I am more interested in Nita Ambani’s views on Shahrukh Khan’s detention at New York airport than what he himself says. It was her chartered plane. These require special permission for landing, and am reasonably certain the immigration officials would question all of them. I am not disturbed that Shahrukh was stopped for questioning, but that the rest were cleared without questioning.
Security is exceedingly important, and I’d much rather be frisked like everyone else.
As usually happens when a celebrity is involved, people are divided into two sides. One group is upset that he was given preferential treatment with the External Affairs minister S M Krishna joining in:
“This has become a habit of detention and then apology, this cannot continue. We need an assurance that this won’t happen again.”
Happen again to whom? Let us take a little peek into our own ‘special’ cases of two kinds.
- The bigwigs have their staff check in for them; many are escorted right up to the lounge or straight to the aircraft. We are the ones who have VIP enclosures and separate entrances and exits. Upon return, they have to wait in no queues. Someone is waiting at immigrations, and they are out.
- Are we not overly careful when it comes to citizens of certain countries? Ask the Iranians, those visiting from Arab states, Afghanistan, and of course Pakistan. Forget detention, they have to report to the police station within a few hours of arrival. We have this mutual suspicion, so Indians get the same treatment. As I’ve mentioned so often, although I had an ‘Exempted from police reporting’ for Pakistan, it did not stop the police from reporting to me!
This brings us to the other issue: Which countries have you travelled to? The US is wary if you have Pakistan or the Arab states stamped on your passport. It is unfortunate, because people are travelling a good deal. I have mentioned earlier how the Pakistani visas on my passport invariably lead to a whole round of questioning – and this for an Indian with a legitimate address and an Indian passport returning to India from a visit overseas. I have to keep quiet or answer politely or, at the most, come up with a one-liner that I hope goes over the official’s head.
I have visited the US after 9/11 and three trips to Pakistan, and nothing unusual happened. I still remember the Immigrations guy saying in jest, “Hope you aren’t carrying pickles.” Then there was the routine question about how long I planned to stay, and him asking, “And why not longer?” To which I replied, “Without pickles?”
There must be a method even in the casual banter, and to be honest I do not mind.
Here, too, there are times at hotels, banks, and cinema halls where metal detectors are used and you are often flagged off simply because you have become a familiar face or they judge you by what you wear. I insist on them looking into my bag.
To return to the Shahrukh Khan episode, yes it has been repeated and all the Khans’ stories are being regurgitated. I do not like the word humiliation to describe such experiences. It would be humiliating if someone refuses to travel in the same aircraft because of your religion or nationality, or you are denied access to places where everyone else is only because of your beliefs or where you come from. And this has happened to people. Besides, not all Muslims are Khans.
I am disappointed by the reaction of the American State Department, for it reeks of elitism, not unlike our own feudal attitude. Spokesperson Mark Toner said:
“Obviously, we've expressed our regret about the incident and recognize that he’s a very renowned artist and humanitarian.”
What if he was not? Since when have countries recognised humanitarian work as a criterion? I think activists have a tough time. And there are those who can barely afford a ticket going to meet their children. The world is getting smaller in terms of connectivity, but it is becoming more divided. So, let us forget humanitarianism.
I still recall a renowned musician who had approached the visa office and was asked to perform to prove that he was a genuine case even though he was invited by an organisation. This is not only about Muslims, although it is probably much more in their case.
Shahrukh Khan, even if he is detained, will not really suffer. He was to receive the Chubb fellow award at Yale University and deliver a lecture. Assistant Secretary George Joseph said:
“As SRK himself would tell you, what is most important in his movies is how they end rather than how they begin.”
He played to the gallery with his quips:
“Yes it (being detained at a US airport) always happens. It’s nice. Whenever I start feeling too arrogant about myself, I always take a trip to America. The immigration guys kicked the star out of stardom.”
This is really an assertion of arrogance and stardom. He is underscoring it.
“They (immigration officials) always ask me how tall I am and I always lie and say 5 feet 10 inches. Next time, I am going to get more adventurous. (If they ask me) what colour are you, I am going to say white.”
If he were truly adventurous, he’d say Black. Perhaps then we could talk about racial profiling with some degree of empathy.
And, if he really wanted to bring this issue to light, he would have refused the Yale award as a protest and taken the flight back home, with Ms. Nita Ambani issuing a statement in support. That would have made a potent point and saved all the officials the burden of doublespeak and mollycoddling. If there is anything white about it, it is the whitewash job, with Mr. Shahrukh Khan left holding the paintbrush like a missile. Humanitarian one, of course.