New Delhi: Unwilling to bear the risk of either adverse publicity or legal escalation, India has acted swiftly to recall its High Commissioner to New Zealand in the wake of allegations of assault and ‘slavery’ made by a member of his domestic staff last month.
The incident comes 18 months after the bruising tug-of-war between New Delhi and Washington over the arrest of Devyani Khobragade and underlines the continuing difficulty Indian diplomats face in transplanting desi-style work arrangements for cooks, maids and other domestic support staff to foreign countries where salaries and opportunities are better and the attitude towards workers’ rights is more enlightened than what it is in India.
On Saturday, External Affairs ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup confirmed that the High Commissioner, Ravi Thapar, had been posted back to headquarters. He was yet to complete his 3-year term.
According to the New Zealand Herald,
“It is alleged a staff member, thought to be a chef, was found by a member of the public in a distressed state in Wellington after walking from the [High Commissioner’s] residence in Lower Hutt to [Wellington, a distance of 20 km].
“The person who picked him up took him to the Wellington police station out of concern for his welfare. Victim Support became involved and he was taken to the Wellington Night Shelter where he stayed for a few nights.”
The man alleged that he was assaulted by Sharmila, the High Commissioner’s wife, a charge Thapar has denied. According to the New Zealand Herald, the man spoke to the Wellington police through an interpreter on May 9:
[He] alleged he was physically assaulted by Mrs Thapar at the residence where he worked and lived, and threatened with assault by Mr Thapar. But he would not make a formal complaint and wanted to return to India.
The police sought the help of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade which alerted India’s Ministry of External Affairs.
An official from the Indian ministry came to New Zealand to help sort out the situation, including retrieving the chef’s passport and belongings from the residence.
The staff member left New Zealand on May 28.
The police wanted to speak with Mr Thapar but he would not agree to an interview or allow any other member of the mission to be approached.
Because no one has been arrested or charged, there has been no question of invoking diplomatic immunity.
Swarup confirmed the issue was first brought to the MEA’s notice on May 10 when the high commissioner’s employee was found missing. He said the High Commission had immediately informed both the New Zealand Police and the Foreign Office and the authorities reverted with the information that the staff member presented himself to the police and made certain allegations.
He said the MEA takes all such cases “very seriously” and a team was deputed from headquarters to New Zealand to ascertain the facts and conduct an independent inquiry. “The team liaised with the New Zealand authorities to resolve the matter. The team also facilitated the return of the service staff member who wanted to return to India. He returned on May 28,” Swarup said.
Though no charges were pressed by the service staff member, Swarup said the MEA will investigate the matter further. The High Commissioner has been posted back to headquarters,” he said. Thapar took up his assignment in Wellington in December 2013 and is roughly half-way through the normal ambassadorial tenure of three years.
In remarks to the New Zealand Herald he strenuously denied the charge of assault against his wife:
Mr Thapar denied the allegations, saying his wife was an “experienced diplomatic spouse” incapable of assaulting an “able-bodied man”.
“The guy had absolute freedom to walk away and to do whatever … we trusted him,” he said.
Thapar alleged the man wanted to “concoct” a story but didn’t succeed.
He said the Indian government was duty-bound to take care of the man, who worked in the house’s kitchen.
“You must understand that people who are not exposed, people who are not educated, people who are sometimes first-timers abroad, who have heard of these … will use this opportunity sometimes to get sympathy from other agencies,” he said.
Mr Thapar said “within minutes” of the man leaving the house, he alerted both local police and his bosses in Delhi, and also provided the man’s passport details.
“He had his jacket … but no spares, which means he was in touch with external collaborators, he said.
Denying his return to Delhi had anything to do with the chef’s complaint, Thapar told reporters, “I’m going but to take care of my mother because my dad passed away last year. I can’t keep up 13,000 kilometres away just talking to her on the phone.”
He said his wife has certain medical issues and would not have assaulted anyone. In a video interview to stuff.co.nz, Thapar said, “It’s very, very absurd that a lady of 50-plus with these medical issues could confront or could even think of or even conceptualise assaulting a physically able-bodied person of about 26 years old.” A car accident in Delhi had left his wife suffering from “sciatica, spondylitis, arthritis and vertigo”, he claimed.
The High Commissioner also refuted the allegation of slavery, telling the website the man had the keys to the house and often stayed in the house alone:
“He was a free man, he had the keys to the house. As an active diplomat…We used to travel a lot, and my wife was travelling with me…He was the custodian of the house, he had our implicit and complete trust. He had the keys. Everything was open,” Thapar said.
“The question of slavery doesn’t arise. That means someone who is not allowed to leave. Not at all. He had adequate, and umpteen, dozens of opportunities” [to leave].
Meanwhile, New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) said it is aware Thapar is preparing to leave the country. “MFAT was aware a staff member raised with New Zealand police concerns about his treatment in the high commission,” a spokesman said.
“MFAT has been advised the individual concerned elected not to take the matter further. That staff member had independent legal representation and decided to return to India.”
Radio New Zealand quoted the country’s police as saying they had since made “welfare checks” with the staff member back in India “who said he was fine and happy to be home.”
With inputs from PTI