Monday, August 28, 2006

Lousy travellers have no race (August 29, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

A surprising phone call I received last week was from an elderly Bengali friend who I address by the ubiquitous honorific Dada. A man settled in his retired ways, Dada breaks his routine each November to travel to London and New York for three weeks. “It seems”, he told me, “we have no option but to travel Air India from now on.”

Dada was, of course, referring to the shameful incident involving the humiliation and detention in Amsterdam of 12 Indian passengers aboard a North-Western Airlines flight to Mumbai. That a group of Bohra Muslims from Mumbai, all legitimate businessmen, should be the object of such paranoid reaction from fellow passengers and the crew has created consternation in middle class India. Those who had earlier dismissed allegations of Islamophobia as needless hysteria that detracts from the primary task of weeding out terrorism ruthlessly, are now alarmed by the heightened environment of anti-terrorism.

It is not necessary to endorse the alarmist “flying whilst Asian” allegations levelled by liberal apologists for radical Islamism to suggest that something is seriously going wrong with the security systems of the West. If supposedly experienced air crew and travelling air marshals are unable to distinguish loud, high-spirited and sometimes boorish Indian traders from determined suicide bombers, it will amount to a victory for the Al Qaeda.

Actually, the problem seems to lie more with fellow passengers than with the crew. On August 16, two cocky British Asians, Sohail Ashraf and Khurram Zeb, were taken off a Monarch Airlines flight in Malaga after the Captain indicated to the Spanish authorities that he would not fly if the two were on board. The problem, it seems, began after a 12-year-old girl got upset at the loud—and, I have no doubt, obnoxious—conversation the two were having with each other. She began crying hysterically. One thing led to another and the two were offloaded by the Spanish police.

As a frequent flyer to Britain I can vouch for the intense irritation young Britons—of all races—travelling in a group can cause to fellow passengers. They are, more often than not, insolent, inconsiderate, inchoate and inebriated. As a breed, they have rightly earned the disdainful sobriquet “lager louts” from the discerning classes. What distinguishes the Asian louts from their white counterparts is that the whites are naturally prone to violence after guzzling a bellyful of beer.

A compelling reason for travelling business class to the United Kingdom is to be spared the performances of the Birmingham lads who are travelling after a month or so of enforced good behaviour amid relatives in “the Poonjab”. Their pent-up frustrations find expression through the liquor trolley on the way home.

Young Asians of a particular class living in Britain tend to be confused, deracinated and a social nuisance. However, there is a 99.9 per cent chance that they are not terrorists. Indeed, the born-again Islamists tend to be extremely courteous, teetotallers and disinclined to make lewd jokes about fellow passengers. If existing evidence of their behaviour is any guide, they are least likely to draw any attention to themselves—and certainly not by passing around a newly-acquired mobile phone with exciting add-ons.

The finer points of Asian behaviour are unlikely to make any difference to those Europeans and Americans whose education about the terrorist threat is gleaned from the tabloid press and popular TV stations. To them, all Asians, like all Chinese, look the same. The not-unimportant distinctions between West Asian and South Asian, between Arabic, Urdu and Punjabi are naturally glossed over. It is one thing for the Dean Jones of the world to think that all bearded men are terrorists but airline staff should be more discerning. And all the problems, it must be noted, have happened because edgy airline staff has mistaken boisterous behaviour for a terrorist threat.

I would, of course, love it if all airlines specify a code of good conduct, violation of which will lead to either offloading or handcuffing and 30 days of solitary confinement. Since that is likely to involve interminable problems and charges of cultural insensitivity, it would be preferable if airline staff and security personnel at airports are put through intensive courses in terrorist identification. The Israelis have done it successfully for years—a reason why terrorists don’t try and mess about in El Al flights—and it is time others follow suit. Persistent stupidity will lead to the terrorists winning the propaganda war and all of us travelling Air India.

(Published in DNA, Mumbai, August 29, 2006)

No comments: