[Reader-list] Historian Ramachandra Guha denied entry to US

Danny Butt db at dannybutt.net
Sun Nov 7 12:33:57 IST 2004

via Armadeep Singh


 Mac The Knife 

 I had planned to spend the day of the US presidential election in the town
of Berkeley, California. I was quite looking forward to the experience. What
would the streets look like, I wondered? Would those lining up to vote be
neither for Kerry nor Bush but (this being the original centre of
counterculture) for Ralph Nader?

 My plans were brutally torn to shreds at Toronto airport by an American
immigration official named (as I recall) McCullough. I had spent a week
lecturing in Vancouver, at the University of British Columbia, and was now
on my way to Oberlin College, Ohio, and, from there, to the University of
California at Berkeley. I'd been an itinerant migrant worker for the past
decade. It was a way of life I was used to and so, I believed, were the
Americans. It was thus with a certain casualness that I placed my papers on
the counter.

 My cool did not please McCullough, my papers still less. "What visa are you
on?" he barked. "A B1/B2," I answered. "But you can't earn money on this,"
he said. "I can indeed, and have done so a dozen times," I shot back. "Don't
raise your voice," said the big fellow, "I don't allow even my father to
talk to me like that." Keeping my passport, he directed me to a room to
await a meeting with his supervisor.

 Mohammad And Tagore

 The waiting room I was sent to was no more welcoming. In this American
piece of Canadian soil, the heater had been turned off. In its corners
huddled various travellers who had, like me, been pulled out of line to be
given the once-over. The room was cold anyway, but the loss of our passports
had left us all feeling naked.

 I looked around for comfort. It came from a male face coloured a reassuring
brown. I sat next to him, and asked where he was from. "Now a Canadian, but
before that from Bangladesh," he answered, casting a nervous eye at the sign
in front of us. This warned that closed-circuit TVs were watching us, and
videotaping every snatch of conversation.

 Judging that the TVs were monolingual, I switched to bad Bangla, picked up
in four years doing a PhD in Calcutta. He answered in worse Hindi, learnt,
he said, by osmosis from his wife, who loved Bollywood films. His problem on
the day was that his father had named him Mohammad. A software engineer in
Toronto, he was on his way to meet his principals in New Jersey, if the
Americans would let him. "Don¹t argue with them," he counselled me,
"otherwise they will put a black mark against your name." The minutes ticked
by. The room got colder. McCullough strolled in, looked menacingly around,
and went out again. After an hour-and-a-half, Mohammad was called in. He
came out with a shy smile of victory. As he picked up his bags, he
complimented me on mine: "Tomaar Shantiniketan jhola khub bhalo."

Now I too was called in. The supervisor‹as it happened a lady, and
African-American‹was more polite than her colleague. But her decision was as
unhelpful. She/they could not let me in as I did not have a regular
teaching, or J-1, visa. She handed over my passport, which I grabbed and ran
out of the door. Into the warm wide world beyond.


 Why was I stopped? One reason might have been my jhola, a patch of
mirrorwork on red which must have been as dangerously exotic to McCullough
as it was appealing to my friend Mohammad. Another, certainly, was the
letter of invitation from Oberlin, which specified a fee for my lectures
which greatly angered McCullough. "How can they pay you so much," he said
more than once, adding, "And for teaching history." (Also relevant perhaps
was my place of residence, a city much demonised in the presidential
campaign for "stealing American jobs"). Finally, there was a general
paranoia in the week before the elections, fuelled in this particular
instance by a daily target of suspects to be detained.

 Reign Of The Cretins

 On my return to India, I checked the rules again. Under a B1/B2 visa one
can do paid work for up to nine days at a time and in as many as five
different universities. Berkeley and Oberlin are now planning a joint letter
of protest. Meanwhile, they¹ve written me handsome letters of apology,
expressing shock at "such discriminatory and unjustified exclusion", and
anger at the "terrible injustice you had to endure... [from] these cretins".
My host at Berkeley pleads: "Don¹t give up on us. Hopefully, there will be a
new president elected on Tuesday." I write this on Monday, but I fear that
even if John Kerry wins, the paranoia towards the foreigner shall persist.

 Paranoia Timeline 

 In 1960, the biologist J.B.S. Haldane, by then an Indian citizen, was
invited to lecture by Columbia University. When he went to the consulate in
Calcutta to get a visa, he was asked to "name all the organisations of which
I am or have been a member of affiliate since my 16th birthday (with
inclusive dates)". He refused, writing to his American host that he did not
know when he joined the Association of Scientific Workers or the
anti-fascist front, or whatever. The visa form, he noted, was "unworthy of
the land of the free and the brave". A year later, when Senator Hubert
Humphrey wrote asking for reprints of his scientific papers, Haldane
complained to him about the visa form in these chillingly prescient words:
"If I wished to blow up the Empire State Building or subvert the Republican
Party I should doubtless be willing to sign false statements. But I happen
to have a professional prejudice in favour of the truth.... It seems to be
ridiculous that a great country like yours (or rather its government) should
be so frightened of what I can do as to make such demands."

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