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Devyani’s little irony: a wish come true

- Diplomat had focused on victimisation of women in her work at mission in NYC
A group supporting domestic workers’ rights demonstrates outside the Indian consulate in New York on Friday. (AFP)

New Delhi, Dec. 21: Devyani Khobragade had a firm message for the Indian community last October 11: stand up for South Asian women victims of domestic violence, fake marriages, abandonment and other crimes in the US.

Thanking panellists at the end of a discussion hosted by the Indian consulate-general in New York, Khobragade, the deputy consul-general, suggested several ways in which activists, lawyers, academics and others in the Indian community could help.

“I want to exhort all of you to take this forward,” Khobragade, dressed in an off-white sari and a beige pullover, said.

“Each one of you, please have an awareness programme on violence against women of all ages. (See) how many of you can highlight this issue in the media.”

Khobragade did, two months later, though not in the way she would have wanted.

Ironically, the 39-year-old diplomat caught in a rare India-US spat over the victimisation of an Indian woman had focused precisely on this “issue” in her diplomatic work over the past year as second-in-command at India’s New York mission.

India has demanded an unconditional apology from the US over what it says amounts to serious ill-treatment of a woman diplomat with two young children — Khobragade, who was arrested and strip-searched before her release on bail last week.

But India’s stress on the way US marshals treated a “woman” diplomat has been met with America’s insistence that it is Khobragade who is wrong.

She is accused of visa fraud and of underpaying and ill-treating nanny Sangeeta Richard, now a witness against the diplomat.

“Knowing Devyani, I know she would be particularly hurt by the way this debate has shaped up — relating to which of them, she or the nanny, is the woman victim here,” an Indian Foreign Service batch-mate of Khobragade’s told The Telegraph.

As deputy consul-general for political, economic, commercial and women’s affairs, Khobragade — now moved to India’s permanent UN mission in New York — handled a cross-section of India’s interests in northeast America.

On July 19, for instance, she helped launch a chair in contemporary Indian studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Her friends, and the speeches and interviews she gave in the US over the past year, suggest that women’s rights were a key area of focus for her.

She helped organise a seminar on encouraging the economic empowerment of South Asian women, co-sponsored by Wells Fargo bank and community non-profit group SAY-WE, at the consulate-general on March 13.

“India always believes in encouraging women; Indian women are a part of the New York economy,” she told an Indian community television channel after the seminar. “To have financial tools, management tools, and to be able to network.”

At the October 11 discussion, too, she repeatedly spoke of the need to focus on the “economic empowerment of women”.

It is unclear whether Khobragade ever discussed economic rights with Richard. But US attorney Preet Bharara has accused her of violating precisely those rights in her treatment of the nanny.

Khobragade and her husband, a philosophy professor, accused Richard of stealing from their home after she fled on June 23, says a complaint registered in the court of New York magistrate Debra Freeman by Mark J. Smith, the state department’s lead investigator in the case.

In Smith’s complaint, which is the basis for Bharara’s prosecution, Khobragade is also accused of claiming in the visa application for Richard that she would pay her $4,500 (nearly Rs 2.8 lakh) a month but making the nanny later sign a second contract where she agreed to pay only Rs 30,000.

Indian officials have pointed out that Richard received not only Rs 30,000 a month but also food, housing, an annual trip back to India, and medical privileges.

But Smith’s complaint points to a March 2011 state department circular to all foreign missions in the US that said diplomats could no longer deduct medical benefits, housing or travel from their stated salary payments to domestic workers.

In April 2012, the state department issued another circular, clarifying that even meals needed to be considered over and above the salary claimed on visa documents.

Khobragade’s arrest has triggered moves in the Indian foreign policy establishment to consider procedural changes that could insulate Indian diplomats in the future.

In an interview published on April 6 by an Indian community magazine in New York, Indian Panorama, Khobragade had spoken of her hopes of one day becoming an Indian ambassador, before switching to her other goal.

“My other ambition is to have direct impact on a foreign policy for the underprivileged women,” she had said.

Unwittingly, at the age of 39, she may have already had her wish.