The Indian government is outraged because a mid-level Indian diplomat was strip-searched before she was sent to jail on charges of paying her domestic worker below minimum wages ($3 dollars an hour) and lying about it in official documents to the U.S. government. The prosecutor in the case, Preet Bharara, points out that she was treated no differently than any other person who is charged with a felony and sent to jail.
According to Preet Bharara, prison officials need to ensure she isn’t carrying something that could be used as a weapon or anything else prohibited in the prison. For so many women in prison, this type of searching (including full cavity searches) are a regular and humiliating occurrence in the United States (and many other countries). Each time a prisoner leaves the prison for a court appearance, for example, she is strip-searched when she returns. Women in prison have told me that this practice is an affront to their dignity and sense of humanity. These searches are often unnecessary as was likely in the case of the Indian diplomat. However, just last year, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders that even someone charged for a minor offense could be strip-searched without reasonable suspicion if she was entering a prison. Many prison rights advocates have long objected to this policy.
It is understandable that the Indian government is protesting this inhumane treatment, but Preet Bharara rightly asks “why there is so much outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian national accused of perpetrating these acts, but precious little outrage about the alleged treatment of the Indian victim and her spouse.”
Perhaps it is because many middle-class and upper class Indians employ domestic workers whose daily wages are often less than the price of Dominoes pizza delivery in Delhi. Government officials, business leaders, and even upper middle class Indians are not used to doing dishes, cleaning their houses, driving their cars, or changing their children’s diapers. In addition to their low wages, these domestic workers often sleep on kitchen floors and work more than 12 hours a day. In my experience of living in India, many of these workers are treated like robots and are so deprived of humanity that they do not even look people in the eye. Given the lack of enforced laws and regulations, the immense poverty, and inequality, there is no end in sight to this system of servitude.
This is not the first time an Indian diplomat in the U.S. has been charged with abusing a domestic worker–the Indian consul general in New York was charged with treating his maid as a “slave.” The maid was forced to work long hours for $300 dollars a month. To discourage this form of labor trafficking, the Indian government needs to pay its diplomats more money if they want to allow them to replicate in the United States the Indian life-style to which they are accustomed and at the same time comply with American labor regulations. Of course, getting your hands dirty with daily domestic chores is also an option.
This incident highlights the human rights problems with the treatment of domestic workers in India as well as the treatment of women in prison in the United States. While the Indian government correctly objects to the unnecessary strip-search, it should also recognize that the status and treatment of domestic workers in India is unacceptable. The United States, on the other hand, is correct not tolerate human rights abuses in the United States even if it would be permissible in the home country of the diplomat. Yet this incident should give American officials cause to question the blanket policy of strip searching people who have not been convicted of any crime. Both governments appear to be missing these human rights concerns in their own countries.