Dispute with maid escalates into class war
Hundreds storm apartment with rocks, iron rods in full-blown riot
By Suhasini Raj and Ellen Barry
NOIDA, India — The madams in the luxury gated community went to yoga classes and toddler playgroups; the maids soundlessly whisked away dirty dishes and soiled laundry before retreating, at night, to a nearby shantytown of tin sheds and plastic tents.
This kind of arrangement has persisted across India for decades, in apparent harmony.
But early Wednesday, at the Mahagun Moderne in Noida, on the outskirts of India’s capital, the madams and the maids went to war.
A dispute between a maid and her employer erupted into a full-blown riot, as hundreds of the maid’s neighbors, armed with rocks and iron rods, forced their way into the complex and stormed her employer’s apartment. In response, thousands of families have locked their maids out, saying they can no longer trust them in their homes.
Ashok Yadav, the development’s head of security, wondered how long the madams could hold out.
“The fact is that it is a symbiotic relationship between the madam and the maid,” he said. “Right now, the residents are very angry and shocked at the violent way the mob attacked the society. But before long, they will have to find new maids. How will life go on otherwise?”
Conflicts between domestic workers and employers are a regular feature of Indian crime logs, but mass violence is almost unheard-of. In Indian cities, many maids live in their employers’ homes, giving them little opportunity to build networks, said Tripti Lahiri, the author of “Maid in India: Stories of Inequality and Opportunity Inside Our Homes.” ‘Us vs. them’
That has changed, however, as luxury high-rises proliferated in farmlands on the outskirts of New Delhi, and slum neighborhoods appeared beside them, in what Lahiri called “a perfect setup for an us vs. them clash.”
In the case of Harshu Sethi and her maid, Johra Bibi, in Noida on Wednesday, the clash was Alfred Hitchcock-grade, awakening subterranean anxieties about the true relationship between the rich and the poor.
On Tuesday, Sethi accused Bibi of stealing 17,000 rupees, or about $265, from a safe in her apartment. She said Bibi had admitted taking 10,000 rupees in back wages, then disappeared. Bibi, 30, denies confessing to anything and said Sethi “kept me locked at her place” that night, an allegation that her husband shared with other residents of the slum. The police say the maid spent the night in the apartment of another employer.
“I don’t remember anything,” Bibi said in an interview. “The next morning there was a big ruckus. A lot of people came. The guard came and took me out.”
Sethi, a schoolteacher, described something more frightening. She was in her apartment waking her 8-year-old son for school, she said, when she saw a “huge crowd,” led by women, coming toward her unit, shouting, “Today we will kill her; we will kill the madam.”
Video shows a loud, aggressive crowd surging toward the complex while security guards try ineffectually to beat it back. Sethi said people in the crowd jumped over the balcony of her ground-floor apartment and shattered a plateglass door with a flower pot.
Sethi said she pulled her son from a glass-strewn bed and hid in the locked bathroom with her husband for an hour and a half, while the crowd ransacked her apartment.
“We were only thinking of saving our lives,” she said in an interview, sobbing, and displayed a heavy iron rod left in the apartment by one of the intruders. “They tried to show that they did not have rights. I feel that we do not have any human rights. We are the poor ones.” All servants barred
Bibi, the maid, had a different take on the relationship, saying Sethi had not paid her 3,500 rupees, or about $55, for the past two months, and had falsely accused her of stealing.
“Just because she has money, does she think she will get away with anything?” she said. “All over, everyone is listening to her, and nobody to me. Will she throw us in the garbage just because I am poor?”
Within hours, the conflict had drawn a bright line through the complex, which has 2,700 units, and the residents announced a decision to bar all servants from the complex. The Hindustan Times reported earnestly that “a large number of families ordered their food from outside on Wednesday and Thursday.”
Sandhya Gupta, a Mahagun Moderne resident, said employers should be careful not to let their guard down with their maids.
“They are like that bone that is stuck in our throats — we can neither swallow them, nor can we spit them out,” she said. “We need each other, and must learn to coexist with mutual respect.”
Residents of Bibi’s shantytown said the week had been frightening and exhausting, and many said Bibi was at fault. The police swept into the settlement overnight on Wednesday and Thursday, detaining about 60 people and arresting 13 of her neighbors. Other residents fled into a field of okra and cowered there until the police left.
The police said criminal complaints had been lodged by the Sethi family, Bibi, the residents of the complex and the security guards.
Wives of some of the people arrested following a dispute between a maid and her employer discuss the situation with a policeman in Noida, India.