Thursday, September 07, 2006

Asian Travellers' Mid-Air Blues

A brown skin and a beard are not a felicitous (suitable) combination

– Rohinton Mistry, commenting on racial profiling

In about a month’s time, I would be travelling to Singapore on my first international trip. It’s an exciting prospect to see the world outside India but international travel worries me - I’m an Indian and these are troubled times for South Asians travelling in international flights. There have been quite a few incidents in recent times that have brought to focus racial profiling that Asians are being subjected to, in the name of national security and counter terrorism. The recent experiences of the 12 Mumbaikars who were returning via Netherlands, a Hyderabadi lad holed out in London on his way to US and two British Asians detained in an airport in Spain,after they were overheard conversing in Urdu, is unnerving.

The 12 Mumbaikars were innocuous businessmen who travelled frequently and had never got into any kind of trouble earlier. The Dutch side claims that these people exhibited suspicious behaviour on the flight – using mobiles on the plane, moving around frequently and talking in hushed tones. The Indian Government has asked for a full scale investigation into the incident and has just stopped short of asking for an apology. Maybe we were trying to be diplomatically nice with the Dutch authorities by not asking for an apology.

The public response has, of course, been much more vocal, accusing the Dutch officials of selectively targeting on the basis of race. Why would trained terrorists try to make their presence so evident in the flight? From when has fidgeting with mobiles become an international crime?Agreed that they did not exactly behave in the most gentlemanly fashion, but does that make them suspects who have to be handcuffed?

The West is pretty paranoid about this entire business of terrorists. I’m sure that it is a serious problem and we need to be very careful but when they get overboard as they have been doing in recent times, it gets to one’s nerves. It’s no one’s case that national security is to be treated with soft hands but when in the name of security, Asians who carry the stereotyped perceptions of terrorists, get grounded and often humiliated, it calls for serious concern.

Of course, not many remember that the most of the WTC accused were clean shaven, educated Islamic youth who would not have cleared the International Terrorism Exam, set by the Bush-Blair combine. How dumb would it be if terrorists were to stick to stereotypes and turn up at airports in the most conspicuous of manners? We are dealing with an intelligent group of terrorists who can outsmart the Pentagon and bring down WTC. A strategy which panders to such an ill-conceived notion and breeds on extreme Islamophobia is ridiculous. But then with the IQ of George Bush, should we even be surprised?

This situation is not going to change in the near future. To be fair to the airport authorities, we probably need to accept the fact that no one wants to take any chance and every possible danger is being addressed head on. Even for every 10 such incidents, if the authorities are successful in stopping at least one attempted sabotage, it is worth carrying out this effort.

But the flip side is that obviously, there would be a few people who would be rubbed the wrong way because of this. It has to be handled carefully and sensitively so that no one feels offended or atleast the offending factor is kept to minimum-something the Dutch did not do too well. Gallup poll surveys conducted post 9/11 have found that most people were uncomfortable with this blatant profiling of Middle Eastern or South Asian airline passengers; some sobering consolation for us, I guess.

Indians across have raised a hue and cry over this racial profiling, especially after the Mumbai incident, and quite rightly too. However, let’s step back for a moment and question our “holier than thou” attitude towards “cultural profiling”. We have our own set of prejudices that run deep down. We are a preachy nation who likes to tell others what’s wrong with their culture, while we wallow in a curious mix of self-pride and self-pity.

We also indulge in straitjacketing people here, probably not so much in terms of race but caste and religion (Of course there have been racial incidents here too like bars in Mumbai not allowing blacks on grounds of being suspected drug peddlers). There are so many people I have met who believe that reservations are bad for the simple reason that the backward castes are not good enough for studying and that any such idea will spell doom for us. So, while fretting and fuming is fine, it's also time for some self-introspection.

Maybe I should not be worrying too much. I do not fit the caricature of the terrorist designed by the West. I do not sport a beard (except for an occasional stubble) or wear a skull cap - supposedly, the latest fashion statement of all wannabe terrorists. I do not have a name with any religious connotations and do not speak Arabic/Urdu. Brown skin is the only dangerous sign I carry of being a terrorist.

P.S. I just came across a news item in BBC featuring the latest airport screener which shows passengers naked!!! This is really scary, wonder if this will enter the voyeuristic world of MMS someday. Time to bid goodbye to Right to Privacy???


  1. Good piece of work.

    However, I feel that the entire episode should not be looked into negatively. Each nation is answerable to its own people in case something goes wrong. In case of a national security threat, I guess, if required, all nations would do undertake similar exercises that are being currently undertaken in USA or in any of the so called ‘white nations’.

    I was watching television couple of weeks back, and there were these mother-daughter duo from Spain who had come here to perform, were being checked thoroughly. One of the ladies said that she does not view this as a problem; it is a matter of safety for all the fliers. If a person like her, who was invited here to perform in some concert, can speak like that, I am sure rest of us should as well understand the importance of such a checking. It reminds me of a saying, “Better Mr. Late, than Late Mr.” And I completely agree to the points that you have mentioned in fourth paragraph of your work.

    It is a matter of chance that we have the colour of our skin similar to those who have decided to inflict all manners of harm. And let us face it…we will have to go through the rigours of multiple checking in the days to come. There is no way the any government could apologise to the people of another nation for such things…and it is only foolish for any of the governments to seek such an apology.

    Well I am sure you will not have much of a problem while you take the Singapore Airline flight to Singapore…Hope you have a great trip, and come back feeling thankful for all the checking that were being done…at least I am back home safe…

  2. I agree with you that we should not be considering the negative side only. But you would only believe the extent to some of the airlines have behaved. Just check this case.

    “Alitalia airlines refused to allow an Indian man to fly business class from Delhi to Milan on August 22 because he didn't fit the profile of a businessman. The airline check
    in clerk questioned how he got a business class ticket, then had him removed from the airport.Santraj Maurya, who earns his living recycling paper and plastic from Delhi's
    garbage dumps, said a charity had given him the ticket to travel to a waste disposal conference in Brazil. But Alitalia staff did not believe his explanation of how he had a business-class ticket costing thousands of dollars, he told the Asian Age newspaper on Monday. Maurya said that check-in staff at Delhi airport told him he would not be allowed to travel business class because he "did not look like a businessman".
    The airline called security and he was whisked out of the airport, the report said.
    The Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group reportedly brought Maurya a business-class ticket because all economy tickets had sold out.”

    An exceptional case I guess but still a case where an airlines had gone ahead and discriminated on the basis of perceived socio-economic factors.