NEW DELHI — A week after the arrest and strip-search of an Indian diplomat in New York caused an international firestorm, new details are emerging about the woman at the center of the controversy, a seemingly contradictory figure who advocated for women’s rights in public but is accused of underpaying and overworking her nanny at home.
Devyani Khobragade, 39, who had previously been posted in Germany and Pakistan, cut an impressive figure in her job as deputy consul general at the Indian Consulate when she arrived in New York last November.
In perfectly draped saris, she hosted meetings and gave speeches to female Asian entrepreneurs and doctors.
“India always believes in encouraging its women,” she said after one event, in a video posted on YouTube.
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But behind the scenes, prosecutors and lawyers have alleged, she had an Indian nanny living in her spacious apartment whom she was paying far less than required by the U.S. government.
Prosecutors and the attorney for the nanny, Sangeeta Richard, contend that Richard was asked to work from early in the morning until late at night, seven days a week, for several months. The domestic helper never had a day off, only a few hours on Sunday, they say.
Richard’s attorney, Dana Sussman, has said that the conditions in the home were so terrible that the nanny asked to go back to India, a request that was denied. After that, Sussman said, she had no choice but to leave.
“This is a case alleging visa fraud related to the rights of a domestic worker to a fair wage and decent working conditions,” Sussman said in an email. “Our client’s experience in this case is not unique, but the attention this case has garnered is.”
Over the past week, outrage over Khobragade’s treatment flared across India. Protesters burned President Obama in effigy. The Indian government removed long-standing concrete barriers near the U.S. Embassy. And U.S. actions were widely denounced by politicians and government officials, including several who declared that Khobragade’s honor as “a lady diplomat” must be defended at any cost.
Then, at midweek, a well-known Dalit — the name for the country’s lowest caste, once called the “untouchables” — rose in Parliament’s upper house to speak.
The Indian government reacted late to the Khobragade crisis, said Mayawati, a member of the chamber and a former state chief minister, “because she was a Dalit.”
The introduction of caste politics into the overheated debate was not unusual for Indian discourse, but Mayawati’s comment highlighted just how far India has come in recent years, and how Khobragade, for all her contradictions, symbolizes this change.
She was born in a town called Tarapur, near Mumbai, into comfortable circumstances, the daughter of a bureaucrat who owed his career to the government’s generous 15 percent set-aside for India’s lower castes in government jobs and educational posts. His daughter, too, would one day benefit from this quota when she joined the foreign service.
The Khobragades are a prominent family from a sub-caste of Dalits called Mahars, who were once street sweepers and village watchmen forbidden to enter temples and drink water from the same wells as the upper castes. In recent years, as India’s rigid system of social stratification weakened, Mahars have risen to prosperity and professional careers.
“Their life is far better than it was 40 years ago,” said Badri Narayan, a social scientist and expert on Dalit issues at the Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute in Allahabad. “They’re very assertive against any kind of discrimination. They are doing well in government, administrative jobs, academics and politics.”
Khobragade’s father, Uttam Khobragade, said Friday that the family experienced little discrimination during his daughter’s youth, when she was a studious and “extremely bold child,” who riverrafted and won a gold medal in a horse show.
She studied medicine at her father’s insistence but never wanted to become a doctor.
On her first posting, in Germany, she met an academic, Akash Singh, who would become her husband — “a love marriage,” her father says. The couple has two daughters, ages 7 and 4.
Managing two careers and global posts was difficult, but the pair made it work, Khobragade has said. She found diplomatic work rewarding, even in a difficult post like Pakistan, where even the establishment of a bus link between the two countries or securing a tiny bit of money for flood relief was an achievement.
Separately, Devyani Khobragade has a large portfolio of real estate holdings, including three flats and agricultural land in three states. Earlier, Khobragade gave a detailed account of her financial situation to her employer in which she estimated the combined worth of these properties at about $300,000.
Real-estate experts who reviewed her filing for The Post said she appeared to be significantly underestimating their total value, noting that the Adarsh flat alone is worth more than $600,000.