x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Diplomatic row highlights the deep divides in Indian society

For a vast many of Indians, any reasonable expectation of rights mirrors at best the lopsided entitlements of 19th-century Europe and North America.

It is fashionable and perhaps even de rigueur among the Kumbaya brigade in New York, Delhi and their respective dominions to deny the possibility of a clash of culture. It is only people who watch the reality TV programme Duck Dynasty, for instance, who fail to grasp the elemental commonality in how we all live and conduct our social intercourse. But if so, does Devyani Khobragade go duck hunting?

Ms Khobragade is of course the accused villain turned victim and national hero in the spat between India and the United States. And how the household arrangement of a junior diplomat should manage to influence the arc of relations between the two countries – involving ministers from both sides – is instructive of how the audience of Duck Dynasty probably have it right.

When Ms Khobragade was first accused of underpaying her domestic helper, Sangeeta Richard, whom she brought to New York on an allegedly false visa application, sympathies outside India naturally fell on Ms Richard. In America, Europe and many parts of Asia, the default reaction is to side with the powerless for the simple reason that they are most in need of protection.

There was, moreover, surprise that an ostensibly modern, middle-class family in New York should need and actually have a live-in housekeeper. Yes, most Americans also have help with the dishes, the laundry and such, but they’re usually called Maytag and GE. And while many upper middle-class working mothers have in-home childcare, Ms Khobragade surprised neighbours with the allegations against her that she compelled Ms Richard to work as many as 100 hours a week, even when ill and sometimes without any days off, and paid her about $3 (Dh11) an hour when she declared a stunning $4,500 (Dh16,500) a month as Ms Richard’s wages to the authorities. That latter figure comes out to about $28 an hour for a 40-hour week. Away from Ms Khobragade’s household, day-nannies, nevermind live-ins, earn up to $15 an hour.

Confronted with such allegations and disparities in claims involving an official representing the country, you’d have expected outrage among Indians, a demand for an explanation. And as we know, outrage did come. But this was curiously directed against the Americans and Ms Richard, not towards Ms Khobragade demanding answers.

A land of hundreds of millions of the unprivileged and the poor, India is also a nation that demands fawning sycophancy towards every putative sahib and memsahib. So what immediately outraged officialdom, the press and the nattering class was not Ms Richard’s condition of employment, but how Ms Khobragade was given no special treatment when arrested and processed. Indeed, there was possibly a sense of betrayal that someone with a double-barrelled job title should be treated just like anybody else. A nation with such an unhealthy fixation on privilege finds it hard to understand that political and social democratisation rightly extends down to legal due process.

Rather than defending Ms Khobragade while accusing Ms Richard of bringing shame on the country, Indians might ponder the incongruity of their highly elevated sense of entitlement and their purportedly democratic political arrangement. Indians may vote in incredibly large numbers, but for a vast many of them any reasonable expectation of rights mirrors at best the lopsided entitlements of 19th century Europe and North America. Indeed, the salient difference between US and Indian governance is that America’s ruling principles – admittedly not always perfect – go right through from its politics to every encounter between citizens and other citizens, institutions and even foreigners. Privilege is not accorded because of natural or class differences; it is expected to be earned. Until India closes its entitlement gap and the continuing effective disenfranchisement of a substantial majority of its people, it will remain a nation in waiting.

Ms Khobragade is now back in India, vowing to clear her name. This is curious. One would have thought that the best way to go about this would have been to face her accuser in court. Yet from the very beginning, the efforts of the Indian government have been to extend to her the privilege of prosecutorial immunity. When this was eventually agreed to by the Americans, she obviously had to leave. So it is rather fine to hear her talk now, in Delhi, about defending her reputation.

Ms Khobragade and Ms Richard’s case ought to prompt fresh consideration among the politically correct. No, we’re not all alike. Cultures do clash. The real issue, which has been evaded here, is what to do when that happens and how to reconcile our many and often substantial differences. It won’t be polite. Finally, whatever you might think of Duck Dynasty, at least the patriarch of the family was candid in his views, even if they offended.

Tion Kwa is assistant editor of The National