At a Luxury Complex in India, the Maids and the Madams Go to War

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.”

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 Ms. 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, Ms. Sethi accused Ms. Bibi of stealing 17,000 rupees, or about $265, from a safe in her apartment. She said Ms. Bibi had admitted taking 10,000 rupees in back wages, and then disappeared. Ms. Bibi, 30, denies confessing to anything, and said Ms. 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,” Ms. 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.”

Ms. 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. Ms. Sethi said people in the crowd jumped over the balcony of her ground-floor apartment and shattered a plate-glass door with a flower pot.

Ms. 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.”

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The wives of men…

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