The soft underbelly of the Indian diplomatic corps got exposed yet again after Ravi Thapar, Indian high commissioner to New Zealand since December 2013, was recalled last week after his chef accused Thapar's wife, Sharmila, of assault and having kept him as a "slave". Thapar countered the charge and said he returned on his own to be with his mother.
However, unlike in the past, in the Thapar incident, the Union external affairs ministry showed uncharacteristic swiftness. Soon after it learnt of the incident, a team was sent to New Zealand to handle the situation. The chef did not file charges, and a diplomatic embarrassment for the government was averted.
The ministry also sent out a message to all its diplomats, reiterating that "welfare of the IBDAs (India-based domestic assistants) must be looked after". "The policy on IBDA lays out clearly that their interests should be protected along with the interest of the diplomats, keeping in mind the local government's guidelines," says a source in the ministry.
This was not a one-off incident. Since 2010, there have been at least three cases where Indian diplomats have run into trouble because their domestic helps accused them of sexual harassment, intimidation and poor working conditions. And these are incidents that have come out in the public domain.
As the common thread which connected these three incidents was the United States of America, the ministry saw it as a problem limited to that country, and any other government, it felt, wouldn't press similar charges against Indian diplomats because of their immunity. Some even linked it to the overzealousness of Preet Bharara, the Indian-origin US Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
The most high-profile of these cases was that of Devyani Khobragade, which led to a brief strain in ties between the US and India. In December 2013, Khobragade, then posted in the Indian consulate in New York, was arrested based on the complaint of her domestic help that she was underpaying her, among other things.
Earlier, in 2010, Shanti Gurung, a domestic help of Neena Malhotra, then a counsellor at the Indian consulate in New York, had filed a case in New York accusing her employer of trafficking her into the US and subjecting her to involuntary servitude and maltreatment. Later, a US Court, hearing this case, asked Malhotra to pay $1.5 million as damages to Gurung. Malhotra, currently posted in New Delhi, was unavailable for comment.
Yet another Indian diplomat in New York, Prabhu Dayal, was in 2011 accused of misconduct and sexual harassment by his domestic help, Santosh Bhardwaj. The two later reached an agreement, the terms of which were not disclosed, but press reports suggest that it was done through the ministry. Dayal has now retired from service.
Poor track record
How rampant is the problem? The ministry does not keep track of such numbers.
Last week, The Sunday Express reported that during 2014-15, 27 Indian diplomats faced charges related to "corruption, harassment and dereliction of duty". The report, quoting sources, said that between 2013-14 and 2014-15, the incidents rose three times and more than four times over 2012-13. And these incidents were reported not just from western capitals but from places as varied as Madagascar, Botswana, Mali and Afghanistan. But it is not known how many of these cases relate to harassment of domestic help.
On their part, serving and retired diplomats defend themselves and lay the fault at the doorsteps of their domestic helps, citing that the helps, motivated by their desire to stay on in western counties, bring false cases on their employers.
One diplomat, who has served in the US, said accusing the diplomat is a convenient way of getting a visa as the US grants visa and, later, green card on the basis of trafficking and harassment.
"In 95 per cent of the cases, the relationship between the diplomat and the IBDA is smooth," says G Parthasarthy, former ambassador to Myanmar and High Commissioner to Australia, Pakistan and Cyprus. "But it happens more in western capitals, where these people get in touch with local people and they are told that their wages are too low. But then again, this happens in one in 20 cases."
A lot of times, the IBDAs get a taste of the living standards abroad and refuse to come back and run away. Diplomats say it is not uncommon for domestic helps to run away, than return to India, just before the tenure of the diplomat is to end. There have also been cases where an IBDA, after settling down there, has requested his family be also posted there, and many a times this has happened.
According to the rules, the government allows each Indian diplomat to take one domestic help with him when posted abroad. Ambassadors are allowed to take two.
The financial burden of hiring these helps is shared by both the Central government and the diplomat. The government bears their travel costs, provides for their housing and also pays them a salary. The IBDAs are also issued an official passport. However, they are not employees of the government. The IBDAs enter into a contract with the diplomat, which states their salary and perks.
These contracts have now become a bone of contention, with some diplomats asking for its removal. Their argument is that these contracts land them in trouble in western countries, where the salary stated in the contract is lower than the stipulated minimum wage.
Until the Khobragade incident, the ministry assumed that since the diplomat was under immunity, it was unlikely that charges would be brought against him for underpaying his worker. But, the New York Police did exactly that in this case, arguing that the immunity protected only when the offences were related to consular duties, and hiring of maid was not a part of the job.
To plug this legal loophole, the ministry had in early 2013 proposed to the ministry of finance to grant IBDAs the status of government employees. It had argued that doing so would reduce incidents like Khobragade and others. But no final decision has been taken yet. As a result, young diplomats posted in the US are being asked not to carry any IBDA along.
What is preventing the finance ministry from acceding to the demand is the financial burden this will entail on the exchequer. An official in the finance ministry termed the proposal "half-baked" and argued that this would lead to demand for regular employment once the contract of the IBDA expired.
While the exact number of total IBDAs could not be ascertained, their strength could be around 900, assuming each of the 900-odd diplomats takes one along. The US State Department figures show around 470 visas were issued for Indian domestic workers between 2002 and 2012.
Dogra agrees that this is not the best solution as it would bloat the bureaucracy further. "Instead, I would want that the wages being paid to the IBDAs are revised upwards. But you still need to remember that Indian diplomats are paid according to Indian standards and so the salary of the domestic help has to be according to the diplomat's salary and not according to western standards."
The problem is not just limited to India. A 2007 report of the American Civil Liberties Union, mentions 67 cases filed in the US courts against diplomats for abuse and exploitation of domestic workers. However, all the countries mentioned in the report are developing countries such as India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Zimbabwe.