Devyani Khobragade – in the news for the wrong reasons?

Who is Devyani Khobragade?

Devyani Khobragade is India’s Deputy Consul General in New York in charge of Political, Economic, Commercial and Women’s Affairs at the consulate.

She is a 39-year old Indian Foreign Service Officer, who has worked previously in the Indian Embassies in Pakistan, Germany and Italy. She is the recipient of the Chevening Rolls-Royce Scholarship 2012 – a part of the Chevening Rolls-Royce Science and Innovation Leadership Programme. She is a qualified doctor and can speak English, German, Hindi and Marathi. Originally from Mumbai, she is the daughter of the former BEST GM Uttam Khobragade, (an IAS officer of the 1984 batch).

Why is Devyani Khobragade in the news?

Devyani Khobragade was arrested by US law enforcement authorities and handcuffed on a street in New York, while dropping off one of her daughters at school.

What is Devyani Khobragade accused of?

Devyani Khobragade is accused of visa fraud – allegedly presenting fraudulent documents to support a visa application for an Indian national who she had employed as a maid, and of making false statements. These charges carry maximum sentences of ten years and five years in prison.

Indian-born Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, ordered her arrest. His contention was that a woman, Sangeeta Richard, had been made to work for Devyani Khobragade for “less than fair” wages. He said, “This type of fraud on the United States and exploitation of an individual will not be tolerated.”

Sangeeta Richard worked as a housekeeper and babysitter at Devyani Khobragade’s home in New York from November 2012 to June 2013. Her allegation is that she was supposed to be paid $4,500 per month according to her employment contract. Ms Khobragade allegedly changed this to $537 a month or $3.31 an hour, which is well below the US minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Sangeeta Richard also complained she was forced to work more than 40 hours a week, which amounts to exploitation.

Lawyers for Ms Khobragade have countered this saying, given her own salary of $4,000 a month, she can hardly afford to pay her maid more than the amount she was already paying her.

Is Devyani Khobragade in prison?

Devyani Khobragade was released from custody on a bond of $250,000. She has pleaded “Not Guilty” to charges of visa fraud. The charges against her carry a maximum sentence of up to 15 years in prison.

What is the Indian Government’s reaction?

India has asked the US government to treat the matter with “sensitivity”, keeping in mind Ms Khobragade’s diplomatic status. The Indian embassy in Washington issued a statement, which said that Sangeeta Richard had been “absconding since June” and faces an arrest warrant for extortion and cheating.

Ms Khobragade’s lawyers have said her arrest on the street, without being given a chance to explain, was “shocking and unprecedented.”

Other controversies involving Devyani Khobragade:

Devyani Khobragade, was also involved in the Adarsh Housing Scam and admitted to the investigators of the case that she owned 2 flats in the buildings illegally constructed on government land. Devyani Khobragade, who is the daughter of the former BEST GM Uttam Khobragade, admitted that she had acquired a flat in the Meera Cooperative Society in Oshiwara, built on government land, when her father was the CEO and Vice President of MHADA (Maharashtra Housing & Area Development Authority). She also said her father had signed the application on her behalf when she had applied for the flat in the Adarsh Housing Society, as she was posted in Germany at the time.

More info on Devyani Khobragade:

Devyani Khobragade lists her passions as travelling, reading, yoga, music and dancing. She is the mother of 2 young daughters and says she is a supporter of dalit and gender equality.

Is Devyani Khobragade just a woman trying to balance a high-flying career with family commitments, or is she a child of privilege insensitively exploiting her help? The US law will have to decide.

***Update: 10:00 PM IST December 12/ 2013

The Indian Government took its time but decided to summon Nancy Powell, the US Ambassador to lodge a strong protest. The Ministry of External Affairs/ Indian Government has used the term “unacceptable treatment” to define its disgust with this whole issue.

***Update: 7:00 PM IST December 17/ 2013

The Indian Government has retaliated and taken a few measures to make the US Government think over what they have done. Measures include withdrawal of  special privileges to the US embassy staff and their families, withdrawal of airport special status, withdrawal of additional layers of security around the US Embassy in new Delhi, and insisting on access to data verification of Indian employees of US nationals in India.

***Update: 11:00 AM IST December 18/ 2013

India has transferred Devyani Khobragade to its permanent mission to the United Nations, in New York City,  in order to grant her full diplomatic immunity.