I had to pay a three-hundred-dollar fine at the New Jersey airport because I lied that I had no foods in my baggage and the black customs officer who was unamused by my pleas that the fine was too much, added: "It shows that the system is working!" I am still smarting under the pain of having lost three hundred dollars. Like any Indian I hate the thought of losing money through paying fines. I wrote a poem yet to be published as defense of my position. My sister told me that my pride was hurt because I was caught lying and that I shouldn't worry too much about it. Seeing me upset my brother gave me the three hundred dollars and a little more to assuage my feelings. Nothing helped, to be honest. For months I called the American immigration "racist" and that they were out to steal "third-world money," which was a euphemism for my three hundred dollars.
A year later when I could think a little more rationally I realized that the black officer did not appreciate the fact that I blatantly lied and indeed wanted to make sure I did not do something like that in future. When it comes to the law, lying is the most natural response in India and perhaps anywhere in South Asia. I won't be surprised if it is that way in many third-world countries. We instinctively lie when we see a cop or enter into a defensive mode when it comes to being caught with our "pants" down and the system we inhabit is fairly accommodative of our kind of lying simply because there are just too many of us doing the same thing at the same time. This is not to forget that our notions of truth and lying are pretty relative in that sense of the term.
I read with curiosity of how Ms. Devyani Khobragade was arrested in New York, "handcuffed and strip searched" as is supposedly done with serious offenders. From a strictly American legalistic point of view, she broke the law by lying about how much she would be paying the maid from India. I don't think there is any doubt in that. I however did not like the unnecessary drama of her arrest in public and body search. Had the arrest been done a little more quietly and without the physical humiliation, it would not have generated the needless attention it is being given by the Indian media.
In other words, being a consular officer and a woman, she at the least ought to have been warned beforehand and given an opportunity to prepare a response. More importantly, you cannot use the law to violate somebody's dignity irrespective of whether they are guilty or not. That just isn't right. That perhaps might be the way how the poor are treated in the third world. Fairly or unfairly, a little more "civilized" behavior is expected from a western democracy. But again, the assumption that the poor are treated better in the west than in the rest has its own problems.
A good part of the political overreaction is because Ms. Devyani happens to be a Dalit "lower-caste" woman. We have Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party, supposed to represent the downtrodden communities, saying: "I know I should not bring caste into this but the overall conduct with this girl was inappropriate. The central government reacted late because she was a Dalit." Further she adds: "The method of checking the Indian woman diplomat was the most inappropriate. We should take up this issue with US. We need to introspect on our foreign policy." The government that is overreacting to the point of embarrassment, raising all sorts of jingoistic feelings back home with the generous assistance of a servile media, is supposed to be reacting "late" according to Mayawati. I mean, seriously! And then all of a sudden comes the "method of checking the Indian woman diplomat!" The method of checking anyone is wrong irrespective of whether it is an Indian, a woman or a man, diplomat or no diplomat, from any part of the world including the US.
Every political party and its representatives have to sing the national song to pretend to be defenders of Dalit rights in this country. This is because the Dalits are a political constituency and Dalit elites who are not averse to the trappings of power like any other elite needs to be kept happy. One of the BJP leaders Yashwant Sinha goes on record to say: "Media has reported that we have issued visas to a number of US diplomats' companions. 'Companions' means that they are of the same sex. Now, after the Supreme Court ruling, it is completely illegal in our country, just as paying less wages was illegal in the US. So, why does not the government of India go ahead and arrest them and punish them". I have not heard of anything more dangerously sinister than this parody in the entire episode.
Where is the maid, the absent protagonist, in all of this? In all fairness, apart from the existing system running the way it does with its in-built biases meticulously disguised to look politically and morally "right", I don't think the American establishment has anything to do with the whole drama, which is purely an Indian one fought on another soil. You could be critical of the system as a whole but "visa fraud" is an illegal thing in that particular system. We cannot expect them to be accommodative of "our" kind of lying, which is more about convenience rather than anything willful. This attempt by the media to look for an American conspiracy is beginning to sound laughably stupid. We are making ourselves a source of jest when we persist in doing that.
First and foremost, for a consular officer Ms. Devyani ought to have known better what these things mean in a law-obsessed nation like the US -- I ought to have known better when I lied to customs in New Jersey that there was no food in my baggage. Second, the maid is an intelligent woman and has a better understanding of how things work in the US than the officer. The maid used the laws of an imperial nation to combat the colonial-style injustice of a third-world nation. The oppressed classes understand the law better because in most situations they are its victims. I reserve my grudging admiration for the maid who definitely sees for herself a future in the US. She could bring two nations to the brink of a diplomatic confrontation even if her intentions were to find an American home for herself and her family. The employer should have been a little more understanding of the maid's aspirations to stay back in the US.
Again, my timeless complaint: we just don't think that the maid should aspire to what we are or what we possess. We want the maid to be condemned to her situation as maid and move no higher up the ladder. How often I have seen brilliant working-class women who would be artists, engineers, or CEOs of companies given the opportunity to be educated and supported both financially and socially! For a Dalit woman with a history of oppression, Ms. Devyani ought to have been a little more sympathetic of the maid's feelings. Right is right and wrong is wrong and there are universal principles of right and wrong. You cannot exploit another person's labors without moral or other consequences. Dalit and minority intellectuals are as guilty of elitism as are intellectuals of other communities. Some degree of honesty and sense of justice is expected of all human beings.
The government of India should work it out with its American counterpart and find a solution to assist Ms. Devyani out of her crisis. The way the government is "retaliating" by withdrawing "special courtesies" given to Americans working in the consulates in India is just another expression of the irrational way this country functions. The Indian political and media jingoists ought to be a little more careful what they say and believe. However, a small piece of helpful advice to the law-enforcers in the US: Be realistic. If the US has to continue its global imperial agenda dictated by the MNCs the least it ought to do is keep its third-world cronies happy. No point in messing around with them without any specific reason in mind. They have to do the dirty job of suppressing and lying to their own people. Return the "special courtesies" because that's how the British colonialists could run the show for as long as that they did. In the "real" world you don't have to be decent; you merely have to give the appearance of decency.