After postings in Islamabad and Riyadh, nothing is too much of a challenge for Sibi George, joint secretary (administration division), ministry of external affairs. As head of the administration and establishment divisions, he deals with all human resource-related issues. So, when he hurriedly flew out to New Zealand in early May, fellow diplomats were worried. They had a hunch that the Wellington crisis was something like the Devyani Khobragade affair. And, it was.
A chef in the employ of Indian high commissioner Ravi Thapar was found in a disoriented condition by local residents. He told the New Zealand police that he was being kept in slavery-like conditions in the Thapar residence and that Sharmila Thapar, Thapar’s wife, ill treated him. MEA sources said George recommended the recall of Thapar and the chef to preempt legal action by the New Zealand government.
Apparently, the swift move was part of the Centre’s strategy to contain such incidents before they cause embarrassment. In the last year, George handled around 27 HR-related issues, involving missions in Afghanistan, Austria, Botswana, Italy, Kazakhstan, Italy, Japan, Morocco, Madagascar, Mali and the UK. A few of the cases were reportedly about harassment of domestic staff and India-based domestic assistants (IBDAs).
The situation is such that lawyers abroad have been fishing for issues in Indian embassies. A South Block source said that a diplomat’s wife in New York got a discreet call from an immigration lawyer who wanted to know if she had “slaves” at home. The lady said she was an IBDA and led the caller on, before shaming him.
The MEA has now decided that IBDAs will be allowed only for the chief of mission and the deputy head of mission, leaving many diplomats—even women diplomats with children—without the recourse to an IBDA. Reportedly, the MEA and the finance ministry are at loggerheads over increased financial allocation for diplomats and IBDAs.
“A female diplomat with kids faces enormous strain on the job, which can be shared only with a domestic assistant,” said Khobragade. “The solution is to make a uniform policy providing for increased ‘nanny fund’ for the diplomats or turn the IBDAs into ‘government staffers’ so that they are immune from harassment.” Interestingly, the MEA later confirmed that Thapar’s chef was a government employee!
Former ambassador P. Stobdan says, “It’s a cultural practice for Indian diplomats to have retainers at home, whereas the same is not true even with highest level global diplomats or their counterparts.” A way out could be to provide differential ‘nanny money’—one slab for western postings and another for the developing world.
Another issue that remains unsolved is the tradition of sidelining diplomats “who bring trouble to the ministry”. Recent examples are Neena Malhotra, Prabhu Dayal and Khobragade. Malhotra has little to do in her current posting as joint secretary (welfare division). She settled the case with her IBDA in the US with a $1.5 million payment. Dayal made a similar out-of-court settlement in New York. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has not met Khobragade, though Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar has been sympathetic. Khobragade is facing criminal charges in the US and is barred from leaving India for personal or official reasons. She is now in charge of the new “Centre-state” relations wing of the MEA.
A Google group created by diplomats to discuss these cases has fallen flat as many are reluctant to discuss the warts, sources said. For the moment, India has warded off a possible diplomatic row with New Zealand, the incoming chair of the UN Security Council.