Slavery under a different guise of legality and customary practice still exists in India

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By Pradip Phanjoubam

Much has been written and done already on the controversy surrounding the controversial manner in which a senior Indian diplomat in New York was arrested and subjected to multiple humiliations of not only being publicly handcuffed but also of cavity searches and internment alongside common criminals. The sorry episode, it may be recalled, even led to severe endangering of diplomatic ties between USA and India, two countries considered close ‘natural’ allies in the post Cold War era, one of which is described as the oldest democracy and the other the biggest. Although tempers now seem to be cooling a little, the dust from the unprecedented storm can hardly be said to have settled fully. India’s conditions for the a rapprochement was for the USA to apologize for the despicable indignity Devyani Khobragade, the Indian diplomat in question, was put through, and to drop all criminal charges against her, but they have still not been met, although US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has since informally expressed regrets.

The profile of the case being what it is, much of the day to day developments in its regard have been already relegated to history by extensive and intensive media coverage, and so it would be virtually just another repetition of repetitions to recount how, when and where the Indian vice consul was arrested, what treatment she was put through, how she has since been transferred to the Indian UN mission in New York to give her full diplomatic immunity thus prevent further harassment, including re-arrest etc. Every follower of the event also would know she was arrested first for providing false document to the US visa office on behalf of the Indian maid she took along with her to the US for babysitting and housework, and then for grossly underpaying her once the latter got past the immigration formalities. The maid, Sangeeta Richard, ultimately fled from the diplomat’s house and complained to the US authorities, and the rest, as they say is history. However as many have pointed out, it is again an unfair history, for it neglects Richard’s side of the story.

The danger of such events which get thrown into the centre stage of public interest is, in everybody’s obsession with the politics and economics of the high drama, the human misery and suffering involved often tend to be forgotten. For indeed, this story is also about modern day slavery which unfortunately is rampant in India, and therefore the concern of the conscientious citizen should have been for the need to fight and have this variant of slavery abolished. Richard’s visa application form declared Khobragade contracted to be employed on a monthly salary of 4500 dollars, keeping within the mandatory minimum wage standard of the USA so that her visa may be granted, but in reality Richard was paid only 500 dollars a month. She also apparently complained she was made to work more than what she agreed in her contract.

Not surprisingly, sympathy in India was overwhelmingly for the employer and not the maid. This was on two counts, one legitimate and the other extremely unfair. The first reason for this overflow of sympathy for Khobragade is the sense of insult and humiliation the USA was seen as inflicting on India by the shameful manner in which the senior diplomat was publicly arrested and handcuffed, put through humiliating body searches before interning her in a cell along with common criminals. No special courtesy was shown to her for her status as a senior diplomat of a friendly country. India’s outrage in this regard was justified, though the retaliations may have amounted to a little overreaction. America’s explanation is, the treatment Khobragade received was the standard for every offender of the law in the country, regardless of status. The arrest of former IMF chief Strauss-Kahn while he was still in office in New York on May 15, 2011, over allegations of sexual assault is an example of this. They may have a point there, for the law must be above everybody, but the question is, should it also be bereft of all courtesies. Khobragade could have been summoned and told to surrender. Even in war, the Geneva Conventions specify such courtesies for ranks of soldiers captured.

While the first is a spontaneous knee-jerk reaction to an immediate provocation, the second is born out of a deeply ingrained malaise in the Indian society. In Khobragade smuggling an Indian maid into the USA to keep her as a virtual slave, many if not most affluent Indians would have seen a reflection of their own skewed morality which allows them to see nothing abnormal in the practice. Different variants of such stories of atrocities on housemaids are commonplace in the country. Only recently, there were news reports of how an air hostess in Delhi tortured and tormented her maid and even kept the latter locked in the house while she went on outstation travels, sometimes for as long as a fortnight. Many others who keep servants and maids may not have been as cruel, but it is unlikely they would have paid even as much as Khobragade paid Richard, even after taking into account the differences in cost of living between the cities they live in and New York where Khobragade took Richard. To pay 500 dollars a month (about Rs. 30,000) to a servant in India would have been extravagant. It is the salary for Grade-1 and even Grade-2, white collar, government jobs. But it would have been virtually impossible to survive in New York with the amount. In Manipur, it may be possible to survive on a monthly salary of Rs. 5000, considering almost everybody, including in Imphal suburbs, still has a homestead, a kitchen garden, a fish pond, some poultry, scope for collecting firewood for cooking, community support system such as shinglup, marup etc. In a place like Delhi, even a monthly salary of Rs. 10,000 would amount to condemnation to a life in slum.

