Ranjona Banerji: Ground keeps shifting on Devyani Khobragade case

20 Dec,2013

By Ranjona Banerji


The affair Khobragade is getting stranger and stranger. The media seems to be divided between patriots and human rights activists. But this is still a case where the ground keeps shifting beneath your feet, so yesterday’s position can become today’s embarrassment.


The first reaction upon hearing that Devyani Khobragade, part of the Indian consulate in the US, was arrested for not paying her maid fair wages according to US law was to bemoan this practice of ill-treating domestics which is rampant in India. Then the news said that Khobragade had been arrested and handcuffed in front of her children and strip searched and “cavity searched”. The pendulum promptly sprung to outrage against the US. Add to that dark conspiracy mutterings about how the maid in question, Sangita Richards and her family had been spirited away to the US to “save” them from harassment by India, how Richards’s in-laws worked as US embassy staff and you have a story fit for Lawrence Durrell’s Esprit d’Corps.


There was much cheer that the Indian government – usually depicted as wimpish on news channels especially since we do not declare war on Pakistan and China every third day or on the whims of the anchor – had actually taken a tough stand. In between Arvind Kejriwal and Anna Hazare and the Lokpal Bill and Justice AK Ganguly, TV news carried footage of the barricades in front of the US embassy in New Delhi being demolished. Certainly a seminal freedom fighter movement for Indians born post-Independence.


This was also a great time for foreign affairs experts to lend their weight and experience to the matter. The general consensus was that the US was high-handed, good that India stood tough and that domestics are routinely ill-treated in foreign lands. The Times of India in an edit said that had India been economically stronger, the US would never have done this to us. The Hindustan Times on Thursday had an excellent foreign affairs page which covered all aspects of the case. The Indian Express told us how the Khobragades, daughter Devyani and father Uttam, Maharashtra bureaucrat owned several properties, including in the controversial Adarsh building in Mumbai.


I have one more take on this. The man responsible for taking all this strict action against Khobragade is a public prosecutor in New York called Preet Bharara. Bharara is of Indian origin. When he became prosecutor, the Indian media fell all over him as if he had singlehandedly found a cure for HIV/AIDS. We have this bizarre tendency to accrue to ourselves credit for any action or achievement of a person of Indian origin, even if those achievements have nothing to do with India. It is as if we are so insecure in ourselves that we need anything at all to give us solace or succour or just make us feel good about being Indian.


But Bharara does not want to be Indian. He is an American. In fact, he seems to have insistently and steadfastly pursued erring South Asians, perhaps for reasons of his own. There was no need for the Indian media to fete him in the hysterical manner in which they did. This worship of NRIs and their doings has to stop. In 2009, when Venkataraman Ramakrishnan won a Nobel for Chemistry he made it very clear that he did not owe the Nobel to India, much to the embarrassment of a salivating media.


One understands that there is a need to address the large Indian “diaspora” as they are called these days, regardless of the implications of the term, if only because many greedy Indians and governments want their foreign exchange. But there is a need to be circumspect and sensible, as the adulation of Bharara shows. And if we the media are really so concerned about addressing NRIs, why not investigate those who suffer the horrors of human trafficking and slave-like conditions when working abroad? Not all NRIs are aunties in polyester saris 40 years out of date carrying free diapers for poor relatives or aunties dressed in some abomination of a TV soap outfit who come to India only to shop for more ugly shiny clothes or even a New York prosecutor who wants to be more loyal than the king.


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2 responses to “Ranjona Banerji: Ground keeps shifting on Devyani Khobragade case”

  1. Guest says:

    The rights and wrongs of what the diplomat has done will be deliberated upon by a jury of twelve true and honest women and men who make up in native wisdom what they might lack in legal knowledge. The greater concern must be the effect of this incident on what both nations recognise to be an incredibly important relationship. Foreign and security policy is better formulated in South Block than in brightly lit TV studios.

  2. Guest says:

    Venkataraman Ramakrishnan could have made a few cooing sounds about his Indian roots and helped himself to a Bharat Ratna.

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