A nation whose elites and middle classes are perfectly in sync with the American worldview (India is among the top America-loving nations in the world) and think that America is the epitome of democracy have suddenly woken up to the rude reality that maybe Americans do not think about us in the same way!
When the great lord passes the wise peasant bows deeply and silently farts. (Ethiopian proverb)
When progressive politics finds itself in agreement with Arnab Goswami, then it is time for the alarm bells to ring. What has been unfolding over the last week has been nothing but spectacular: a wronged and humiliated ‘Third World’ nation (finally) standing up to the imperialist Satan over the Devyani Khobragade episode. A story supposedly fit for lore. But in reality it would have been comical only if it did not have serious consequences.
What is comical is a nation whose elites and middle classes are perfectly in sync with the American worldview (India is among the top America-loving nations in the world) and think that America is the epitome of democracy (a survey from a couple of years ago showed that Indians, more than any other people in the world, think that the United States is a multilateral rather than a unilateral actor), whose students and youth dream the American dream (the largest number of foreign students in America are from India), whose rulers salivate at the prospect of an eternal soiree with the American establishment (after all, the Indo-American strategic partnership has been called the ‘defining alliance of the 21st century’) have suddenly woken up to the rude reality that maybe the Americans do not think about us in the same way! Hence our petulant reactions – like a spurned lover.
At the same time, all the anger shows something more serious and deeply troubling about our culture. It shows in stark terms what dignity and humiliation mean to us. For a nation that has not shed a tear for the 5295 people who died in the Bhopal gas tragedy, the largest industrial disaster in the world, for a nation’s rulers, who never even moved a little finger, leave alone the Jersey barriers in front of the US Embassy in New Delhi, to make the American MNC and its top executives responsible for the tragedy to stand trial in India are suddenly bristling with anger about the indignities of a cavity search and a diplomat’s right to be not arrested in front of her children. (Maybe we are upset that American judicial system does not treat its accused and sentenced with the dignity that we accord to our prisoners like Laloo Prasad Yadav and Sanjay Dutt, or the accused in the communist leader’s murder in Kerala, who have been posting Facebook updates from prison!)
It does not matter that a vast majority of our fellow citizens undergo far worse indignities on a daily basis. Where was the elite anger when the cavities of a Soni Sori were violated when the police inserted stones into them? Where were our bruised hearts and humiliated egos when on July 20, 2010, the manual scavengers of Savanur, Karnataka, in an unprecedented act of protest, smeared themselves with human feces? Presumably, the Bhangi Dalits who carry the feces of other Indians do not have any dignity in the first place, for it to be violated.
Where are our diplomats and embassies when millions of Indian workers, mainly from marginalized sections of the country, work in slave-like conditions in the Gulf states? Or why did the nation not ask, over the same last week, when the government was busy revoking diplomatic privileges of American diplomats, what was it doing about the 50,000 people who are living in subhuman conditions in relief camps in Muzaffarnagar, where children are dying because they do not have blankets? What is the definition of dignity?
Of course, asking these questions does not mean that we do not use this occasion to expose the double standards of ‘the greatest country on earth,’ which is also greatest and the most skilled practitioner of ‘democracy at home and imperialism abroad’ policy, and which has one set of rules for itself and another for the others (one interesting aside about the diplomatic row between India and USA is that the Indians cannot approach the International Court of Justice for a resolution because America does not acknowledge its compulsory jurisdiction!).
It is not that there are not thousands of illegal immigrants in America who work for less than minimum wages and with no protection. It is not there are no sweatshops in Southern California, where 1500 investigations into the garment industry in the recent past has revealed a 93 percent violation.
Egregious as this is, what is more horrendous is how advanced capitalist societies and settled ‘democracies’ like the United States export servitude and slavery to other nations in the global South. Just as the ‘developed’ world exports or dumps its trash elsewhere, it exports its humiliations and indignities elsewhere so that it can keep its streets and conscience clean and continue to pay minimum wages. So that it does not have to see the pain of the others.
So that it does not have to see the haunting faces of the Bangladeshi man and woman, locked in an eternal embrace, lying under the rubble of the collapsed Rana Plaza garment factory, which supplied clothes to all the major western MNCs including Walmart. He and she, along with the other 1129 workers buried under the rubble of its avarice were paid $ 38.5 a month, which is their minimum wage (!) and which is what bestows the cheapest deals in its Christmas and Boxing Day shopping. And what does minimum wage mean in America when an average CEO there now makes 273 times the wages of an average worker (a shocking increase from 20 to 30 times a few decades ago)?
