Bollywood star at centre of US diplomatic row

Shah Rukh Khan detained for two hours by airport officials during visit to America to make film about racial profiling
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The Independent US

A Bollywood superstar visiting America to make a film about racial profiling is at the centre of a spiralling diplomatic row amid claims that he was detained for two hours by airport officials - who were apparently concerned that he boasted dark skin, an Indian passport, and a Muslim surname.

Shah Rukh Khan, the subcontinent's most famous actor, sparked outrage among billions of fans, after announcing that he felt "angry and humiliated" about being stopped by gun-toting security staff at Liberty International airport in Newark, New Jersey, on Friday afternoon, as he attempted to board a flight to Chicago.

"I was really hassled at the American airport because my name is Khan," he told the Press Trust of India news agency. "They interrogated me for a couple of hours, wanting to know if I knew anyone in America. While all around people from India and Pakistan were vouching for me, these guys just wouldn't let me through."

Despite repeatedly asking staff if they knew who he was, Khan - known to billions as "King Khan" and recently named among the world's fifty most influential men by Newsweek - was only released after being allowed to send a message to a politician in India, who persuaded diplomats in Washington to intervene on his behalf. He was apparently stopped because a suspected terrorist had previously used his name as an alias.

The incident made front page news in India yesterday, where angry fans burned US flags and picketed the American Embassy. One government minister even suggested that the country should enforce a 'tit for tat" policy, and begin lobbing hostile questions at American visitors arriving in their country. “If we also forget our ethos of 'guests are equal to God' and behave the same way with [American visitors to India], they will probably get the message," said Information minister Ambika Soni.

Ironically, Khan, who has appeared in more than 70 hit films, was visiting the US in connection with his new film My Name is Khan, about an innocent Muslim who is wrongly identified as a terrorist while trying to travel through the US in the wake of the 9/11 attacks of 2001.

Newark Airport officials, somewhat bizarrely, denied their controversial behaviour amounted to detaining Khan - saying yesterday that he was merely taken to a secure area and asked to spend 66 minutes answering their questions.

There was a strong reaction among Bollywood actors. One star, Priyanka Chopra, wrote on her Twitter feed: "Shocking, disturbing n downright disgraceful. It's such behavior that fuels hatred and racism. SRK's a world figure for God's sake. Get real!"

Critics point out that former president APJ Kalam was frisked in April when boarding a Continental Airlines flight to the US. And in 2003, the then defence minister George Fernandes was "strip-searched" when leaving the US while foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee was frisked when flying out of Moscow two years ago.

Some of the sensitivity may also be due to India's so-called VIP culture, where a raft of officials are exempt from security checks. At every Indian airport is a sign detailing the 38 different categories of officials who do not need to go through screening - from the prime minister to the spouses of foreign diplomats and officials from the planning commission.