The Religious Underbelly of a Diplomatic Debacle

by Melissah Yang

Devyani Khobragade, a deputy consul charged with committing visa fraud and providing false statements to allow Sangeeta Richard, her nanny, to enter the U.S., returned to India on January 10 after a diplomatic standoff threatened relations between the two countries. The incident dominated headlines in India and played out on global media outlets, including The New York Times and The Times’ blog, India Ink. 

The Times’ coverage of Khobragade’s return to Mumbai reveals how different editorial decisions can create distinct narratives for the same event. Whereas the NYT piece focuses on relations between the world’s two largest democracies, India Ink launches a PR campaign for Khobragade, who is cast as a victim of American oppression. But neither story addresses how caste relations and religion underlie this political showdown.

The NYT piece makes no reference to India’s caste system, the roots of which can be traced back to millennia-old Hindu texts. Instead, the story only alludes to a “middle- and upper-class social structure,” which allows for even modest-income families to employ servants at low cost. Households with a monthly income of $1,850 U.S. dollars typically have at least one live-in servant, the Economist reported. The National Coalition of South Asian Organisations (NCSO) said Richard worked at least 100 hours per week for around $1.42 per hour. Though low pay for servants is common in Indian society, it’s reasonable to wonder why Khobragade, an advocate for underprivileged women’s rights, wouldn’t treat her employees better, given the blanket discrimination her Khobragade’s caste has historically suffered.

India Ink briefly points to Khobragade’s Dalit status to explain why some Indians might hesitate to take her side. Though Khobragade’s father says his daughter “was not currently considering joining politics,” her Dalit background could help launch a political career, perhaps with the Republican Party of India (RPI). The party was founded by B. R. Ambedkhar, the pioneer of India’s current Constitution, which banned caste-based discrimination and created quotas that allowed for Dalits, including Khobragade, to become employed in professions, such as foreign-service, from which they were previously excluded. Thus the incident — a Dalit’s rise to the prominent position that Khobragade held — could have prompted a journalistic exploration into how caste politics have changed or how they have simply become muddied, given Khobragade’s apparent exploitation of a servant.

Because Richard is a Christian, she is no longer bound to the caste system, though some Indians might continue to see her as what her and her family’s caste once was. The article could have traced her Christian background and seen whether her and her family’s conversion from Hinduism was motivated by an eagerness to escape these social confines.

The conversation also could have focused more closely on relations between religions in India (Khobragade is Hindu; Richard is a Christian). Historically, the relationship between Hindus and Christians has been peaceful. But there have sparks of religious conflict in recent years, such as the anti-Christian violence that ravaged Orissa in 2008, leaving over 140 churches burned and displacing tens of thousands of Christians. And considering that roughly 80 percent of India’s population is Hindu, while Christians account for 2.3 percent, why Khobragade chose to bring a Christian nanny for her children is worth looking into.

The NYT and India Ink paint Khobragade in such dramatically different lights — the latter sympathetic, the former critical. But neither takes into consideration the significance of religion in India’s everyday life, which definitely figures into a “she said, she said” situation pitting two women from similar low-caste backgrounds, but different religions, against each other.


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