When it happened to APJ Abdul Kalam, affectionately called India's "people's president", it could have been seen as overzealousness by a private airline. Kalam was frisked by Continental Airlines at Delhi airport because they said their policy did not recognise VIPs. Apologies followed later.
But when India's most popular and recognisable movie star, Shah Rukh Khan, is detained at the Newark airport in the US for two hours on Saturday for questioning, allegedly for his Muslim surname, then this is not security protocol but appears to have a tinge of racial profiling to it.
Khan was released only after Indian diplomats intervened. The incident has sparked off widespread condemnation from legions of fans in India and abroad. Khan was on his way to Chicago to attend an event related to India's Independence Day.
According to Khan, he appeared to be detained primarily because he was an Asian. The statement from the US ambassador to India Timothy J Roemer about the incident is characteristically tame.
Roemer was obviously trying to play safe when he said, "We are trying to ascertain the facts of the case — to understand what took place. Shah Rukh Khan, the actor and global icon, is a very welcome guest in the United States. Many Americans love his films."
Post September 11, the US concerns for security are understandable but do appear to have reached oppressive levels. Racial profiling based on an individual's country or religion must be denounced in no uncertain terms and not because Khan is a celebrity or an icon.
The stories of detainees at prisons like Guantanamo Bay show the extent of the paranoia after the outrageous attacks on the twin towers in New York. It seems that the same fear and suspicion works behind detentions of people like Khan.
Having said that, Indian information and broadcasting minister Ambika Soni's call for a tit-for-tat solution is immature and ill-thought-out. It may be better if the India uses diplomatic channels — as it has done — to make the Indian government's disapproval of this kind of racial profiling clear.
Khan himself has also had a fairly muted reaction to the events, although he has made his discomfiture known. It is ironical however that he should be targeted for being a Muslim in the US at the same time that the US Commission on International Religious Freedom has placed India on a watch list for its treatments of religious minorities, particularly Christians and Muslims.
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