It’s a perk considered essential for Indian diplomats to perform their duties abroad more effectively and efficiently. But the practice of allowing officers of the elite Indian Foreign Service to take along domestic workers on their postings overseas has been repeatedly landing them in unseemly trouble, while also sullying India’s reputation around the world.

The recall of the Indian high commissioner in New Zealand, Ravi Thapar, by the Ministry of External Affairs after a member of his service staff (a chef) accused him and his wife of slavery and assault is the latest such incident. Thapar denied the allegations, but the episode underlines the need for the Indian government to do some rethink to ensure such recurring unsavoury incidents do not overshadow its diplomatic outreach.

Thapar’s case comes about a year-and-half after India’s deputy consul-general in New York, Devyani Khobragade, found herself arrested and strip-searched in the US, charged with visa fraud and underpaying her housekeeper Sangeeta Richard.

The December 2013 incident snowballed into a massive diplomatic row. An angry India took several retaliatory measures. It expelled from India a senior American diplomat who allegedly helped “evacuate” Richard’s family and withdrew then US ambassador Nancy Powell’s privileges that exempted her from frisking at airports and allowed her use of VIP lounge.

In addition to taking away the privileges of US consular staff to reducing their immunity and making them liable for prosecution under Indian laws, India turned the knife further in by imposing a freeze on the import of duty-free goods by the US Embassy on the grounds that the facility was being misused.

Time and time again

Khobragade’s case was just the most prominent one involving spats between Indian diplomats and their domestic workers from India, who in official parlance are known as Indian-based domestic assistants or IBDAs.

In July 2010, for instance, domestic worker Shanti Gurung accused her employer Neena Malhotra (then serving as the Counsellor of Press, Culture, Information, Education and Community Affairs at the Consulate General of India in Manhattan) of slavery and ill-treatment. Curiously, the lawsuit was filed in a federal court just before Malhotra completed her New York tenure and was heading for a posting elsewhere.

Another case in the US involved India’s then consul-general in New York Prabhu Dayal, who was again charged with slavery and sexual harassment by his maid Santosh Bhardwaj in 2011. Dayal, on his part, denied the charges and described them as lies.

There are strong whispers in the corridors of South Block that charges levelled by Indian-based domestic assistants, particularly those serving in the US, are usually driven by the desire to stay back, lured by promises of better wages and living standards.

Both Sangeeta Richard and Shanti Gurung stayed on in the US long after their employers left the nation. Indeed, in Richard’s case, Washington even helped her “evacuate” her family from India.

Their employers, Khobragade and Malhotra, however, cannot return to the US for fear of facing further trouble. Both are in relatively insignificant posts with the ministry in India. Malhotra hasn’t gone on a foreign posting since her return from the US and is currently joint secretary (welfare). Khobragade is director (states) in a newly-created division in the ministry that liaisons with state governments.

Corrective measures

A senior Indian diplomat, who did not want to be named, said he decided not to take along a domestic worker when posted to the US in wake of such cases. Others, however, justify the need for such help not only because they need to entertain a lot at home while posted abroad but also because local help, especially in the US and Europe, is prohibitively expensive. Having a domestic assistant is therefore a necessity rather than a luxury, say diplomats.

But all this does not detract from the fact that the government needs to seriously mull corrective measures to ensure such incidents do not occur, instead of merely fire-fighting each time trouble involving an Indian diplomat and her domestic worker erupts.

One step could be to completely abolish what seems to be a feudal practice, wherein Indian diplomats take along housekeepers, nannies and cooks to look after their home and hearth. Instead, the diplomats can be paid more to meet the cost of hiring local workers, and supplement it by doing some household work themselves.

The Indian Foreign Service may resist this, much like their Indian Administration Service or other counterparts have done when it comes to withdrawal of their perks. The Army, for instance, has blocked all attempts to abolish the sahayak or orderly system in its ranks, which started off as an operational necessity but has degenerated into trained soldiers being used for menial household tasks.

Poor image

The other more palatable option for the IFS, and cheaper alternative for the government, is the proposal to hire domestic workers as contractual employees of the government. At present, Indian-based domestic assistants enjoy a quasi-official status and sign a contract with the diplomat instead of with the government.

The proposal put forth by the Ministry of External Affairs is one with financial, legal and visa status implications, said a senior official. It has been pending with the finance ministry since 2013. Last year in February the Foreign Ministry told Parliament that it was “considering various policy options with regard to the revision of framework for IBDAs” and that “inter-ministerial consultations are currently underway to study implications of the various proposals”.

Wiser perhaps in the wake of the Khobragade episode and its resultant diplomatic fallout, India chose to take swift action in Thapar’s case. He was asked to immediately return to India from New Zealand lest the employer-employee faceoff cause any kind of bilateral friction.

However, a new overall policy is still awaited. Actively engaging with countries and leaders across the globe is certainly good for India. But all it takes for India’s image to take a beating is its diplomats embroiled in nasty controversies with their domestic assistants for all the world to see.