Dis­pute with maid es­ca­lates into class war

Hun­dreds storm apart­ment with rocks, iron rods in full-blown riot

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - NATION | WORLD -

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.

Po­ras Chaud­hary / New York Times

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.

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