The overwhelming sympathy for Khobragade then is a demonstration that the flaw is not just hers alone that made her do what she did without seeing any moral transgression in the act, apart from the naughtiness of skirting around a technical and legal inconvenience of a foreign legal system. It is on the other hand a systemic malfunction whereby an overwhelming majority in India has come to view such practices of keeping maids in slavish conditions as part of an acceptable, therefore legitimate custom. The elite has seen to it that this skewed moral vision has come to be commonsensical and natural in the manner Gramsci predicted the elite would ensure their class interest is protected by making such idea hegemonies appear like the most natural customs and traditions. A ‘counter-hegemony’ to dismantle this oppressive morality structure is what is called for so as to banish this complacent sense of order and harmony cultivated over the years by the elite.

The Khobragade-Richard episode, embarrassing as it may be for India, is also a signal that it is time for the country to look into, and radically reform its labour laws and standards. This new standard must also be calibrated in accordance to the cost of living of its different region. Just as Khobragade whose own monthly salary is reported to be 4200 dollars would not have been able to afford a housemaid by the American standard and pay 4500 dollars a month, an un-calibrated wage standard in a country as vast as India with huge regional differences would be unrealistic. This also means Khobragade should have known her limits as an employer, being an intelligent top grade employee of the government of India, and refrained from insisting on employing somebody by breaking her host country’s law to afford it. Alternatively, if it is absolutely essential for somebody of her stature to be free of routine household chores so she can concentrate on her mission abroad, the Government of India should have taken care of the necessary extra expenses.

None of these being so, as of now, it would have to be said the world’s largest democracy still practices slavery, albeit in a different avatar, but definitely with delusionary legal sanctions. Before anybody decides to point a finger at his or her neighbor however, let him or her reflect that for every finger pointed at somebody else, three other fingers, other than the thumb of his own hand would be pointed back at him.

The bitter taste in the mouth left behind by the Khobragade controversy notwithstanding, the episode has other lessons, and one which Manipur can learn from with benefits. Despite the boorishness with which it pursued it, the US was actually making a point that it considers its law as above every one of its citizens, as well as non-citizens within its territory enjoying the benefits and protections of this law. The emphasis was, within its territorial bounds, the rule of its law is paramount.

By extreme contrast, an absolute absence of rule of law is what marks life in Manipur, causing not just inconveniences and harangues to everyday lives of ordinary men and women, but also often compromising their safety and sense of dignity. A few days ago, a news item in the local dailies reported how state legislators called for a privilege motion against the state’s popular cable TV channel, ISTV, for pointing out the brazen manner in which MLAs and ministers flout the law, including trivial ones as those of city traffic norms. Whether the reportage amounted to a breach of privilege of the august House is a matter to be considered by the privilege committee, but the fact will remain that the whole town is witness to these daily affronts on their sensibilities. As for instance, not very long ago, the chief minister, Okram Ibobi, declared publicly no so called VIP vehicles would be allowed to trespass the Kangla premises as had become the practice. On any given day, these so called VIP vehicles would be seen whizzing through the Kangla with the whirling red lights over them and blaring sirens to complement, in what can only be described as painful sights inflicted on the hapless public by silly inflated egos.

But it is not just the VIPs who disregard rules. On any given day, commuters on roads in Manipur, even in the capital city, can never be sure if he would not be surprised by a new, unauthorized ditch dug across the road to reach municipal piped water to a house on the wrong side of the municipality pipeline, or an unauthorized speed breaker introduced by any given locality to regulate traffic the way they want. In the Bazaar area, parking was prohibited and this prohibition was enforced for some time. The first to break these probations expectedly were vehicles of VIPs and Army personnel, lifting the floodgates once again, ultimately making a farce of the parking regulatory norms. The list is endless. It is high time (or should it be ‘isn’t it high time?’) for the government authorities in Manipur to decide to learn some lessons and make public life in the state a little more orderly in a genuine way.

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