose to spurn the old country.
This is a lesson that won't be easily forgotten in India. For the past decade at least, the New World and even some European countries have proceeded on the assumption that ethnic Indians are better able to understand India and relate to Indians than the average white or black. The assumption has often been questioned by Indians. Anecdotal experience suggests that Indians with different passports have a monumental chip on their shoulder. After Devyani's Bharara encounter this prejudice is certain to turn into a conviction. It won't be a bad idea if the West acts on this realisation.
Sunday Times of India, December 29, 2013