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Racial Profiling: An absurd drama

Alok Rashmi Mukhopadhyay was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • August 24, 2009

    Incidents of racial profiling of Indian citizens at American airports have been reported time and again. The latest incident of ‘secondary questioning’ of a film star whom the United States embassy in New Delhi considers a ‘global icon’ and a welcome guest in the US, has once again brought to the fore the contentious practice of racial profiling in the name of effective counter-terrorism. A pattern can be easily discerned from past incidents of racial profiling at US airports: debasing frisking of Indian dignitaries like that of former president A P J Abdul Kalam or former Defence Minister George Fernandes are discovered, protests are lodged by Indian authorities, the US embassy in New Delhi takes an apologetic mode, and concerned American airlines and border agencies like the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) or the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) stick to their position that these are routine checks though there could be minor aberrations in individual cases. In other words, notwithstanding diplomatic protests, racial profiling in the name of securing the homeland would continue. Also understandable is the fact that while the instances involving celebrities are reported and taken up at the diplomatic level, the silent suffering of numerous common people are conveniently overlooked or accepted as fait accompli.

    A study, ‘Threat and Humiliation: Racial Profiling, Domestic Security, and Human Rights in the United States’, published by the US chapter of Amnesty International in 2004 observed as one of its key findings that in the post-9/11 American scenario racial profiling of citizens and visitors from West and South Asia and specifically Muslims and Sikhs has increased substantially. Five years have already passed since the publication of the report, which also observed that racial profiling directly affected mainly American citizens with another identity like Asian, African, Arab, Persian, Hispanic etc. With the change of guard at the White House and revelations of torture, rendition, illegal confinement, arrest on mere suspicion and discrimination, all of which have punctuated the ‘Global War on Terror’ (GWOT), course corrections have also taken place, chief among them being the decision to close down Guantanamo. In June, a reconciliation between the US and the Islamic world was attempted through the medium of Obama’s Cairo Speech. As Obama highlighted in the speech, the cynical cycle of fear, mistrust and discord must be discontinued. While the earlier semantics of ‘war’ is absent and a change of path is perceptible, continuing acts of racial profiling at US airports put the earnestness of the Obama administration into question.

    Whatever justification is provided that racial profiling and stricter security checks have so far been very useful to hinder a repeat of 9/11, it must be remembered that this practice is an ugly remnant of the immediate US reaction to 9/11. Even if it is assumed from some anecdotal events and personal misgivings that mere surnames raise suspicion amongst US border authorities, the randomisation of threat depicts the mindlessness and ignorance of the authorities to the fact that in this sub-continent some surnames are abundantly common and does not necessarily connote any specific religious background. Secondly, even as the Obama administration wishes to avoid the excesses committed in the name of GWOT, this kind of initial treatment meted out to a visitor is not only strategically disadvantageous for the US but also runs the risk of perpetuating victimization and radicalization of Muslim communities at home and abroad. This kind of racial profiling is at variance with the effort of the Obama administration to decrease the divide between the US and the Muslim world.

    Simplistic counters like treating American citizens, visiting dignitaries and public personalities in the same manner at Indian airports are no solutions and merely reflect the anger among the public. Nor it is an issue of celebrity versus commoner divide. Relativising this crucial issue of intrusive checking at US airports with inherent racism in India, a mere stunt by a film star, and as a ‘necessary evil’ would only dilute the seriousness of the problem faced by Indian citizens. Also, the argument that US citizens also go through the same layers of security checks is also not reflective of reality; if harassed, US citizens can easily opt for legal recourse, while for a commoner from this part of the globe it would only add to his plight and prove time-consuming. Instead of issuing occasional and reactive demarches to US authorities, India should take every instance of racial profiling and maltreatment of its citizens to their logical end, namely, fix the responsibility of the organisation in the US accused of discriminatory practices. Diaspora organizations and students unions abroad must be roped into the process. Innovative methods like interactive, multi-lingual dedicated portals may be started to register each occurrence of racial profiling and prejudice and build a comprehensive data base available to the general public. Airliners accused of racial discrimination and unwarranted security procedures should be sensitised to respect South Asian sensibilities even as they go about adhering to the security procedures in their countries of origin or final destination. Rather than waiting for the next instance of racial profiling or prejudice to happen and then reacting, a comprehensive plan should be chalked out by the concerned Indian ministries including the provision of legal remedies and compensation. Even the appointment of an ombudsman dealing with all complaints regarding racial profiling of Indians and publication of annual reports containing the data collected, may be contemplated.