Yes to fair; No to fair play

Ever since the spike in oil prices and consequent plummeting of fortunes of airlines, it has become difficult to get a seat on many international flights. Worse, many passengers with confirmed tickets are thumbed off on the flimsy pretext that flights are overbooked. In many cases, this has also given them an excuse to resort to racial profiling.

It happened to me. I was traveling from Cairo to Dubai by Emirates recently. To my chagrin, the clerk at the counter asked me to step out of the queue with the words that there was no place for me in the aircraft, and that if I wanted to fly then I could take an Egypt Air flight, which would leave a few hours later. (A ticket on Emirates is more expensive than that on Egypt Air).

I was outraged at this irrational suggestion. I asked the clerk why I was being singled out, whereas others in the queue were being dutifully checked in. What touched a raw nerve was that the Emirates employee was quite warm and deferential towards the others, mostly white passengers.

"You are being racist," I objected. I said I was being subjected to blatant discrimination. The booking clerk's grasp of English was quite suspect - he inferred that I was hurling expletives at him, and his airlines. So, he called his supervisor. This did not make things any better for me. While, I was engaged with the airlines staff, the queue was getting shorter and shorter. Then, there were just two of us left, both Indians. It appeared we had been singled out, for being just that - Indians!

I found it distasteful and obnoxious to be so shoddily treated in a country which is so culturally similar to us, which shares concerns and values with us. But nothing seemed to impact the Emirates employees. It was clear that they were ordered to sift the queue, I suspect, on the basis of nationality or colour.

Not just that. The normal practice is that when airlines decide to dump passengers they make an ‘offer', which in many cases is more than the value of the flight. In my case, nothing was offered except the option to fly by Egypt Air.

Realizing that fighting with Emirates would cost me a seat on Egypt Air too, I wrenched myself away from the counter and lugged my baggage to another terminal. It was exhausting and humiliating, but there was nothing I could do. Mercifully, a seat was made available in Egypt Air, but it lacked the flourish and style of the Emirates.

What was galling was that there was no apology or explanation offered by Emirates as to why such treatment was meted out only to the two of us! My fellow sufferer, another Indian who worked in the Gulf and who had vented his spleen on the Emirates after being offloaded, told me that this was standard fare in the Gulf when it came to people from the sub-continent, and that he had had a taste of Arab shabbiness earlier, too: "In Dubai, we are never sure when we would be offloaded."

Clearly, Emirates opts for ‘fair' but refuses to play fair when it comes to those other than fair. Its ubiquitous ‘Fly Emirates' slogan flies against the very ethos of fair-play and justice that it proclaims to the global community from T-shirts sported by ICC umpires and English Premier League referees. And, if I'm not mistaken, the ICC does take it pretty hard when it comes to anything that is even vaguely racist. Doesn't it?

Then again, I think we Indians suffer from an image problem in the Gulf. The blue-collared variety that has been traveling to the Gulf region for all these years is just grateful that they are heading to countries that provide jobs and opportunities. They do not complain when they are forced to live in sub-human and ghoulish conditions. It is only in these last few years that people of the sub-continent have been raising their voices against the shoddy working conditions in so-called ‘Global' cities like Dubai. Many of these expatriates in the gulf are now winging it back to the sub-continent, sick of the treatment they get there, telling their employers where they can get off!

It is strange that when perceptions about Indians are getting better in western countries, the problem in the Gulf refuses to go away. I think the reasons for this are far more deep - seated and much of this appalling state of affairs is because of the weak-kneed response from the government of India, which doesn't care a bit about how shabbily Indians are treated in some countries just because they are Indians.