But even as America and other developed societies have many skeletons in their cupboards, it should not become a fig leaf to hide our own culture of servitude, which is precisely what the diplomatic imbroglio has turned into.
The merits of the case have to be pronounced by the courts. So there is no point in passing judgment or demonizing the diplomat in question merely on the basis of the available information in the media. After all, it should be obvious that the alleged violation of law (of not paying minimum wages) by Khobragade is not something that is unique to her situation. Her case is a part of a systemic problem that has been existing for some time and not created by her, and about which the governments of India and USA have not done anything.
But what can be stated without hesitation is the shocking nature of our responses. There are so many accounts in the media about the benevolent disposition of Khobragade and what a kind employer she has been. In the Kangaroo court of Arnab Goswami, guess who testified in favor of Khobragade against the Americans (I wonder who are these Americans who agree to appear on his show but are not allowed to open their mouths!) on the basis of which Goswami concluded that the case has no merit: her father himself! Needless to say, he did not invite anybody to represent the maid, Sangeeta Richard.
All that we hear about her is how upwardly mobile she was, how she owned an Ipad (how can amaid own an Ipad, right?), how well-connected she was (her relatives apparently worked in the American Embassy in Delhi) and how ‘well-groomed and educated’ she was. Prabhu Dayal, former India’s former Consul General in New York, who faced similar charges as that of Khobragade from his domestic help writes an article arguing how Indian diplomats are working in the US in a culture of fear as they are afraid of being sued by ‘maids pursuing their American dreams’.
The members of the most elite core of the Indian civil service are the unfortunate victims of their upwardly mobile maids in his account. He then goes onto recount, how over the years, a number of workers and guards accompanying Indian diplomats to the US have gone missing. Pray, if India is a land of honey and milk, why do Indians, as Dayal says, ‘go to the US and try to stay on by hook or crook’? (He also fails to mention the few cases when Indian officers themselves have not come back to their homeland.)
The virtual effacement of the other side of the story, that of the maid, reveals again in stark terms the kind of society that we are. It reveals our larger psyche which revels, consciously and unconsciously, in the culture of servitude, in the absolute subjugation and denigration of the laboring classes, both in material and symbolic terms. This includes the large number of nannies and ‘domestic servants’. Ours is a country that has no minimum wages for domestic workers, and only two states (Kerala and Tamil Nadu) have laws protecting these workers.
It has to be stressed that a vast majority of domestic workers belong to Dalit and other marginalized communities. In the case of the Dalits and other lower castes, there is double oppression; economic exploitation is aggravated by humiliations perpetrated on the basis of caste.
In this general structure and culture of exploitation, pray, what chances does a maid have against an IFS officer and her father, a retired IAS officer, in the Indian judicial system (many arguments pre-judge the culpability and guilt of Richard on the basis of the proceedings initiated against her by Indian courts.
But the alacrity with which the Khobragades were able to move the Indian courts is itself a measure of this imbalance in power between them and Richard)? Here it has to be stated that Richards’ chances are better in the American justice system even with its own inequities and faultlines.
This is not because the US is a paragon of virtues, but because the working classes and the marginalized (at least those who are citizens and legal residents) have much better protection owing, among other things, to the substantial victories won by the laboring classes in the historical past. It is also because, as we saw above, the country has managed to outsource the culture of servitude to other places while maintaining a rational-legal order and a semblance of democracy at home, unlike India where the culture of servitude is extant largely within its own shores.
Thus it has to be remembered that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, French national and the then head of the IMF, one of the most powerful men in the world, was arrested on charges of sexually assaulting an immigrant housekeeper in a New York hotel. Even if the criminal case could not proceed, ultimately, he had to settle out of court for a sum believed to be in the order $ 6 million, approximately half the sum that the tens of thousands of Bhopal gas tragedy victims got as compensation!
The US and India are ultimately birds of the same feather, with largely the same views of the poor and the marginalized in society, and with similar economic inequalities (some of the most pronounced in the world). Yet, for many historical and contemporary reasons of economic and social development, their cultures of servitude are not mirror images.
