Why Shah Rukh Khan and Other Indian Celebrities Have Been Detained at U.S. Airports

Shah Rukh Khan - Getty - H 2016
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In recent years, other well-known Indians who have faced U.S. immigration and security checks include actor Irrfan Khan and even a former Indian president, the late Abdul Kalam.

When Shah Rukh Khan tweeted that he was "detained" at Los Angeles' LAX airport last Friday, he made headlines as the incident was the third time the Bollywood actor faced such scrutiny by U.S. immigration authorities.

While it was not clear why and for how long Khan was held before being allowed entry, the resulting outcry also put the spotlight on, and raised questions about, how a range of Indian celebrities have had to deal with similar treatment in the past when traveling to the U.S.

While at times issuing apologies, U.S. authorities typically don't detail why certain high-profile visitors from India, or elsewhere, get held at airports. But it's not just Indians who have faced such scrutiny, with experts saying travelers from the Middle East have also been among those held up. In 2013, for example, Palestinian filmmaker Emad Burnat and his family were detained at LAX where he was asked to prove he was indeed on his way to the Academy Awards. Burnat, who co-directed the Oscar-nominated documentary 5 Broken Cameras, was eventually released after Michael Moore, a champion of the film, intervened.

“With increasing population, religious intolerance and increasing senseless violence coupled with the widening disparity between the haves and have-nots, we have to adjust to new ways in which the world has to operate," Navneet Singh Chugh of the Chugh Firm — whose portfolio includes immigration services and has offices in the U.S. and India — tells THR. He also adds that "the U.S., of course, is a bit too sensitive and extra cautious in these matters, in part because the U.S. faces threats from every direction. [That is the] price to pay for being the world's super-power and super-cop."

In a 2013 guest article for Outlook magazine, Khan said he was questioned about his last name during his 2009 interrogation by U.S. immigration authorities after he was detained at New Jersey's Newark airport. “I wonder, at times, whether the same treatment is given to everyone whose last name just happens to be McVeigh (as in Timothy)??” Khan wrote in the article, referring to the U.S. army veteran who detonated a truck bomb in Oklahoma City in 1995. Considered the deadliest act of terrorism in the U.S. before 9/11, the bombing killed 168 people and injured hundreds of others. McVeigh was convicted and executed in 2001.

Perhaps one of the best-known Indian actors who juggles his career between India and Hollywood, with credits such as Life of Pi and Slumdog Millionaire, Irrfan Khan has been detained twice when arriving in the U.S., in L.A. in 2008 and a year later in New York.

“I was outraged,” Khan was recently quoted as saying by the Hindustan Times while recalling the 2009 incident. “I was told to quietly come into a room for questioning and identification verification. I wasn’t allowed to talk. When I tried to ask why I was being treated this way, I was told to keep quiet. I wasn’t allowed to use my phone. They said, ‘No, you just sit down.’ All because my name was Irrfan Khan. You can’t argue or rationalize.”

Well-known Bollywood director Kabir Khan, who is set to work on India-China co-production The Zookeeper, has also been questioned twice. The first incident occurred in 2001 shortly after 9/11 when he was on a flight from L.A. to Washington. Recalling the incident to the Times, Khan said he was talking to a fellow passenger in Hindi when some passengers “complained” that he was talking in a strange language which soon led FBI agents to board the plane. “When they got to know my name, they questioned me for more than two hours, Googled my name for terrorist links and then finally allowed me to fly,” Khan said.

Veteran South Indian actor and filmmaker Kamal Haasan also told the newspaper that he has faced similar situations because of his Muslim-sounding name, though he is Hindu: “There was no great apology or anything. It’s the rules they’re following.”

In what is perhaps one of the quirkiest incidents, actor Neil Nitin Mukesh was detained in New York for over an hour in 2009 because immigration officials didn't believe the actor was Indian given his fair skin. In a further ironic twist, Mukesh was traveling to the U.S. to filmKhan's New York, which focused on the discrimination faced by three Indian friends following the 9/11 attacks.
“I tried hard to convince them about my Indian credentials by telling them that both my mother and father are Indians,” the actor, whose late father Nitin Mukesh was one of Bollywood's most popular singers, told India Today at the time. He added that even his Indian accent failed to convince the authorities until he requested them to Google him to find out more about his background.

Beyond celebrities, perhaps the most controversial incident involved late former Indian president A. P. J. Abdul Kalam who was frisked at New York's John F. Kennedy airport in 2011. Kalam, who was India's president from 2002 to 2009, was searched on board after he had taken his seat on an Air India flight that was about to depart for India. U.S. security staff forced the crew to open the plane door and then took away the 80-year-old Kalam's jacket and boots for security checks before returning the articles, according to sources quoted by the Press Trust of India.

The incident led the U.S. government to issue an official apology stating “that appropriate procedures for expedited screening of dignitaries had not been followed,” according to a statement from the U.S embassy in Delhi.

It was the second instance that Kalam was frisked on a plane. In 2009, in an incident that caused a major furor because it happened not on U.S. soil, but in India, Kalam was searched by the ground security staff of a Continental Airlines flight, which was about to depart for Newark from New Delhi. The airline later issued an apology.

Shah Rukh Khan also received an apology from the U.S. ambassador to India after the actor sparked debate by expressing his frustration in his tweet about being detained for the third time. He had said: “I fully understand & respect security with the way the world is, but to be detained at US immigration every damn time really really sucks.”

“Should his [Shah Rukh Khan's] last name subject him to extra scrutiny?” asks Chugh. “In an ideal world, no, but it is a sign of paranoia that is pervading in the U.S. right now.” When it comes to the treatment of celebrities, Chugh says that “the U.S. immigration department couldn't care less about Shah Rukh Khan's God-like status in India.”

But looking ahead, it seems that perhaps the international expedited traveler initiative by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security could be one option for foreign celebrities looking to avoid delays when entering the U.S. Also known as the Global Entry program, the system is open to “pre-approved, low-risk travelers” to the U.S allowing them speedy clearance at select American airports on arrival.

In June, the governments of India and the U.S. signed a memorandum of understanding for the program which is expected to take effect shortly. “After joint scrutiny and clearance by both countries, the approved Indian travelers will be extended the facility of expedited entry into the United States through automatic kiosks at select airports,” said an official statement from the Indian embassy in Washington following the signing of the MoU.

India would be the 10th country to be included in the Global Entry program, which already has arrangements with countries such as Australia, Germany, the U.K, Mexico and Singapore, among others. Chugh welcomes the program as “a wonderful solution for frequent travelers and both countries should actively follow through on getting it implemented.”