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Racial Profiling Pulls Indians From Plane
Dutch authorities detain 12 Northwest Airlines passengers for 30 hours
Praful Bidwai (internews)     Print Article 
Published 2006-08-27 11:31 (KST)   
The 12 Indian men, who were arrested and detained for 30 hours by Dutch authorities following a security alert on a Northwest Airlines from Amsterdam to Mumbai earlier this week, were victims of racial prejudice. All of them are Muslims and none had the remotest connection with a terrorist group or criminal activities.

The Indian government has protested to the Netherlands against the "objectionable" treatment meted out to its citizens. It summoned the Dutch ambassador to India on Friday night and told him that the incident was not in keeping with "friendly relations between the Netherlands and India." India's foreign affairs spokesperson said "the response that is required [from the Dutch] is self-evident," clearly meaning that an apology is due.

But it is not clear if the Dutch have apologised. The Indian foreign office claims they have, but agency reports from The Hague say they haven't.

Unless the Indian government secures a sincere apology and compensation from the Dutch government and Northwest Airlines, there is a real danger that such incidents will be repeated. Yet, it's not apparent that New Delhi will summon up the will to do so.

The Indian passengers on the Northwest flight were taken off the plane and handcuffed after the aircraft returned to Amsterdam while flying over Germany. It was escorted demonstratively by two F-16 warplanes. The men aroused suspicion of the cabin crew because some of them had not fastened their seat-belts and were passing a cellular phone around while speaking excitedly to one another shortly after take-off.

This behaviour certainly infringed aircraft flight rules. Such infringements are not uncommon. But this one could have been corrected with a polite but firm intervention by the cabin crew, focused on understanding whether the men were excited over a private joke, and explaining to them that they should not unfasten their seat-belts until the aircraft reaches its cruising altitude.

The crew clearly over-reacted and took a confrontationist stand. They asked the pilot to fly plane back to Amsterdam. "The way they got arrested inside the plane with everybody seeing how they got treated, I thought it was inhuman... they were treated like dogs," said Antunius Slotboom, a Dutch co-passenger.

Slotboom has been quoted as saying, "their arrest seemed part of an offensive against Arabic people. They did not hit them (the arrested men), but pushed them."

Slotboom said he too was kicked off the plane after he told the Dutch officials the arrests were akin to what the Germans had done during World War II: "They said, 'Okay, you come with us and you are not allowed to fly any more'".

The Dutch authorities did not cooperate with the Indian government and delayed sharing any information about the passengers or giving them consular access. At Amsterdam, the victims were detained in solitary cells and not allowed to make calls to their families. Some of the men have beards and were attired in clothes similar to those worn by Pakistanis or Afghans.

This episode is only one of three recent incidents of racial profiling and harassment of passengers of Asian origin in Europe.

On August 16, two British students of Asian origin, both Muslims, were ejected from a flight bound for Manchester from Malaga in Spain after fellow-passengers complained they were acting "suspiciously," because they periodically checked their watches and spoke a strange language (Urdu), which they mistook for "Arabic."

Just days earlier, a British Asian pilot, Amar Ashraf, was removed from a U.S.-bound flight leaving from Manchester. Ashraf was given a business class seat as a standby passenger. But soon after the Continental Airlines aircraft left the gate, he was told he would have to disembark: "They told me they weren't taking any passengers on standby, but I think it was racial profiling... I feel this was discrimination. I was humiliated."

The 12 Indians were even more badly humiliated in the Amsterdam episode.

Indian citizens often face overt or subtle discrimination and prejudice when travelling in Europe and North America. Even celebrities and businessmen from the Information Technology industry experience this. Examples include writer Amitava Ghosh, former minister George Fernandes, IT businessman Azim Premji, and singer Shubha Mudgal.

Now, the British authorities have told India that they want advance information on the personal details of all air travellers arriving in the UK as part of a "security profiling" measure. This could lead to racial profiling.

Already, British citizens of South Asian descent complain of the prejudice they face as "Asians whilst travelling."

Matters could get worse if Western security authorities start using methods such as Screening Passengers by Observation Technique, or SPOT. This involves watching people for suspicious or fidgeting behaviour, such as frequently picking up and putting down one's baggage, touching one's fingers to one's chin, and rubbing object in one's hands, etc.

SPOT was developed by a former Israeli security official and a behavioural psychologist. It has been launched on an experimental basis at Dulles international airport outside Washington. But civil liberties proponents have protested against it and warned that it could lead to racial profiling.

If the Indian government is serious about preventing harassment of its citizens, it should, logically, set a precedent by securing an apology and compensation from the Dutch government. But it is unlikely to do so partly because its security agencies themselves practise profiling of Indian Muslims, and partly because it tends to follow the West in instituting security measures.

Thus, after the August 10 Heathrow "conspiracy" scare, India imitated Britain by imposing drastic hand baggage restrictions on international passengers although there was no perceptible terrorist threat or comparable "plot" at Indian airports. These measures continue to this day, causing great inconvenience to Indian citizens.
Praful Bidwai is former senior editor of The Times of India. He is a freelance journalist and regular columnist for several leading newspapers in India.
©2006 OhmyNews

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