The kidnapping of little Anant and his release for ransom highlight once again the great ease with which police fabricate accounts that suit their purposes. (Means: They Lie). Turns out that the case they claimed shamelessly to have cracked was resolved on the terms set by the kidnappers. (Most probably, the two arrests made subsequently are arbitrary and it seems pretty certain the ransom has not been “recovered” as claimed). The holes in the police versions are being relentlessly revealed by the mainstream media, concerned as it is with law and order, especially when it comes to “posh” areas like NOIDA ( a small – tiny – prize awaits anyone finding an English paper that did NOT use this adjective once during the whole Anant episode), and posh people like CEOs of MNCs. I need do no more on this front, except just to mutter “What about Afzal?” before I move on to another aspect of the coverage on the incident.
The Servant Angle. Or, as the French might put it, Cherchez le Servant. No opportunity is too slight for the police and the media to drill this lesson home: Verify Your Servants. They Are Out to Get You.
About a month ago, a small item in the Delhi edition of a national daily reported that the domestic servant of an additional sessions judge hanged herself to death. The report stated that, finding some valuables missing, the judge called the maid from her jhuggi in the evening and questioned her in his sister’s flat. Saying that she would be back soon, she left. Soon afterwards, her body was found on the seventh floor of an office building in the neighbourhood of the judge’s house. The report ends, “The police suspect that the domestic help committed suicide as she felt guilty of having stolen valuables from her employer’s house.”
Is there something wrong with this picture? There is one dead woman and one living employer who was the last to see her alive. But all we are given is the employer’s version of the background to the suicide. No corroborating interviews, no “claimed”, no “allegedly”. Instead the story is told in a series of factual statements. It’s so plausible after all – everyone knows that all servants are thieves, actual or potential.
The callousness of the Indian middle-classes towards their “servants” surpasses the worst excesses of feudalism. It is no surprise that this callousness is reflected in the media. The polite term “domestic help” that has replaced the word “servant” in public usage is perniciously misleading. Make no mistake – these are servants. They are treated as less than human, and certainly as less than pet animals. Apart from physical and sexual abuse which is common, domestic workers perform heavy unrelenting toil, for they have no specific work hours. Their day begins when they wake and ends when they are allowed to sleep. Not to mention the routine humiliation that is their due. Several times now, I have noticed in restaurants in Delhi and once at the India International Centre, the truly appalling sight of young women who are clearly the maids in charge of toddlers, standing throughout the meal their employers consume, ready to take charge of the baby at any point, and not being offered so much as a glass of water. If this is the treatment they get in public, their humiliation in private can only be imagined. The presence of servants in these spaces is a fairly recent phenomenon, earlier they would simply be left at home. Can the public and shameless parading of this kind of behaviour have to do with growing legitimacy of contempt for the poor? Once there was at least the need to maintain the appearance of being a non-exploitative malik (calling the little slave of all work “beta” for example). Now, the young trendy couple I saw at one restaurant with a mobile phone each, the woman in jeans and tube top and a cute little baby, flaunted as accessory a badly dressed maid, a servant not permitted to sit with her employers. Even as they, doubtless, await their green card to the US where, if either parent as a student has to take up babysitting to meet costs, they will expect to be treated with dignity as employees, nothing less.
Last year, during the episode of the young maid who ran away with her employer’s child, there was a lot of discussion in the media on how to protect employers from such criminally inclined “domestic help”. Not a word about the conditions of work of most domestic servants, conditions that are bound to produce resentment, intense isolation, and repressed, impotent anger. Nothing about the need for guidelines for employers on minimum wages, conditions of living, food, leisure time, freedom to meet with others. Not one word.
As it happens, in the case mentioned above, it turned out that the maid was simply desperate to go back home to Orissa. She took the child with her because she couldn’t bear to leave the child alone. There was no attempt at ransom, she just went straight home and was arrested as she got off the bus. Clearly she had become mentally disturbed and was not thinking straight. When the child was recovered, the parents of the child reneged on their public promises that they would help their former employee if she returned. “Of course she should be punished,” declared the vengeful father, cutting a cake for their recovered child. The isolation in which these young women live is terrifying – they arrive from distant places, often do not know Hindi, are restricted to the houses in which they work, the only human interaction they have being with their employers who are away all day, if “human” that interaction can be called in most cases. Only where church agencies are involved is there some supervision of employers’ treatment of maids.
We learnt last year that coolies at railway stations in Delhi were given training by government agencies, so that they would behave with courtesy towards passengers; the very passengers beneath whose mountains of luggage they stagger for petty sums of money. It’s pretty much in your face now. The world exists for the middle classes and the wealthy to consume, to exploit and to be comfortable in. The powerless, the dispossessed, will learn to play their role as servants, or they will be suitably trained.
And just a week or so ago, an army officer found guilty of raping his domestic servant was given a reduced sentence because of the sacrifices he has made for the country!
The role of the media in naturalizing this situation is central. If I may be forgiven a personal note, during the episode of the kidnapped child, a young reporter from NDTV came to interview me as a “sociologist”. Suave and sophisticated, educated in LSR and Cambridge University, her question to me was – what makes servants inclined to criminal activity, and what suggestions did I have to deal with the situation. My response perplexed and then horrified her. “Do you have any suggestion less radical than this?” she exclaimed, at my hardly revolutionary assertion that those who do domestic work should be treated as we ourselves expect to be treated as employees. Not surprisingly, the programme that was eventually telecast was all about the anxieties of young parents and the irresponsibility of the police and employment agencies in not keeping strict surveillance over every servant employed.
There is no doubt that the situation has almost reached breaking point. Incidents of violence will inevitably rise, with increasingly sharp disparities in income, mass displacement and growing unemployment through slum demolitions and the relentless closing of avenues of work – every shop “sealed” in Delhi throws out of work a large network of people, from the chai-walla to the helper in the shop.
However, there may be less violent and more effective ways of Getting Us. I came across a reference to an organization in Pune (which may be still active), Pune Shahar Molkarin Sanghatana (Pune City Domestic Workers Association), formed in 1980. It was able to influence the Maharashtra Government to pass a Government Resolution (GR), dated August 10, 2000, which recognised the following as legitimate demands of the workers:
*One month’s salary as Diwali bonus for workers who have been employed for a minimum of one year.
*Medical expenses of the workers to be shared by the employers.
*Annual increment in salary to be made mandatory.
*A fortnight’s paid leave for those women employed full-time so that they can visit their home towns, and travel expenses to be shared by employers.
I wonder how many of us would meet these standards, or come even close…