Didn’t human rights matter before Shah Rukh?

PARTHA BANERJEE writes from New York City: Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan was detained at a New Jersey airport and interrogated for two hours before the US authorities let him make a phone call.

The movie celebrity, fondly called “King” Khan by millions of Indian fans in the subcontinent and around the world, was naturally upset. He said he felt humiliated. The incident created uproar in India: it became the top story nationwide. Khan was en route to Chicago to lead an Indian independence day parade.

The Indian government was unhappy too. Information minister Ambika Soni told media that “while she could not say if Khan had been detained on religious grounds, there have been too many instances like these in the US concerning Indians.”

She is right. Last month, US-based Continental Airlines sought apology to former Indian president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam for mistreating him at New Delhi airport.

Strange! An Indian president frisked in India, by US authorities!

***

The Shah Rukh Khan episode is telling for its irony. Khan just finished shooting in the U.S. for his upcoming film “My Name is Khan,” a story about a Muslim’s experience with racial profiling. Obviously, people in the U.S. who detained him did not keep in touch with Khan’s filmic endeavours.

Indian-Americans, we keep telling unconvinced compatriots, don’t particularly enjoy any special respect in this “dreamland.” To mainstream America and its corporate media, India is still largely the land of jungles and snakes and beggars and brutes.

At hearing the Khan news, I was bemused. I wasn’t quite sure how to react.

On the one hand, I felt angry that the authorities were so unwelcoming to someone like Khan at his port of entry into the US, let alone detaining and questioning him. There was absolutely no justification. The Indian Independence Day parades all across America were tarnished by this one incident.

On the other hand, activists like us who’ve been screaming against grotesque human rights violations in the U.S. on thousands of Indian immigrants, especially since the tragedies of September 11, never got a serious hearing by either the traveling celebrities who put on big-money shows every year across America, or the Indian government, in spite of the fact that numerous stories of poor peoples’ harrowing, nightmarish experiences have been reported especially in ethnic media.

For that matter, Indian immigrants have never been treated any differently from Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Middle Eastern immigrants. As long as they carried a Muslim name or “looked or behaved like potential terrorists,” according to U.S. definitions or databases, they would sure be enforcement agencies’ targets for mistreatment, interrogation, detention and possible deportation. They’d also be targets for possible hate crimes; we worked with hundreds of hate crime victims—almost all poor immigrants from South Asia and Arab countries—since the wake of 9/11. Media reported many of these stories too.

And it’s not just Muslims that have been targets. We’ve worked with many Sikh immigrants—ordinary, innocent men, women and children—who bore the brunt of post-9/11 hatred and government repression in America. Indian government should’ve noticed long ago what was happening, and protested against it to the U.S. government. That is, if they really wanted these crimes and oppressive measures to stop once and for all.

***

In a way, it’s unfortunate that an Indian matinee idol had to go through such a terrible ordeal in America. In another way, it was good that Khan got a taste of today’s real America, where human rights are a matter of the past.

Hatred used to be along colour lines in America, and Black Americans fought hard for generations to get their dignity and civil rights. Now it’s the turn of new immigrants from India, Pakistan, China, Mexico or Latin America who’re the new bogies of American racism, and scapegoats for economic crises.

Affluent or middle-class Indian immigrants, however, still don’t think it’s a problem; in fact, a large majority of Indian-Americans still carry their own racial prejudice against blacks and also immigrants from other countries, particularly Muslim countries.

During the post-9/11 days of intense racial violence, we never got a good hearing even from within our own Indian-American community; in fact, in way, they always wanted to justify the meaningless violence and hatred against Muslim and Sikh brothers and sisters. Our repeated attempts to draw their attention to countless midnight arrests, arbitrary detentions and random deportations of immigrant workers made little impression on them.

I don’t recall a single major statement by any Indian celebrity or member of the Indian government denouncing such rampant abuse of human rights.

Now that someone like Shah Rukh Khan has tasted a little of today’s real America, and that too, on the eve of the Independence Day, emotions will fly high, and Indian students, fans and actors would post angry comments on the Internet and all; of course, most anger would be shown from a safe, virtual place, and not too many grassroots protests would take place on the streets of America.

Ceremonial speeches and press releasess by affluent Indians at ivory-tower gatherings would feature Indian-American media. Television channels and newspapers in India, of course, would go berserk for the next few days, and in all likelihood, Shah Rukh Khan would be tendered a soft apology by the U.S. authorities for this “rare aberration” of the “mighty, judicious and welcoming” U.S. system.

Life will go on as usual for celebrities and people in power.

At the same time, poor Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Chinese, African and Mexican workers and their families would keep suffering massive injustice, repression and human rights violation at the hands of U.S. immigration authorities. Many will keep spending months and years in jail, even without any show of support from governments, embassies and consulates.

Indian students, business houses and media would not have time to waste on them.

Partha Banerjee is a college professor, human rights and media activist in New York