Bollywood's biggest star was detained for over an hour, maybe two, over the weekend at Newark International Airport. He says it's because his name is Khan. The officials say its because his baggage didn't arrive.
India is outraged. American flags are burning.
This level of ruckus didn't happen when former Indian president Abdul Kalam was delayed at an American airport. What America doesn't understand is that Shah Rukh Khan is no ordinary Khan. He is "King Khan." He is not just an actor. He was the host of the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. He's been the face of Pepsi and Tag Heuer and Hyundai. He is the star of India, Inc.
As film critic Anupama Chopra, who wrote a biography of Shah Rukh Khan, said, "Shah Rukh Khan is part of our daily lives, on television constantly, plugging 20 products. He's an omnipresent brand."
Brand India showed up at Newark airport. And America didn't wave it in. America didn't even know who he was.
That is the real indignity. Bill Clinton was India's special friend. George W. Bush made relations with India his special priority. Barack Obama sent Hillary Clinton there.
India got a special "for you only" nuclear deal. Its mangos now come to America.
But how special is this relationship if America can't tell its good Khans from the bad ones? Even in this post-Slumdog Millionaire world, the Indian multimillionaire is just a TSA-official removed from being a mere slumdog.
Indians had better wise up.
American airports have always been a dangerous place in these days of color-coded security alerts.
Indian Canadian writer Rohinton Mistry canceled his U.S. book tour in 2002, worn out, he said, by "the 100 percent frequency of the so-called random checks at the airports."
When Maher Arar, a telecommunications engineer with Canadian citizenship, was mistaken for an al Qaeda operative while in transit at JFK Airport en route to Canada he was whisked off to Syria and detained for over a year and tortured.
Shah Rukh Khan was two hours late for his concert in Atlantic City. He showed up in ripped jeans because his bags still hadn't arrived. He created a fuss and the Indian consulate intervened.
Mardin Amin, a 29-year-old Iraqi man, tried to downplay being pulled aside at Chicago's O'Hare airport. He was traveling with his mother and two small children and was a little embarrassed when the immigration official pulled out a penis pump from his luggage. "Pump," he apparently whispered to the official. The guard heard, "Bomb." Amin was threatened with three years jail on felony disorderly conduct.
Most people who show up at American borders and trip over the machinery of Homeland Security don't have the full weight of their home country's cabinet and a billion fans behind them. As Deepa Iyer, executive director of SAALT points out in her blog, "Mr. Khan's incident might be gaining international attention because he is a celebrity, but the truth is that ordinary American citizens and immigrants here in the United States grapple with racial and religious profiling routinely at airports."
What Shah Rukh Khan, who is used to traveling first class, didn't realize is that there are many reasons you can get stopped at airports and thrown off airplanes. You could be wearing a Meet the Fockers t-shirt with the faces of George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice and Dick Cheney. You could be an imam praying at an airport terminal. Or you could be a royal princess of Qatar and not want to sit next to a strange man.
Shah Rukh Khan just got a taste of the cattle-class world that ordinary people live in, the minefields they go through every time they try to cross borders. He got to be one of the ordinary blokes he routinely portrays on the big screen. In fact, his new film is called My Name is Khan, and it's about a Muslim man in post 9-11 America.
The problem is America expects to be treated like a star at other country's airports. "What do you mean this flight is delayed and you don't know when the next flight is?" I heard an irate tourist harangue the counter clerk at New Delhi airport. "I will write a letter about this to the New York Times."
Now Americans are surprised at the Indian reaction. If Americans overdid their security processes at the airport as Indian home minister P. Chidambaram suggested, surely India overreacted?
But this storm in a teacup is assuming tempest proportions.
King Khan has been stopped by the Joker in a TSA uniform.
There is only solution now. America must play its ace.
President Obama, another White House meeting might be in order. Shah Rukh Khan and the Newark airport official and you. Except this time instead of beer, you might want to serve some chai.