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When tired passengers of the Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam stepped out on to the tarmac of Sahar airport on Thursday night, they looked like deer caught in the headlines of a powerful jeep, as hordes of televisions crews with flashing lights descended on them. They blinked, they tried to run, they pleaded, but in the end, they had to succumb to the gnawing hunger for news for the electronic and print media.
Broad-shouldered Jagpal Gusain, 26, a chief officer in the Merchant Navy, says, “Most of the men who were arrested could not understand English, at least that is what I felt. Hence, when they were told to fasten their seat belts, they did not do so. They were moving around here and there and that was creating tension.”
When asked whether there was an inherent racism, he shook his head.
“In fact, there was an Indian air-hostess, so there was no question of racism,” he says.
Most of the men, he says, did not know they were the problem. Half of them were sleeping. It was only when the plane landed at Schipol airport that the men realised they are under suspicion. “I think the air-hostesses alerted the air marshals,” says Gusain. “Later, they told us to be calm.”
Brian D’Souza, who is a sailor, says that when the men were taken off, they were all in handcuffs. “After that, everybody was told to step out of the plane, row by row,” he says. As to whether he felt there was an element of racism, D’Souza says, “I cannot make a call on that.”
To get a foreigner’s viewpoint, there was the red-faced Stuart Nicol from Ireland, perspiring heavily in Mumbai’s humidity. “I don’t think the men behaved badly at all,” he says. “We were initially told it was a mechanical problem. I saw the air marshals walking around and when I looked out of the window I realised that a jet was accompanying us. Then I realised it might not be a mechanical problem.” Nicol says one of them was sitting beside him. “I did not see anything wrong in his behaviour,” he says.
Most passengers felt there was nothing wrong with the men who were arrested. Adding his voice is the articulate and elderly Nitin Dalal. “They were not behaving suspiciously, but then, I am not a security officer,” he says.
Asked whether there was an over-reaction on the part of the Dutch, he says, “I am not qualified to say that.” His wife Kiran says, “I am glad it is an overreaction because I would not want to be blown up.”
The problem, says Nitin, was that the men were not listening to the crew. “During the take-off stage, they had not put on their seat belts, they were changing seats, they were exchanging mobile phones: these things made the crew a little suspicious,” he says. “They were dressed cleanly but in ethnic clothing. Hence, suspicion must have fallen on them. I am happy they took the security measures they felt they had to take.”
Would he be put off travelling abroad now? “Definitely, this will put me off international flights but in the end, I have no choice,” he says, and adds, tongue in cheek, “The alternative is to go by boat.” And then there is Umesh Prasad Behera, retired deputy commandant of the Central Industrial Security Force: “It was much delayed action on the part of the marshals. Also, the inquiry of those arrested should been quicker. Nobody bothered about the comfort of the other passengers.”