Indian Actor, American Character
The Psychology of Security Measures
By Farzana Versey
Countercurrents, August 26, 2009
August 2009, Phoenix: A man carrying an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle over his shoulder is among the many gun-toting protestors outside the convention centre where President Barack Obama gives a speech.
August 2009, Newark Airport: Indian actor Shahrukh Khan is detained at the airport and there are questions asked, mainly the wrong ones.
February 2002, Mumbai Airport: I am standing at the counter and the man at Immigration reads out my name aloud as though it is alien. He goes through all the pages of the passport without looking at me and then bangs down the document that declares me a citizen of the Republic of India on the table.
In the taxi on the way home the driver says in Hindi, his mouth stuffed with paan, “You know, they killed our people.” He does not know I am one of Them. He makes no mention of the Gujarat riots; he only talks about the burning train of Godhra. He keeps up the rant. I wish to say something, speak out, argue. My throat is locked, my hands with nail marks of unsaid words.
After the incident of Sharukh Khan, we have had a slew of reports and opinion pieces that have held forth on how icons must be treated and are treated. Some ‘balanced’ commentators have stated that it does not have to do with his being a Muslim and having a Muslim name. These could well be valid trains of thought. However, there is a more dire script lurking beneath. It has little to do with physical security and all to do with psychological security. One would have called it xenophobia, but here safety is sought on the basis of not necessarily what is foreign but what is ingrained.
If security measures are all that important, then why did the US administration ask the actor if he would accept an apology for his two-hour detention? The culture of fawning that the Americans have pointed out to is indeed more prevalent in India. We are given examples of celebrity Americans who did time in jail for crimes committed. This denotes a modicum of equitable justice, not a lack of deification. Paris Hilton and Mike Tyson are not shunned socially. They become even more saleable and keep the media machinery well-oiled. The Indian judiciary, too, has arrested famous people for keeping arms, rash driving resulting in death, poaching, rape. Sanjay Dutt spent years in an isolated cell meant for hardened terrorists only because he had a gun at home whereas a local minister who used it during the Bombay riots was not even called to the police station.
Therefore, the point is not whether a simple internet search would show up the actor’s name. The Americans have now said that they wanted to know the names of his sponsors because there are instances of many supposedly being involved in illegal trade and having underworld links.
Is this a cop-out? If so, then one wonders why. The elitist attitude starts here. The actor calls a Congress minister who speaks to the Indian Consulate and the US authorities. He brags, “Post-9/11, one could understand and one did not complain. But this time it was a bit too much. I have travelled to other countries. I never faced any problem in the UK where I am treated like a state guest. They escort me to the car.’’
Perhaps, he ought to run a search and find out how many people with certain names are detained and have no access to MPs. They are not escorted and treated like state guests. And these are not people who make 9/11 the yardstick for terrorism for we in India, among several other countries, have been there years before.
This sort of amateurish political empathy conveys scant regard for those lower down the rung in the hierarchy. In what amounts to another sort of fawning, there have been analyses putting forth the argument that such stringent security measures have prevented any further attacks from taking place in the US. It is not security measures that have stalled such attacks. It is the political machinery that makes sure to nuke other territories that are considered a security risk. Everytime an American politician visits another country, s/he will indicate how that country and “We in the United States” are fighting terrorism. The US wants to be a part of every package deal to ensure greater intrusion.
The Cold War is over so it prods icebergs and, sure enough, there are conflicts. The saviour prepares. Marines are sent off. NATO sets up shop.
The film Khans and their ilk will not fathom the complexity of the 9/11 factory of hallucination that produces hatred. When the man with the big gun at the Obama convention said, in Bill Clinton fashion, that he carried the weapon because he could, he was unmasking the culture of pugilism. Fred Solop, a Northern Arizona University political scientist, finds the trend disturbing: “It actually becomes quite scary for many people. It creates a chilling effect in the ability of our society to carry on honest communication.”
The security-conscious society has had several instances of trigger-happy people. The issue is beyond the legality of such choice. What is more important is that unlike the ‘subjects’ of US imperialism where weapons are used by lesser folks, in America campuses become the battle-ground. For a society that talks about freedom, it has given us the concept of road rage where people cannot even tolerate traffic.
These are games at the larger social level where the stampedes occur in the mind and alter mindsets. The skirmish for individual space results in each one venerating the cult of collectivism. Those who do not follow the rules of such aggro are sidelined from the arena.
I have not been detained or questioned at American airports despite an obvious Muslim name before or after 9/11. But, the time I forgot to remove my shoes at the security check, it was another passenger who wagged her finger at me. I still remember that woman’s face. She did not know me or my name or my beliefs, if any. Her fear was internalised and naturally directed at a foreigner.
India has imported this bogey, except the foreigner here is one of us. I was one to the taxi driver and the man at the immigration counter. I am one when they see Pakistani visas on my passport.
In what is a bizarre move, I know of Americans of Pakistani origin who are asked to produce their Pakistani passports and national identity cards if they wish to visit India as tourists. It does not matter that they are naturalised US citizens and not permitted to have any other passport. It does not matter that years have passed.
As Indians we have a history of being colonised, so it is not difficult for us to accept the outside system, especially if it buffers the divisions that have been written into our scriptures.
Shahrukh Khan declared with cockiness, “I don’t want an apology. I just want to go back to my country.”
He said this in the US, character in place as targeted Muslim. When he returns to India he will play the Muslim who knows Hindu mythology and is therefore legitimate. This is the puerile panacea sought by those who know that cocoons make for safe places.
The little people herded in little cells for just belonging to a religion or a community are conscripted as totem criminals to support the thesis of security.
Muslims in India today are as much suspects as they are in the United States. When the Mumbai attacks took place someone had suggested that since I visited the Sea Lounge at the Taj hotel often it is possible that I had provided a map to the terrorists. This was an Indian. The humour is so dark that it makes sure no light seeps in to call the bluff.
These are the anonymous terrorists who have learned their psychological warfare from a picture of Rudy Giuliani wearing a protective helmet when it is all over. Nothing makes people more afraid than rubble, it would seem.