Instead of us letting the Khobragade-Richard case degenerate into one in which merely two individuals are involved (whose respective culpabilities are in any case yet to established) or one which is only about two nations and a wounded nationalist pride, we should go beyond it to initiate a public debate about the larger structure of exploitation and violence and our own culture of servitude.
It is this culture that is prevalent in our wider society that is reflected in our civil service and bureaucracies. It is this culture which make us expect our workers and servants to hold the door for us, to wait upon us until we give them the permission to take a break.
And it is this culture, as we saw in the raging debate now, which quickly transforms our freedom to employ anybody on a fair wage mutually agreed upon to a right to exploit workers and servants in an egregious manner. That is why in the solutions prescribed by Prabhu Dayal and other diplomats, only extending diplomatic immunity to all officers is mentioned; there is not a word about the entire concept of diplomats travelling with servants from India and the potential abuses arising from their living with their employers in the context of the absence of laws protecting workers in India.
How could there be one when the IFS, which is a cadre of only 600-700 officers (apparently the same size of the Foreign Service of small countries like New Zealand and Malaysia), has opposed tooth and nail any expansion of the elite club by allowing the lateral entry of professionals? This is despite the fact that a growing power like India has a shortage of diplomats (China has seven times the number).
How could the diplomats and bureaucrats think of giving up their privileges? Talking to friends who are civil servants and interviewing others as a part of my own research on Kerala reveal very interesting incidents of how administrative cadres like that of Kerala are a ‘nightmarish’ experience for some non-Malayalis because of the ‘recalcitrant’ and ‘arrogant’ staff and servants who show no respect to the officers.
These translate into stories like an IAS officer not being offered a seat by railway station master, or a driver stopping work at 5 pm exactly leaving the boss to drive home by herself, or a senior official going into a shock after a tenure in Kerala and wondering whether the Malayalis behave with their father and mother in the same impudent manner as they do with their bosses! These are small nuggets of our wider culture of servitude.
And needless to say, even when workers and servants in states like Kerala manage to bend the culture of servitude and claim some rights and regain some dignity, the vast majority of those who are forced to serve still predominantly hail from the oppressed castes and communities. The culture of servitude is also not totally eliminated but acquires new insidious dimensions like in the United States.
Another intriguing aspect of the present debate is the shocking participation of some sections of the progressive Dalit movement in the mainstream effacement of the maid’s voice and rights, and the demonization of her personality in the name of Devyani ‘who represents our pride to the outside world’ as an empowered Dalit woman. We do not yet know the caste of Sangeeta Richard, but unfortunately, she is neither an empowered woman nor does she represent our pride to the outside world.
But, I guess, that is precisely the reason why her struggle (by which I mean the struggle of the entire domestic worker class even if her own charges of being exploited in this case might be proved fraudulent) should equally be a part of the struggle against all kinds of oppressions including caste.
Does a progressive Dalit politics mean that if Khobragade is ultimately found guilty (not by the narrow definition of the wages by the American system, but by the terms and conditions that she and Richard had entered into and also with regard to some serious allegations that are emerging against her in India about disproportionate assets), no criticism can be made of her individual person as she is merely a participant and survivor in an exploitative system built and even now run by the upper castes? What does that mean for the agency of the hundreds of Dalit officers who are in the same system but bravely try to go against its massive tide?
The culture of servitude cannot be simplistically understood by the lenses of national identity or caste alone for there are cross-cutting oppressions which escape these boundaries. After all, Devyani Khobragade belongs to an elite service and a part of the establishment, and at the same time, as a Dalit and a woman, is subject to discrimination at another level. In America she might have been subject to racism. Yet, the whole nation stands up for her and not her maid, and ironically, there is no one to argue the latter’s case except the Americans!
Thus here the question is not pitting one woman against the other (ultimately, only claims of one of them will be proved correct), but using the occasion to question the entire edifice and structure of exploitation which produces masters and servants, to use it to initiate wider debates about the protection of workers and servants of all kinds, about minimum wages for them, about the excessive privileges enjoyed by a small minority of diplomats and elites, about our own knowing and unknowing participation in layers and chains of exploitation, about becoming cognizant of our own privileges, and our servility to imperial powers.
Nissim Mannathukkaren is with Dalhousie University, Canada and the author of The Rupture with Memory: Derrida and the Specters that Haunt Marxism (Navayana). Courtesy Kafila.org