Published On:27 July 2009
Posted by Indian Muslim Observer

Indian Muslim News - ISSUES

Hum Hindustani: Frisky business

By J Sri Raman

The airline has now apologised to Kalam. This should end this particular episode, but the real issue is still waiting to be raised in the political realm. Do security rules so partial to rulers, both past and present, have a place in a democracy?

It was a rare scene that the two Houses of India’s Parliament witnessed on July 20. The day saw angry protests, but these emanated from every section of each House. High-pitched voices were heard, but they were raised in unison. Members were united in denouncing an “affront” to former President APJ Abdul Kalam by an American airline, and demanding action against the company.

Forgotten were the partisan issues (which regularly keep creating those “furores” for routine media coverage), as members across the political spectrum vented their anguish over the way the callously irreverent staff of Continental Airlines had frisked Kalam before letting him board a Newark-bound flight. Indignation mounted as it was recalled that the former President had been subjected to a “full body search”: and even asked to remove his shoes in the process.

The incident, it was mentioned in passing, took place way back on April 21. The fact, however, did not seem to intrigue the furious members unduly.

For the Bharatiya Janata Party, the “frisking” issue fitted in nicely between its attack on the India-Pakistan joint statement issued in Sharm el-Sheikh as a “betrayal” and its enraged response to the end-use monitoring agreement India signed the other day in relation to the import of defence equipment and technology from the United States. The party sought to project the Kalam affair as no less a question of national “sovereignty” than the other two issues.

The BJP found backing from its allies and some unlikely quarters as well. The nationality of the airline under attack no doubt helped in this regard. A leading member of the Left wondered loudly whether this happened because of Kalam’s name.

Now, there have indeed been reported cases of Muslim names making it difficult, to put it mildly, for innocent passengers at US airports. Kalam’s, however, was hardly a comparable case. Certainly, not at an Indian airport, where he is recognised by everyone — and accompanied by his own security personnel (who, in this instance, reportedly tried to stop the frisking).

It was Kalam’s name, however, that ruled out a controversy on the issue as it raged in Parliament and outside. The Treasury benches joined with gusto in trashing the airline. Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel charged that it had violated official guidelines, including a long list of dignitaries (with all former Presidents and Prime Ministers among them) who could not be subjected to such indignities as frisking. Patel pledged action, and has kept his promise, with the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS) filing a “first information report” (FIR) against the airline.

Nothing of this sort happened, when other Indian VIPs or VVIPs were seen as similar victims of airport affronts earlier. Last year, then External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee was frisked at the Moscow airport. In 2003, then Defence Minister George Fernandes was also made to undergo security screening in the US. The latter tried to present himself as a special target of imperialism, but his Far Right political company made this sound far from convincing.

Yes, these were mere ministers, below a former President in formal protocol, and the incidents took place abroad. It is hard to imagine, however, a response of the kind elicited by the Kalam case, even if some of the other former Presidents and Prime Ministers had been involved in such incidents on Indian soil. Ex-President Zail Singh or ex-Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda, for two eminent examples, might have elicited the opposite of sympathy on such an occasion.

Kalam’s personal popularity is beyond question. He does not command popularity because he is the “Father of the Indian Bomb” or the “Missile Man”. These, of course, are the reasons for his popularity with the BJP and its entire bandwagon of militarists. These are the reasons why they put him up as their candidate for presidency in 2002. These are also the grounds on which the Left and the liberal camp chose to give him a fight then. Some of us were disappointed when he was opposed on the specious ground that a scientist could not perform the political task of a president, though such a counterproductive campaign was not the only cause of his success.

Once in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the President’s palace, he acquired the image of an Internet-savvy occupant of his august office, interested in interacting with students and other sections. Post-retirement, he has continued his well-publicised communication with the people. His catechism-like lectures may not be everyone’s cuppa, and some might find ridiculous his call upon his audiences to repeat his words after him. But his is a patriarch-like popularity. Indians, like most fellow-Asians, love to indulge the old man at home, without listening too closely and critically as he keeps pontificating with a string of pious platitudes.

He is popular also for his so-perceived simplicity and humility. The public sees these qualities reflected in his reticence about the airport incident and his reportedly uncomplaining acceptance of the security regime.

As for the intriguing delay in the surfacing of the issue, some conspiracy theorists may detect in it a diversionary official tactic as the opposition looks for ammunition in Parliament and outside. It is more likely, however, that the incident, which occurred as India’s general election was underway, was kept under wraps by the outgoing government. Small mercy, that. Else, the BJP’s “Shadow Prime Minister”, Lal Krishna Advani, might have added the promise of grounding such airlines, if returned to power, to his pledge to bring back Indian wealth allegedly stashed away in Swiss banks.

The airline has now apologised to Kalam. This should end this particular episode, but the real issue is still waiting to be raised in the political realm. Do security rules so partial to rulers, both past and present, have a place in a democracy? The VIPs and VVIPs, here as elsewhere, view personal security at enormous public expense as their birthright. Why can’t they accept some personal inconvenience for the sake of public security?

[The writer is a journalist based in Chennai, India. A peace activist, he is also the author of a sheaf of poems titled At Gunpoint.]

(Courtesy: DailyTimes.com)

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Posted by Indian Muslim Observer on July 27, 2009. Filed under , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Feel free to leave a response

By Indian Muslim Observer on July 27, 2009. Filed under , . Follow any responses to the RSS 2.0. Leave a response

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