It is urban India's most unresolved relationship. A relationship that goes to the heart of the inequality that every affluent Indian unthinkingly accepts, a relationship on which even the values of the Constitution founder. The 'servant' exists in a realm which we dare not analyse too deeply for fear that the horrifying social tension that the institution embodies may threaten the comforts of cheap domestic labour.
The fact that the 'servant'-employer relationship increasingly verges on mutual distrust, the fact that barely disguised class hostility now marks this uncertain living arrangement, the fact that brutal violence in proliferating cases embody yet another aspect of India's million mutinies, these are issues we, the urban help employing classes, choose not to think about. The sight of a monied family feasting at a restaurant, with a quiet dusky teenager sitting a little apart with her face turned away from them, is something we are immune to, perhaps even a little envious of, that the family seems to have such docile dedicated staff.
The case of an allegedly 13-year-old maid apparently locked in an apartment in Delhi's Dwarka locality by a doctor couple, who went on a holiday, is yet another manifestation of the crisis in the relationship between 'servant' and employer.
The facts of the case are far from clear. The NGO which rescued the girl has painted a gory picture of a young woman brutalised, starved and locked in an apartment while her employers took off on an exotic vacation. Theirs is a morality of play of good and evil where a hapless innocent was tortured by urban upwardly professionals. The doctors say that the girl is throwing a tantrum, that she was not locked in the apartment at all, that she is not 13 but 18 and that they are being framed by the girl's backers. Where does the truth lie? Only a proper police investigation will establish the facts. What is beyond doubt is that there was a complete breakdown of dialogue and understanding between the maid and her bosses.
The link between domestic help and employer has indeed reached the breaking point. In March, an 11-year-old girl was rescued from an apartment in Noida with bruises on her body, apparently inflicted by her employers. In February, a US judge awarded nearly $1.5 million to an Indian maid for “slavery” by an Indian diplomat. In 1999, a 19-year-old working in the home of another Indian diplomat in Paris allegedly faced harassment.
Conversely, in 2007 a maid strangulated her 40-year-old employer in Delhi because the employer had objected to the maid talking to a neighbourhood boy. There have been numerous cases in which elderly employers have been violently attacked by domestic help. In the Aarushi Talwar murder case, while parents Nupur and Rajesh are facing the law courts, the relationships among the Talwars and the domestic staff, the murdered Hemraj, the compounder Krishna and others — Raj Kumar and Vijay Mandal — remain mysterious. Did the Talwars try to frame their help? Or did the staff try to frame the Talwars?
In the Shiney Ahuja rape case, both sides told a radically different story. Supporters of the maid alleged sexual assault by the celebrity actor. The Ahujas maintain that they were being blackmailed and framed in an extortion racket. Where does the truth lie? Is what comes out in the media the truth or a caricature?
A complete and thorough re-examination of the relationship between domestic worker and employer is needed. Placement agencies, sometimes thinly disguised trafficking operators, bring hordes of young men and women from the interiors of West Bengal and Jharkhand into the homes of upwardly mobile urban Indians. Terms of employment are not codified, the fate of the domestic help hinges entirely on the disposition of her employer. Most newly-rich urban Indians, sadly, remain inherently elitist and caste conscious, the castes of 'us' and 'them'.
As Louis Dumont wrote in his seminal Homo Hierarchicus, the caste system is not just a physical reality, it's a way of thinking, a system of ideas. The caste system exists as much in the mind as in society. The separateness that exists between an employer and an employee in a home is not a professional distance between employer and employee — it's an unquestioned ritual of social untouchability based on the conviction that 'servants' are lesser mortals. Separate plates and glasses for staff smack of old caste Hindu ideas of 'filthiness' of domestic workers. The spoilt rich kids with their slender nannies, the chauffeurs who wait patiently as their employers party until dawn — these social collisions should surely fill us with more consternation than they do.
Underlying the dizzying new urban lifestyles, a stark social inequality or even a class war may be brewing inside homes. When class superiority is asserted and used as an instrument of authority and control, then sometimes the victim has no other option but to rebel in fierce ways, either by crime, falsification or vendetta. When dialogue and mutual understanding are not evolved and worked at every day (rather in the way a modern marriage is negotiated), then the stage is set for nasty surprises.
Thus, the domestic work sector is in need of urgent reforms. The sector must be professionalised, made transparent and a modicum of dignity and respect must be enforced, by the State, resident welfare associations or even NGOs offering domestic staff. Most of all, the urban Indian employer must undergo a rapid mental transformation: domestic help is not born into servitude by karma, they are equal human beings without other opportunities. Their labour is cheap but it cannot be taken for granted. The feudal mai-baap ethos is mercifully dead. In its place we have to create a new social contract based on constant interaction and understanding. What an indictment of 21st century India if the urban home, instead of being a centre for progressive values, became an arena of a brutal social apartheid. No amount of expensive interior decoration could cover up that ugly reality.
Sagarika Ghose is Deputy Editor, CNN-IBN. The views expressed by the author are personal.