Diplomat’s Strip Search Was Overboard, but So Was India’s Reaction

Protesters in front of the U.S. consulate in Hyderabad, India, on Dec. 19, 2013
STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images

Sangeeta Richard had always wanted to work abroad. Her wish came true when she became a nanny for Devyani Khobragade, India's deputy consul general in New York. Unfortunately, according to prosecutors, Khobragade had no intention of paying Richard minimum wage to comply with American wage laws, and she committed visa fraud by asserting she would.

Last week, Khobragade was arrested, and that’s when the real drama began. 

By now you’ve read how Khobragade described her ordeal: “indignities of repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches, swabbing, holed up with common criminals and drug addicts were all being imposed upon me despite my incessant assertions of immunity,” she claimed, calling a foul on law enforcement and asserting (incorrectly, in this case) that she should have diplomatic immunity. 

Now the United States and India are embroiled in a diplomatic face-off, with Indian public opinion and many of its politicians outraged over “barbaric treatment” of the “real victim,” Khobragade. They’ve retaliated by removing a security barricade from our embassy in Delhi and have threatened to go after gay American diplomats and their partners for violating the recent Indian Supreme Court ruling criminalizing homosexuality.

And we’re seeing two wildly different reactions to the arrest: Americans (including those of Indian descent!) are more dismissive of Khobragade’s allegations while feeling appalled at the ordeal of her nanny, Sangeeta Richard. But in India, it’s Khobragade’s brief jail stint that has inspired protests, where an effigy of President Barack Obama was burned, and the eyebrow-raising assertion that subjecting a woman like her to a cavity search is practically rape. 

Of course, that cavity search—which may be the indignity that most outraged folks in the world’s largest democracy—didn’t happen. Khobragade was strip-searched, yes, but when it comes to body cavities, I’m picturing a female U.S. marshal taking a look inside her mouth. That’s something quite different from a cop snapping on a rubber glove before yelling, “Spread 'em!”

I’ve been asked why India cares so much about this woman, and my hunch is that it’s a respect thing. India feels like we disrespected them by arresting a woman, stripping her and then housing her with “common” criminals like “drug addicts.”


“Common” is the operative word here, because in India, elites are typically handled with kid gloves.

Another difference: In India, drug addicts are held in very low regard, while in America, all sorts of people are arrested every day for minor drug charges.


The entire situation is a study in contrasts that differentiate our two countries. In India, there’s an abundance of cheap labor willing to work for wages so paltry that even middle-class people have servants. In America—well, do you have servants? Me, neither.

In India, perp-walking a diplomat into custody over a visa, or for mistreating the help, seems like a disproportionate response to a minor infraction. To an American, a strip search is an unpleasant ordeal that may occur if you run afoul of an overzealous TSA agent before your next flight. As someone who was born here to Indian parents, I can’t help but feel disgust at how this diplomat’s strip search has been characterized as a sexual assault, while rapes of other women in India frequently don’t even merit police attention.


It’s an infuriatingly selective double standard over whose bodies are sacred. Girl in a village? Eh. Diplomat in America? International incident! Maybe that’s because it was Americans putting their hands on an Indian woman.

At some point during this fracas, Khobragade’s body became India itself, martyred by an Indian-American prosecutor seen as betraying his ancestral land. Yes, predictably, depressingly, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who charged Khobragade for her crimes, is now being called an “Uncle Tom” just for doing his job. Perhaps he was trying to send a message, since this exact situation occurred two other times with Indian diplomats.


India’s insecurity over how America perceives and treats it is also at the heart of this, and explains a lot of the bluster. I just wish that instead of clamoring for public apologies, dropped charges and dangerous retaliation against American diplomats, India would save some of its umbrage for the millions of Indian women who are disrespected and violated there every day.

They may not work in America, or have the social status of Devyani Khobragade, but they deserve outrage, too.


Anna John was born and raised in California, but she chooses to live in and represent Chocolate City. Currently a race and culture reporter, she co-founded Sepia Mutiny, a path-making online magazine about all things South Asian from an American perspective. Follow her on Twitter.

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