Religious Profiling or Plain Security Check?

People looked and took notice and the tongues set talking. The superstar of Indian cinema had been belittled in a foreign land. To many, this was no less than a smack on the face of India, on the glorious day that the nation completed 62 years of independence from foreign rule. From anger to frustration to pointing fingers to conspiracy theories to stories of a publicity stunt – just about everything started doing the rounds. The Badshah of Bollywood had been held up for two hours for a secondary security check at the Newark Airport. His request for making a call was rejected. A multitude of episodes happened in the following hours. The man himself declared that he would not set foot on American soil for life. His resentment was clear from the jovial yet hard-hitting remark that he would like to frisk Anjelina Jolie (name a man who wouldn’t!).

The actor in him came out gloriously when he performed later for his fans at Chicago… people back home screwed noses and shook heads at the lack of dignity sent out by this action. But they overlooked the enormity of emotions that the star’s audiences in the US hold for him. Calling off the show would only have meant trampling over the eager audience’s sentiments and, needless to mention, their time and money.

Meanwhile, the situation back home spiraled into a smoldering effigy of political correctness. Cardboard Obamas went up in flames and the heat boiled the repressed anger of Indians. Film personalities came out for and against the actor…some citing similar incidents of harassment at the hands of US authorities. Amusing it was, when a certain actor born with a skin tone that is supposedly not supported by the tanning Indian terrains came forward and talked about his ordeal. The officer at a US airport had allegedly refused to believe him to be Indian and was anxious to tar him with a different colour. He contended that the young man could be White but not Indian. Ultimately, Google image search came to our indigenous heartthrob’s rescue. Kamal Haasan was apparently another injured party of religious profiling…this even when he is not Muslim. His last name in Tamil means ‘who smiles’ which combined with the meaning of his first name (lotus) brings to the mind an image of tranquility, a stark contrast to the image of the quintessential angry terrorist.

A whole school of thought emerged back in India which asserted that the US went overboard with the security process in Mr.Khan’s case. The secondary procedure is only resorted to in cases when a person’s identity seems suspicious. The situation was especially grey for Khan because of his ‘common’ surname which features in the blacklist of names to watch out for entering American territory. Agreed, the US has to make its borders impenetrable to security threats, but profiling every person with a particular last name as a threat is placing the integrity of a lot of people under question. No wonder the President of the country prefers to keep his Muslim middle name out of the limelight. This blatant discrimination would only add to the hostility the US currently faces from the Muslim world. The main point here is that secondary security checks are there to ascertain the true identity of a person. Fans were fawning over Khan for his autograph at the airport. Reportedly, some officers even vouched for the man’s identity. And as per current US requirements every person entering the country is fingerprinted, his background checked and is made to undergo a retina scan under the eyes of vigilant watchdogs. Obviously, Khan was not an exception to this. Given these circumstances, the two hour grilling seems a bit of wastage of time.

Khan was quick to contain the situation. Maybe realizing this could turn into a political issue between the two countries, he was quick to return to his jolly self again. Or maybe his Rs.100 crore deal with Fox Studios for his film “My Name Is Khan” catalyzed the peace process. This film coincidentally provided fodder for the publicity stunt theory…nothing better than touting the film as a culmination of the lead actor’s own experience and presenting it as a tribute to millions of his die-hard fans, many of whom could relate to, with an injured ego, similar ordeals. Lucky timing for Khan or do we have to consider another conspiracy theory, this time involving an ambitious Indian actor and US officials? Fertile minds would indeed find it suspicious though, given that a multitude of his films were set in US locales and such an issue never crept up before.

While a section was burning, incensed, new word got leaked that Khan controversy could have more to it than meets the eye. It is suspected that a member of his troupe played spoilsport and tipped off the US forces with information of the financiers of his show, who happen to be on the US terrorist hitlist. Back home, we know them as members of the underworld. Strangely, the spark got no fanning breeze and seems to have died down. Such an allegation is unlikely to have died even in the wake of violent winds of fans’ protesting voices.

Whatever be the case, the twain has not and will not meet over the issue. The supporters of stringent security checks at airports stress that celebrities, no matter how global, should not be given preferential treatment. This view finds an encore of support in India. The example of Al Gore’s positive comment on the efficient security systems when he was frisked at an airport has been widely quoted. The others, meanwhile, cannot get over the insult meted out to their favorite star. Add to this flashback memories of the frisking of an ex-President of India by an American airliner, and you have the perfect mix of insult and injury.

The Khan incident is likely to die an unnatural death, probably due to strangulation from tinsel town economics and political quarters. But the debate on where to draw the line when it comes to security checks is here to stay. Grilling a person after a whole section of an airport gives an undertaking of his identity, would amount to harassment in a majority’s lexicon.

In today’s globalized world, no country can walk away from the ramps of diplomacy. Security concerns should be masked behind a smile on the face of the host countries. A hostile host will not be acting in the best of its own interests. A country which draws a huge Indian talent and workforce from around the world should be extra careful in handling sensitive matters such as resolving identities.

Shruthi Venukumar

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