George Fernandes is a name that not only sounds Christian, but is common among the sizeable Latin American population found in the United States of America. This community has faced rampant discrimination in the US. Yet, when George Fernandes — who was then the Union defence minister of India — was strip-searched at Washington’s airport in 2002 and 2003, he did not create an ugly scene. Instead, he had narrated the incidents to the then deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbott, who mentioned them in his book, Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy and the Bomb.
India’s former permanent representative at the United Nations, Hardeep S. Puri, and India’s former ambassador to the US, Meera Shanker, were both confronted with similar situations at the Houston and Mississippi airports respectively in 2010; yet, neither tried to claim that they were being frisked because of their religious beliefs or how they looked or dressed.
However, when the Uttar Pradesh urban development minister, Azam Khan, was detained at the Boston airport recently, he cried foul and claimed that his detention was the result of a conspiracy hatched by India’s external affairs minister, Salman Khurshid. Khan reportedly said that Khurshid, along with the US department of homeland security, tried to defame him because he is “a powerful non-Congress Muslim leader of India”.
People belonging to minority communities have been known to face discrimination by US authorities. However, such mistreatment is not restricted to any single community. India’s former president, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, was frisked at the Delhi airport by employees of an American airline when he was travelling to New York in 2009. He was even asked to take his jacket and shoes off at the New York airport. The actor, Shah Rukh Khan, was also detained at White Plains airport near New York, and the Bharatiya Janata Party leader, Shahnawaz Hussain, was denied a visa when he was to accompany a delegation to attend a UN conference in October 2009. He got his visa after the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, intervened, but not before the rest of the delegation had left.
One wonders why Azam Khan chose to visit the US if he is so outraged by the treatment meted out to people belonging to minority communities on American soil. Why did he cry foul only when he was detained at the airport? Neither Kalam nor Fernandes raised a hue and cry when they were frisked, even though they were far better known than Khan. The latter also went on to accuse Khurshid. If his allegation were true, then who conspired against Kalam, Fernandes and Hussain?
But Khan is not the only one to have made such controversial remarks. When Hussain was denied a visa to attend the UN conference, the then BJP spokesperson, Ravi Shankar Prasad, accused the United Progressive Alliance government of a “diplomatic failure”. L.K. Advani called up the prime minister to lodge a protest. Hussain told the media then that he had learnt that people with surnames that indicated that the people belonged to a minority community were subjected to greater scrutiny while handing out visas. But a US embassy source then said the process of issuing the visa was delayed because of some errors Hussain had made in his visa application.
Why are Indian politicians so eager to visit the US if they feel genuinely outraged by such incidents? Official visits are undoubtedly essential, but politicians make just as many pleasure trips to the US. If Khan is trying to gain political mileage out of his detention at Boston it is not an admirable move. It would be better if he were to put up a brave and united front before the US instead of indulging in mud-slinging.