We may proclaim ourselves to be “equal” citizens of the world’s largest democracy, but the sad reality is that majority of our so-called elected rulers consider themselves to be a class apart. Their lifestyle when in power are no different from the maharajas and nawabs of the yesteryears. They believe in profligate structures and sumptuous glories. Therefore, I am not surprised by Uttar Pradesh’s urban development minister Azam Khan’s heightened sense of self-importance, evident once again during his recent visit to the United States. Khan was infuriated after he was “detained”, barely for 10 minutes, for “further questioning”, in addition to the regular check-up at the Boston International Airport recently. He was in the delegation led by chief minister Akhilesh Yadav to speak at the Harvard University on his “successful management” of the recent “Mahakumbh mela” at Allahabad.
The delegation was invited by a department of the world famous university. That means that Khan and his chief minister were visiting the United States not as the official guests of the US government; they were attending a function at a private university, which has nothing to do with the US government as such. But such was the fury of Khan and his boss Yadav against the US government that they not only boycotted the event for which they were invited but also “cancelled” the dinner that the Indian Consulate in New York had organised in their honour. Khan has now injected a communal element into the incident by saying that he was insulted just because he was “a Muslim”. He has even gone to the bizarre extent of saying that the whole episode was the conspiracy of our minister of external affairs Salman Khurshid, one of his political rivals in Uttar Pradesh, though in the process he negates the “Muslim angle” as Khurshid happens to be a proud Muslim as well.
How genuine is Khan’s anger? Here, I would like to give my personal examples. Once, I had gone to South Korea at the invitation of a leading university of that country. My hosts were waiting to receive me at the Seoul airport. But despite all my papers being in order, one immigration official took me aside to a room and kept me waiting. After nearly an hour, he returned and apologised profusely and explained that he had nothing personal against me and that he took extra care to check my details as a week earlier a group of “illegal” Indian workers was caught at the airport. I did not like my humiliation a bit, but then the way the Korean officer explained, I appreciated his sense of duty. He was doing his job. Similarly, once I was asked to remove my shoes and shocks at the London Airport while boarding a flight to Delhi. I did not like it but then had to tolerate because I was not alone in doing so. In fact, I was the only Asian that day in my queue who was randomly asked to remove shoes, whereas there were more than 10 white men and women who were asked to the same. There was thus no racism involved here. Such checking does take place indiscriminately. Imagine what would have happened if Azam Khan was there!
Coming back to the United States, there is no doubt that the system of its immigration clearance is more intrusive and hyper sensitive. But then, the fact remains that after the bombings of New York on September 11, 2001 that killed nearly 3000 people, security measures at all US airports have been tightened vigorously. The Americans say that because of these extra measures there have been no attacks from air on their country. Besides, when Khan landed in Boston, the city was just recovering from the bombings by two Chechnyan youth and the police was deploying all measures to beef up security measures. It was against this background that when Khan and other members of the visiting team landed at the airport, the Immigration and Border Protection officials accorded due courtesy and respect at the arrival point and even helped them in filling the arrival forms for entry into the US. They were received and escorted by the officials of the Consulate General of India in New York and after they were cleared for entry, a woman officer of the US Customs and Border Protection wing of the Homeland Security took Khan to an adjacent room ‘for further questioning’.
The extended interview lasted for about ten minutes and the Minister was then cleared. Incensed, Khan then kicked up a ruckus at the Immigration area saying he was detained because he was a Muslim and sought an apology from the officer who merely said she was doing her duty. Reports say that at one point, his arguments became so loud that the woman officer threatened to file a complaint to restrain him from abusing her for discharging her duties as per the manual of the Department of Homeland Security. She tried to explain to the minister that additional interviews or questioning should not be construed as an insult or suspicion in view of the security threats and guidelines on entry of visitors to the US but the minister raised his voice and demanded an apology.
One may make two points here. As a sovereign country, the US has its own laws like we have our laws. But unlike our laws which make a distinction between the VIPs and the ordinary people, the American laws are more equalitarian. So if our VIPs like Khan do not like the American laws and systems, then they should not visit the US at all. After all, going to the US to attend a private function is a voluntary choice, not a matter of compulsion. The second point is that Khan is not the first Indian politician to have been frisked at American airports. Much taller politicians than him had also undergone this experience, but they handled it with grace and humility.
In 2011, former President APJ Abdul Kalam was twice subjected to frisking at New York’s JFK Airport with US security officials even taking his jacket and shoes to check for explosives. Similarly, George Fernandes, then defence minister of the country, was once subjected to security checks at an American airport. But neither Kalam nor Fernandes created any scene. Incidentally, both of them have infinitely higher profile than Khan who, at the most, is a provincial politician. And in my considered opinion, Kalam is a much better practising Muslim than Khan. Unlike Khan, Kalam has never used religion to pursue his career.
It may be noted in this context that senior Indian officials have also been targets of the intrusive security check-up at American ports. In December 2010, Ms. Meera Shanker, then Indian Ambassador to the US, was pulled from an airport security line and patted down by a security agent in Mississippi. In the early 90s, the then director of the Special Protection Group, who had gone to the US in connection with Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s visit, was not only detained but handcuffed for a while for being in possession of an authorized firearm! These were certainly unpleasant episodes and the Government of India did lodge strong official protests. Accordingly, the US expressed official regrets. But these unfortunate incidents did not sever the diplomatic and friendly ties between India and the United States.
But I am sure that Khan will never be impressed by the above logic. Because, as I said in the beginning, he believes that as a Minster or MLA, he has some heavenly rights and is not equal with people like you and me. No wonder why last December while travelling by Punjab Mail, Khan lost temper on finding his bed improperly made. So much so that he humiliated the rail coach assistant Nirmal Murmu (probably a tribal) by forcing him to do fifty sit-ups! Similarly, in full public view in August 2012, Khan rebuked a senior IAS officer, saying “chup baithiye, badtameez kahin kay” (shut up, you’re misbehaving and being disrespectful)!
Incidentally, as The Indian Express reported the other day, Khan had also created a ruckus at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi just before leaving for Boston. He got involved in a scuffle with security personnel because they prevented Munawwar Salim, a Samajwadi Party member and a Rajya Sabha MP, from entering the VVIP lounge, which was against protocol. He accused the security staff as being “anti-Muslim”!
Does India or for that matter Uttar Pradesh deserve a politician like Azam Khan, who wants to be special by playing the communal card always, which, in turn, does great harm to the image and interests of Indian Muslims?
By Prakash Nanda