On 21st April, 2009, APJ Abdul Kalam, the President of India less than a couple of years earlier, went to board the Continental Airlines flight to New York. Nobody tells you why he was going, and where. Nobody in India, least of all those in the Government knew, nor cared. President Kalam was going to receive the prestigious Hoover Medal 2008. The award function was on 28th April.
No protocol officer accompanied the former President to ensure that he received easy and honourable passage. This man, who played significant role in India’s rocket and missile developments and openly praised our nuclear bomb tests, and a Muslim at that, who could very well be a sitting duck for the religious extremists, went in without any security. The Government didn’t care.
The most popular ex-President, a darling of school children and journalists, was on Indian soil, at Indira Gandhi Airport. The Central Industrial Security Force men luckily recognized him and let him pass through the primary security. On the aerobridge, the airline’s secondary security took over. They made him wait while the person in front was being frisked, and then groped him. They asked him to remove his shoes. There was an Indian among those who searched him. He probably went home and told his wife how boldly he searched the old President. As for the Americans, I hold no grudge; they might not be able to tell Obama from Osama. You have read much about American general knowledge.
If Kalam cared, he didn’t seem to have shown it. There are many castes in India, and the highest and the most immune from laws of the land are VVIPs. Then you have VIPs, celebrities, government servants and the cattle folk eulogized as the common man, in that order of despise for laws. Kalam, who came from a poor Muslim family in the South and never had a wife to flaunt his latest status, might not have known to which caste he belonged. Probably he never drummed up the news that he was being given a prestigious award in the heavenly (for Indians) United States. Perhaps he counted himself one of the common folk – like the couple of policemen back home who sat around him in the name of security and played cards. Only when someone spoke up in the Parliament, two months later, Abdul Kalam might have realized that he was insulted by the Continental Airlines when he was subjected to security checks. He then realized that he was a VVIP who should not have been frisked and – the greatest insults of all – directed to remove his shoes. I shudder to think what would have happened if Kalam was a Sikh and was asked to remove his turban.
When woken up, the Government filed a First Information Report. This was justified; as far as the Ministry of Aviation was concerned, this was the first information they received about the former President since he relinquished office. Aplogise or else, said the minister to the airlines. We have no special rules for VIPs and VVIPs, said Continental Airlines by way of apology. We went by the rules, and we have no special rules for higher Indian castes. All foreigners (like Indians, for instance) will continue to be checked. If Mr. Kalam was hurt, we are sorry for him. We hope he will fly again with us so that we can once again sniff his socks.
Shah Rukh Khan is the King of Bollywood, not a mere former President. Indian media hangs to his every word whereas only little school children listen to Abdul Kalam these days. Shah Rukh’s wax statue has gone up in Madame Tussuad’s because Indians form the bulk of its visitors and look for Indian statues. Indians like all statues and even cutouts – ask Tamils in Chennai or Mayawati-cronies in U.P exemplify. Time Magazine doesn’t care how and why you became influential, but if you have a say with even a fraction of a billion people, you might find yourself in the list of their fifty most influential people in the world. Shah Rukh Khan figured in that Time Magazine list as well. You might wonder why no University has awarded an honorary doctorate to George Clooney, Brad Pitt or Sean Connery. A little-known University of Bedfordshire , whose vice chancellor happens to be a certain Ashraf Jawaid, conferred a doctorate on Shah Rukh Khan. Why? “He is a great philanthropist but rarely talks about his charities”. I have not heard anybody else talking about his charities either. Mr. Jawaid believes that charity begins at home. A place called Mannat.
Anyways, this Dr. Shah Rukh Khan, whom the world should know because Hindi films are only filmed outside India, landed up at Newark Airport just in time to reach a show venue in Chicago. The guy at the immigration counter obviously had never been to Madam Tussaud’s nor reads Time magazine. He thinks Hindi (and Khan’s Bombaiya English) are Osama Bin Laden’s code languages. Perhaps he wanted to find out what these Indians and Pakistanis (summarily known as Pakis, a term made famous by George Bush) found in the forty-plus five-foot-six-inches black man. (If Obama is black, Shah Rukh isn’t any whiter).
Normally, Shah Rukh Khan arrives at a show, says Namaste to some, Salaam to others, folds his hands or bows with his right hand held out, and blows a few kisses to the ‘fans’ who sit hoping to get their faces into the TV shots. He could even be persuaded to wriggle his hips a little for a bit extra. Unlike the Ex-President who came back with a medal, he pockets a part of a million (if not the whole of it) for the efforts and goes home to his kids.
The curious immigration man spoiled it all by holding up “Dr.” Shah Rukh Khan .(a-la-Bedfordshire). Indians are up in arms. “Do it to the Americans,” said a Minister, not because that would improve our security, but we need to take revenge. Do it to Brad Pitt, said another, forgetting that Brad Pitt has to be begged and promised a luncheon at Prmeshwar Godrej’s and a pool-view room in Taj and an audience with the PM to agree to come. When he comes, if he does, he wouldn’t want anyone to know, and so would be thankful for a low-caste’s (I mean common man’s) type of security check. Bill Gates didn’t make a noise when someone threw a cake in his face at a foreign airport, nor did the US Senate threw up a tantrum about it. In 1983, airport security was no big deal. Yet, being second in queue after him, I had seen Richard Attenborough being frisked and joking with the policeman while at it.
“Don’t you know who I am?” is a favorite Indian phrase. Usually Indians ask you that question because they do not know who they are. Which is why they are permanently in a “self-realization” mode. American immigration officials try to find out by groping inside your clothes and going through your bags. You can hardly blame them. Khan was at least let in after an hour and a few minutes; Senator Robert Kennedy was sent back after repeated attempts; Vice President Al Gore who would have been President if not for a lopsided election law couldn’t escape a Khan-like treatment at JFK Airport when he tried to circumvent security check. In the U.S., you see, they take security very seriously even if you wonder how that could ensure that a plane flying in from a foreign airport couldn’t ram into one of their remaining towers.
In the meanwhile, whether by accident or by providential design, Dr. Khan is assured of a huge opening for his forthcoming film, “My Name is Khan.