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

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11 Responses to “Didn’t human rights matter before Shah Rukh?”

  1. sunil Says:

    I don’t understand why people are making hue and cry about this small incident. It is absolutely fine for any country to make sure an X is not a terrorist. Safety comes first.

    For USA, india is just one country like any other 194 countries. They cannot keep the profile of all the celebrities of all 194 countries. It is just impossible. The guy incharge has just done his duty. I think we should not blow this out of proportion.

    Today’s article in TOI makes this point more clear.


  2. Range Gowda Says:


    Why such huge uproar on this issue? After 9/11 US has become naturally very strict on Immigrants, specifically on Muslims. Its Obvious. Even our people’s president APJ didnt bother much i believe and the news about APJ too didnt got escalated this much. But SRK’s issue has escalated too much just because he is from Bollywood.

  3. Watching Says:

    This fellow Partha has a lot of time on his hands.

    I wonder if he has spent any time at all at ports of entry in his Arab brother states.

    If he think the US is lousy, he should simply come back. But the thing is, we shouldn’t be asking for scum like this either!

  4. Mahesh Vijapurkar Says:

    I would like Ambika Soni to demand that all those in auhtority – the pettiest politician to the prime minister, the pettiest bureaucrat to the cabinet secretary – be subjected in a ‘tit-for-tat’ manner akin to the way the establishment treats the common man when he goes around seeking his entitlement as a citizen. That would make more sense to that community of the powerful that it hurts to be jostled around, made to run around, forced to pay bribes and above all, not even get the minimum courtesis due to a person in a civilised world.

  5. Cycle kalla Says:

    Partha pack and leave.if u feel u don’t belong here
    Kyu ragad ragad ke roj ye gandhgi environment mein jeena?
    Jaana Kaun rok rahaan hain

    It’s like all those Muslims in Chicago and Dallas
    They don’t like western culture but still love to stay
    In this haraami zindagi

  6. black sabbath Says:

    True, I have a Pakistani friend and he tells he gets caught up at the airport most of the times. He says he gets angry and upset about it because he is grilled for hours. How can US immigration target a section like that? ridiculous. Just because one is Muslim and the name ends with Khan or Ahmed doesn’t give them the right to do it. To hell with this. The South Asian community should ue this opportunity to highlight the issue.

  7. sumakani Says:

    This whole article is a crap!! Why bother whether King Khan is frisked or questioned? Whether he was there as an ambassador of India on a government mission or a state invitee of USA if not let the immigration clerk do his duty and satisfy himself before allowing him. What normally happens is in India we always treat celebrities with lots of privileges which they dont have and once they get used to it, then the problem starts, if anybody question them they feel agitated. Can anybody tell me whether dancing with starlets with grease-paint on is equal to Dandi March?

  8. Govind Says:

    This Khan do not deserve our sympathy. He is selfish to core and may even carry bombs to America is payment is right. Just three years back he declared that If Pepsi is banned in India, I would go to the US and drink it and opposed a public interest campaign by Centre of Science and Environment against pesticides in Soft drinks. Pepsi found it cheaper to hire this traitor than process the water they bottle.


  9. dharma Says:

    BJP or Modi must have influenced the US security agency to do this detention drama. Muslims are safe only in India as the Hindu politicians worship them.

  10. Hiker Says:

    Aha.. this why he was detained!


    Good job by airport authorities.

  11. Hosa-Belaku Says:

    It always seemed that there was more to it…judging by the way Shahrukh went into denial mode. I was sympathetic, for it seemed to me that the media had first played it up and then turned the tables, saying that security is tight in the US…blah, blah.
    In a TV interview yesterday, the Star made a sorry sight –trying to underplay the incident –but his anguish was obvious, while he said that he had come to accept it, there would be ‘extra’ frisking because of his name etc. I wish he had come out in the open and revealed all. It is not clear if he was trying to protect the financiers of the show or indeed if he was aware of their antecedents. Or whether he was just accepting the fact that post 9/11, your name and colour of your skin/religion can lead to a thorough once-over.
    Coming to funding of Bollywood, if each actor/actress starts verifying the source of funding, asking around etc, many of them would remain unemployed!
    On the issue of insensitivity in ‘search and frisk’ operations by US airports, if Shahrukh says he felt disrespected, there must be some truth in it. After all this is not the first time he is going to the US. We have intances of former president Abdul Kalam and finance minister Pranab Mukherjee and many other Bollywood stars too. The fear of terrorists should not excuse American officials’ terrorising tactics.
    Another point to be considered is that for once Shahrukh may have tasted what many Muslims in India undergo within this country. Check out:


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