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posted: 1/3/2014 5:00 AM

A changing perspective for Indian-Americans

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  • Shaan Khan

    Shaan Khan

By Shaan Khan
Guest Columnist

Home is where the heart lies, but in recent weeks, some Indian-Americans have begun questioning their hearts and loosening ties with their ancestral home. Like those in other immigrant communities in the United States, Indian-Americans have been vociferous supporters of their native country and its foreign policies. However, the recent upheaval over the arrest of an Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, 39, posted at the Consulate of India as deputy consul general, has created a defining chasm between mainland Indians and Indian-Americans.

For mainland Indians who are disgusted and yet comfortably habituated with the morbidly corrupt judicial system, it is hard to imagine the efficacy of the strictly enforced U.S. principles of rule of law and equality before the law. In India, highly connected politicians and top brass bureaucrats are usually sacrosanct and, most of the time, above the law. For common Indians, it is difficult to believe that an Indian attaché who has been accused of bringing a maid from India at a paltry wage of about $3.31 an hour will be arrested because she fraudulently drafted two separate contracts: one for the above amount to be paid and the other for the equivalent of U.S. minimum wage of $9.75 to be shown on the immigration documents.

It is an accepted fact that wages are savagely low in India. At an hourly wage of $3.31, the Indian housekeeper Sangeeta Richard would be earning more than many undergraduate degree-holding employees in India at their entry-level jobs. Raising her salary to $9.75 would literally provide her an Indian millionaire status within a year of service; making the very real dreams of underpaid and underappreciated service-class Indians seem as attainable as they were in the award-winning movie "Slumdog Millionaire."

However, Indian central and regional governments are not handing out any Oscars. Joining them in indignation are all political parties and even common people who are racing toward the speakerphones for the opportunity to express outrage against the U.S. government. So serious is the fury that government officials refused to meet a congressional delegation in protest of this issue.

The arrest of the diplomat has been called "deplorable," and the way she was arrested in front of her children, strip searched, swabbed for DNA, and held up with common criminals and drug addicts is being called a violation of the Geneva Convention, under which an envoy is given unlimited immunity.

The story gets interesting when we find the prosecutor in New York is President Barack Obama's recent appointee Preet Singh Bharara, an Indian-American. Defending his stance in a statement to the press, Bharara suggested that the Indian government's attitude toward the case might be colored by views of class and status, which remain powerful forces in India but are much less valid in the eyes of the American legal process.

His sole motivation in this case, as in all other cases, he said is "to uphold the rule of law, protect victims, and hold accountable anyone who breaks the law -- no matter what their societal status and no matter how powerful, rich or connected they are."

The majority of Indian-Americans side with Bharara, pouring out their overwhelming support for U.S. laws through Facebook, Twitter, blogs and comments on the newspaper articles.

To them, Khobragade appears to have forgotten her own humble beginnings in the Dalit community (once an untouchable caste), but Indian-Americans are not forgetting what they found missing in the Indian judicial system. The true crime is not the one being punished. Numerous U.S. politicians have been involved in high-profile cases, and perhaps Khobragade could take notice of that. The true crime is the proposition and defense of legal partiality by the Indian government.

Mainland Indians must realize that times have changed for Indian-Americans. All of a sudden, for them, home away from home is feeling safer, fairer and cozier. Home is still where the heart lies; but this heart has chosen a different home for tonight.

• Shaan Khan, a freshman at Howard University, is a graduate of Glenbard South High School in Glen Ellyn and a recipient of a Daily Herald 2012 Leadership Team honorable mention.

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