Devyani Khobragade
Delhi's fury over Devyani Khobragade's arrest surprises Washington. Both the countries have very different perception of the case.Facebook (Devyani Khobragade)

The row between India and the US over the arrest of Devyani Khobragade, an Indian consular employee in New York, shows no sign of dying down. While India has fiercely opposed the detention and subsequent treatment of the diplomat, America appears equally stoic in the opposing position.

But how did it get that far? How did the employment of a domestic maid escalate into an international stand-off between two of the world's most powerful nations?

Well let's start with the basics. For those unfamiliar with the case, Khobragade has been charged with committing visa fraud in relation to employment of a domestic maid from India, and is under penalty for perjury.

The diplomat is also charged with making the maid work far more than 40 hours a week, which is a crime in US.

According to US Attorney Preet Bharara, Khobragade had claimed in visa documents that the worker would be paid $4,500 a month, but then made the maid sign a second contract, not revealed to the U.S. government, which settled the monthly salary at Rs 30,000 (approx $500 - $600).

She also omitted the required language protecting the victim from "other forms of exploitation and abuse", according to Bharara.

However Uttam Khobragade, the diplomat's father, told a local news channel that a salary of Rs 30,000 (approx $600) was deposited every month in the maid's bank account in India, and was paid separately in US for her shopping and jewellery.

Mr Khobragade asked, if the agreed amount of Rs 30,000 was paid into an Indian account, how did she manage to survive in the US without additional income|? His stance directly refutes media claims that she was paid only about $3.31 per hour as per the agreed remuneration in the second contract.

Relationship gone sour

The maid, Sangeeta Richard, had been working with Khobragade since November, 2012. The relationship between the diplomat and maid went sour about four months later when Richard allegedly began pressuring her employer to allow her to work for other employers on her off days.

Khobragade turned down Richard's requests saying that working outside was illegal as per her visa status. About three months later, Richard went missing.

In July, Richard reportedly called Khobragade to an immigration lawyer's office, where the maid asked her to agree to a number of demands including terminating her contract, compensation for 19 hours of work per day, monetary settlement of $10,000, and to help her get a visa to live in US.

This led Khobragade to register a complaint of harassment, extortion and blackmailing with New York State Police Department and with New Delhi Police.

The maid is wanted in India in connection with the case registered against her by the diplomat, and the Delhi High Court passed an order restraining the maid and her husband from filing action against Khobragade in any foreign court.

Nevertheless, the US is wary of accusing the maid of 'blackmail' charges, as she was merely seeking better employment. According to the New York Times, the US stance is borne of "the common perception of India that servants frequently suffer abuse at the hands of their employers."

Khobragade was charged not only with trying to evade U.S. law intended to protect domestic employees of diplomats and consular workers from exploitation, but also with causing the victim and her spouse "to attest to false documents and be a part of her scheme to lie to U.S. government officials".

India, however, is focusing more on how Khobragade, being a diplomat, was stripped and cavity-searched after being arrested, and made to share a cell with "drug addicts".

India has pointed out that the US government feigned ignorance on the whereabouts of Richard, and accused US of a fraud by granting a visa to the family of the absconding maid.

Media reports in India are alluding to a suggestion that the maid was able to get immunity from charges against her, because her family were known to the American government. Richard's father-in-law and mother-in-law have worked in the US Embassy in Delhi, while her husband is a driver with the Mozambique Embassy.

India has hardly shown any inclination to offer sympathy to the estranged maid, an Indian citizen herself, or expressed concern over her labour rights in US.

Where does the blame lie?

The former editor of news daily the Hindu, Siddharth Varadarajan, has pointed out that Indians have a poor record of upholding labour rights and need to improve to avoid facing action in countries that have generous labourlaws.

"Countries with better legal protection for workers unlikely to turn a blind eye if employment of domestic help by diplomats violates law," he wrote on his facebook page.

The maid has also reportedly expressed disappointment over India's focus on the treatment of the high-profile diplomat, rather than the case itself.

But, to avoid the incident spiralling into a massive row, the US state department could perhaps have handled the case better by exercising restraint and instructing US marshals to not perform strip searches on the diplomat, given that India has shown itself to be sensitive with regards to diplomatic privileges.

India has often protested frisking of Indian diplomats at US airports, and described the searches as serious breaches of protocol. Given this background, the US should certainly have thought twice before ordering Khobragade to strip.

Divya Avasthy is international news correspondent for IBTimes UK.