Staff at Piarco and CAL should be held accountable for ‘profiling’ Swami Aksharananda

Dear Editor,

 

There is no place for profiling (by religion or ethnicity) on Caribbean Airlines (SN, Oct 4) or on any other carrier or in any society. Such despicable acts must be condemned. Swami Aksharananda, one of the most respected and holiest Hindu figures in Guyana and the Caribbean, who is well known in North America, England and India, provided convincing evidence that he was ‘profiled.’  There was absolutely no evidence or red flags to subject him to the kind of thorough questioning and search as took place at Piarco. Clearly, the Swami was humiliated and the staff who performed the search and questioning as well as CAL should be held accountable. Hindus and other Guyanese I spoke with in New York are highly offended by the ill treatment meted out to the holy man.  Would the agent have subjected a high profile priest, dressed in his garb, to the same line of questioning or even a Moulvi or Imam or priest? I have brought this issue to the attention of the CEO (Jagmohan Singh), Chairman (Phillip Marshall) and other executives of CAL as well as to the line Minister (Vasanth Bharath and the Minister of National Security (Captain Gary Griffith) and the Prime Minister. I also plan to send this letter in protest to them about the treatment meted out to the Swami as well as to others who are often the victims of humiliation or abuse at Piarco.

If it can be done to a holy man, imagine what the security agents would do to us. Such ill-treatment should come to an end.

What struck me in the interviewing of the Swami was the question “Are you a Muslim.”  This is deeply insulting for a holy man of the Hindu faith because holy men in the Hindu and Muslim faiths can be easily distinguished by their religious garb and names. In a multi-ethnic multi-religious society like Trinidad, people ought to know the differences in identifying practitioners of varied faiths based on their names and dress and their holy scriptures. In seeing Swami or his name or his mode of dress, the agent should have known he is not Muslim. In the Hindu faith, a Swami is clothed in trademark dark orange/saffron colour and the design is very distinguishable from Islamic garb.  And even if a swami is not dressed in traditional garb, they ought to have known the difference between a Muslim and a non-Muslim Indian. The interviewer was clearly ignorant of the religious practices of his own nation.  A person charged with conducting security checks on passengers ought to have known the differences.  That person clearly was not qualified to work at that post and he was not sensitive to the sentiments of people of Indian descent or their religious practices.  He demonstrated disrespect to Hindus and to Muslims. What if a traveller is a Muslim – would he or she be subjected additional searches and questioning?

Some years ago when I crossed the US-Canada border, the US immigration agent asked me if I was a Muslim and when last I visited Iraq (never went) or the Middle East (many years since I was last there studying political systems). Also, last August when I crossed the border, the agent asked me if I recently visited Islamic countries. Those agents are excused because of their ignorance of geography and their limited knowledge of the practices of diverse ethnic groups and faiths.  They tend to mix up Indians and Arabs and Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims and the differences that exist between them.  But there are no excuses for Trinidadian and Guyanese agents because they ought to know the differences in a country where half the population is Indian who subscribe to Hinduism, Islam and Christianity with distinguishable name differences and scriptures.

I should note that I travel extensively and quite often to Asian (Buddhist) societies. Religious figures like monks, lamas, swamis, priests, etc, are highly respected and accorded special recognition and escorted out of lines for priority clearance through immigration and customs.

They are not disrespected.  When I recently visited Mauritius, a swami was taken out of a line and brought to the front of the immigration queue for clearance out of respect and reverence for his status.  The same happened when a swami was checking in for his flight from Ramgoolam’s airport to Delhi. In India, you will never read about a passenger being asked by a security agent if he or she is a Christian or a Muslim.

It is normal for security to question passengers if there are doubts or questions about their identity or some red flag about the passenger popped up on a computer. That happens at JFK and other American airports. I, myself, was subjected several times to secondary screening and questioning because of my frequent travels overseas. But I was never asked if I am Indian or Hindu and was never humiliated. The Swami’s name is not on any security profile and he should not have been subjected to such humiliation.

 

Yours faithfully,
Vishnu Bisram

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