November 16, 2006

A Not So Welcome Homecoming

Asia Times, 03.11.2006

SHOUT, SOFT BORDERS!

Worryingly I went near the closed toilet door at Nuneaton railway station. On close examination, I discovered that the phrase had originally been “out of order”, referring to the toilet. I attributed the rather creative – albeit disturbing – additions to the supporters of the British Nationalist Party or the UK Independence Party, both of whom use xenophobia against immigration as a staple of their political propaganda.

The threat of terrorism, along with the resident fear of a deluge of immigrants flooding the country and the vexed issue of multiculturalism has dogged Britain of late. Just recently, the Church of England had been complaining about the supposed biased approach of the Labour government toward Muslim minorities. Jack Straw’s pot shot at the niqab (burqa) only added fuel to the fire. All three major political parties are falling over one another to appear tough on immigration.

The stern immigration officer at the end of the usual mile-long line at London’s Heathrow airport was something new. Compared with a Chinese-American officer who took terrible offense because I couldn’t understand his accent at New York’s John F Kennedy Airport, I had found British immigration officials generally friendly enough. This time, though, I was curtly asked a few questions about my trip and then asked to go stand in another enormous line, apparently for a health checkup.

I could see where our bureaucratic babus in India got their lethargy from. I had no chest-X-ray plates (probably because the visa-issuing office never told me I needed any) and no doctor’s report. I walked up and I handed her my passport. Instead of hustling me to the adjacent medical room, I was just let through. What a checkup!

For this hour-long exercise, I missed my bus. When asked at the counter the reason for my delay, I mentioned the excesses at immigration. “About time too!” guffawed the man behind the counter. If only these security procedures were actually implemented, and then targeted not at the mundane traveler, my world as an average individual would be so much more hassle-free.

Nowhere have I seen security stickers being stuck at the keyholes of suitcases. But it happens at Kolkata’s Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Airport. Who dare tell these people that they’re a nightmare to take off later, and are not effective in any case? I guess they’re better than the plastic rope they used to tie up the luggage with, though.

Oh, and how irritating is it for us Indians to fill out lengthy arrival and departure cards in our own country. Is it not enough that we’re being blacklisted overseas? All this information going into the immigration system in India’s airports can be safely labeled in computer lingo as GIGO (garbage in, garbage out).

I paid Rs16,000 (US$357) for 10 kilograms of excess luggage while taking the flight to London. For any average middle-class Joe like me, that’s gotta pinch! There were a few American girls in front of me at the check-in counter. I could tell that their luggage was hopelessly overweight.

To my bewilderment (I was too shocked to be angry), they casually ripped off their security tags (the precious security tags!), opened their suitcases, took out some of their stuff, weighed it (and it came under the allowance level), opened them again, shoved in the stuff they had taken out, and threw it on the conveyer belt. No one raised an eyebrow.

“The next stop is Leicester,” called the train driver, and I realized I had dozed off. Feeling the apprehensive gaze of an elderly white woman, I got off the train and headed to work.


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