By Nilofar Suhrawardy, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS) India Correspondent
NEW DELHI: Just as Bollywood icon Shahrukh Khan was probably not prepared for being detained by American immigration officials at Newark Liberty in International Airport in New Jersey for questioning, United States apparently did not expect the reaction that it would trigger from India. Different views have been expressed on what actually led to Shahrukh being detained (August 15). Linking his case with his religious identity- a Muslim- Shahrukh said that he was held up because his last name (Khan) came up on a computer alert list. Incidentally, the actor was in United States to participate in Indiaâ€™s Independent Day celebrations and also to promote his new film: â€œMy Name is Khan,â€ which highlights racial discrimination of Muslims after September 11, 2001 attacks in United States.
Shahrukh may have been detained for a still longer time had perhaps the Indian embassy in United States not intervened. Not every Khan or any person bearing a Muslim name is lucky enough to have his countryâ€™s embassy intervene in such cases. Nevertheless, the US immigration officials denied that Shahrukh was formally detained because of his last name having cropped up on their computer alert system. His security check â€œtook a little longer because his bag was lost by the airline,â€ according to US Customs and Border Protection spokesperson Elmer Camacho. Irrespective of whether Shahrukhâ€™s bag was actually lost or not, Camachoâ€™s statement certainly indicates United Statesâ€™ acknowledgement that the actor was detained for longer than routine security checks require. It defeats the view expressed by certain people that Shahrukh was only subject to routine security frisking and the actor unnecessarily made a lot of noise about the issue. This is further confirmed by US embassy in India stating that it would look into the case. â€œWe are clarifying. We are trying to ascertain facts about the incident,â€ US embassy official said.
Soon after the incident, Shahrukh expressed that he would avoid going to United States, as he did not want to be a part of Americaâ€™s paranoia of religion. â€œThis has happened with me before and thatâ€™s why it concerns me all the more. As it is I shy away from coming to the US because I donâ€™t want to participate in their paranoia about religion and everything that the US has developed into over the years. I donâ€™t want to say that it happened because I am a Muslim as it may lead to something else, but I think it had something to do with that only. We can only avoid this by not coming to the US,â€ he said. Describing the incident as â€œuncalled for,â€ Shahrukh said: â€œI did feel bad. I felt angry. I am glad my family wasnâ€™t there. God knows what they would have done to them.â€
Reacting to Shahrukhâ€™s words, US envoy Timothy J. Roemer said: â€œWe are trying to ascertain facts of the case â€“ to understand what took place. Shahrukh Khan, the actor and global icon, is very welcome guest in the United States. Many Americans love his films.â€ The incident would probably not have invited reaction at the diplomatic level from both India and United States, were it a routine process to which all visiting US are subject to.
Undeniably, if an ordinary Indian possessing the same name had been detained for even longer hours than the actor, the incident would not have probably hit headlines nor would it have raised concern diplomatically, politically and among the Indian people. This also is perhaps a minor indicator of the apparent religious and racial bias, which people bearing common Muslim names are subject to in United States. While United States may still take some time to come to terms with the negative image that prevalence of this bias has earned for the superpower, it cannot be missed that Washington is gradually but definitely becoming aware of this hard reality. This probably compelled United States to issue statements at various levels on what led to the incident and that it would be looked into.
In addition to the incident having invited strong comments from several Indian politicians, Shahrukhâ€™s fans reacted strongly by staging a demonstration in Allahabad (Uttar Pradesh). Shouting slogans against the US administration, they also burnt effigy of US President Barack Obama. They termed Shahrukhâ€™s detention as an â€œinsult to one billion Indians,â€ (August 16). A similar demonstration was staged in the capital city also.
â€We will take the issue with the United States government strongly. Such incidents involving Indians due to their religion or nationality should not happen. We will not accept it,â€ Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel said. Earlier, Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni said that India should also adopt the same attitude towards Americans. â€œLike they frisk, we should also be frisking them,â€ she said.
While United States has yet to accept that biased frisking of Shahrukh- decided by his religious and racial identity- has added to the negative image about the superpowerâ€™s democratic claims, Indians have reacted strongly against it, indicating that the incident is democratically unacceptable to them. Biased frisking of Shahrukh was totally undemocratic from the Indian perspective.