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Some safe questions

I’m afraid we in India have a terrible tendency to over-react and, sadly, our press — television, admittedly, more than print — panders to our folly. It blows it up and makes it worse. Nothing illustrates this better than the trifling incident involving Shah Rukh Khan at Newark airport and our monstrously exaggerated response. Karan Thapar comments.

india Updated: Aug 23, 2009 00:24 IST

I’m afraid we in India have a terrible tendency to over-react and, sadly, our press — television, admittedly, more than print — panders to our folly. It blows it up and makes it worse. Nothing illustrates this better than the trifling incident involving Shah Rukh Khan at Newark airport and our monstrously exaggerated response. I have ten points to make.

First, being stopped and secondary-check is not unusual. It happens in many countries, to many people and several times a day. Without a doubt it happens in India too — and, perhaps, to people who carry Indian passports.

Second, just because you’re important is no reason for special treatment. When it comes to security, stars — or politicians and ex-presidents — are as much of a potential risk as you and I.

Third, it’s not necessarily racist for an American immigration officer to have said — if he did (his boss denies it) — that Shah Rukh was taken aside for additional questioning because his name “is common”. Senator Kennedy, who’s a far bigger name in America, has been repeatedly “stopped” because his name was put on an airline watch list after a terrorist used it as an alias. The difference: Kennedy was able to see the funny side of it.

Fourth, to be taken to a separate room for additional questioning is not “detention” and it’s not “humiliating”, even if it feels like that. But it would be embarrassing to be questioned with all other passengers watching and it would needlessly hold them up.

Fifth, on the very day Shah Rukh Khan was questioned so too was Bob Dylan. The police thought he was loitering on a side street in New Jersey and took him in. Dylan, of course, is more famous in America than Shah Rukh. And he’s American. But did he complain?

Sixth, Shah Rukh Khan has friends in high places who immediately intervened. If you and I were similarly held up who could we call? And would they help? Yet, if the Indian Consul General can bestir himself to come to Khan’s assistance then why not to yours and mine?

Seventh, how often do government ministers become apoplectic because an ordinary Indian is stopped and questioned, or frisked, at an airport? Yet isn’t this an aam admi government? And shouldn’t you and I be their first priority rather than Khan and Kalam?

Eighth, if in all this you sense double standards and hypocrisy I’d say you’re spot on. The sad, but inescapable, truth is that we talk about wiping the tears from every Indian’s eye but act only to help the high and mighty. Ours is a great country for the rich, well-connected and important, but it’s one of the worst if you’re poor, unknown and unimportant.

Ninth, the press needs to ask how it can rail against exemption from security checking at airports for Robert Vadra — and a host of others — but froth at the mouth if Shah Rukh or Kalam are asked a few extra questions or frisked?

Tenth — another question for the press — was this really the most important story of the day? At a time of drought, swine flu and feuding in the BJP, should our papers and news channels have devoted pages of print or hours of broadcast time to this? And that too in such a one-sided way?

Shah Rukh now says he won’t rush to visit America again. Fine. That’s his choice. But is he punishing America or penalising himself?