Maya Nand had the misfortune of being on the wrong side of history three times, and so he died—shackled, untreated for diabetes—in a prison cell in Arizona.
Nand, a legal immigrant or Green Card holder, made the mistake of applying for United States citizenship. The application was rejected on a technicality (a misdemeanor charge of domestic violence, which had been resolved after Nand took a year of anger management classes), and he fell into a twilight zone of the penal system. Immigration authorities considered Nand’s misdemeanor conviction as grounds for deportation. Instead of being deported, however, he was arrested at his home in Sacramento and detained.
Without recourse to due process, Nand was incarcerated and essentially subjected to judicial murder in a prison run by Corrections Corporation of America. Medical staff at the prison refused to listen to Nand’s pleas, or those of his four children, that he was experiencing complications related to his diabetes; he died of heart failure.
This is startling because it seems like a huge miscarriage of justice, which legal immigrants in the United States, supposedly the most open and free society in the world, should not be subject to. And there are three aspects of this case that stand out: that Nand was violated; that on the fringes of the U.S. legal system there are so many dark corners where people can become non-persons, to be brutalized at will; and that, yet again, the Indian government pays no attention to the oppressed amongst its diaspora.
Maya Nand’s ancestors were indentured laborers from India, taken to work as near-slaves in the sugar-plantations of Fiji by the British. Nand himself moved from Fiji, along with his wife and sons, to the United States as a refugee.
Alarmingly, it appears that legal protections which U.S. citizens take for granted are not always available to legal immigrants and residents. There are gray areas in the U.S. judicial system that take away the fundamental rights of the individual, including habeas corpus, the right to a fair hearing in court, as well as the famous “Miranda” rights available to even hardened criminals: “You have the right to remain silent, to an attorney, etc.”
Nand’s story, and a related case involving European visitors discussed in a recent New York Times article, (“Italian’s Detention Illustrates Dangers Foreign Visitors Face,” May 15, 2008), show there are constructs that put some non-citizens, or “arriving aliens,” into a Kafkaesque “no-man’s land” where they are legally not on U.S. soil even though they physically are. In these cases, normal U.S. laws do not apply, even those laws that apply to illegal immigrants! Therefore, the individuals in these particular cases can be held indefinitely without being charged, and there is no way that anxious relatives can even get reliable information about them.
In a strange way, this is the mirror image of the rationale for the post-9/11 terrorist holding facility in the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. That is another fiction: the base is not quite considered to be on U.S. soil, and detainees are not considered either enemy combatants or prisoners of war, whereby the Geneva Convention supposedly doesn’t apply to them (since this writing, the Supreme Court has ruled against the legal premise for the existence of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp).
I must admit being shocked when I first read these stories; I could not believe such things could happen to holders of the coveted Green Card. I do, however, know some people who have lied about their existing Communist Party affiliations in their Green Card applications. And I am sure they worry someone will bring this little subterfuge to the attention of those grim Homeland Security types. Green Cards, and citizenship, can, and have been, revoked—just ask the Indian immigrants who were stripped of citizenship in the early 1900s for being Caucasian but not white.
To some extent, these excesses may be over-reactions to 9/11 and the real threat to America from terrorists abroad. But there is a totalitarian streak in the country, which explains how Japanese-Americans were put into concentration camps during World War II. There is also a tendency to apply the harshest methods to non-whites. The United States has a violent history, including the genocide and cultural extermination of the Native American.
Why does India, then, not stand up for the rights of its people in diaspora and demand that the record be set right on historical wrongs? Four years ago, Indian-origin Sikh priest Khem Singh, 72 years old and crippled, starved to death in another American prison in Fresno, Calif. Before that, there was Charanjit Singh Aujla, shot to dead by plainclothes policemen in Jackson, Mississippi. And Navroze Mody, beaten to death in Hoboken, New Jersey, by racists chanting “dot-head,” an epithet against Indians.
Then there have been the many incidents of oppression, religious and economic, against Indian-origin people in Fiji; they have had no option but to flee. There has been violence against Indians in Uganda and Kenya; and even before that, Indians were ejected from Burma.
The Indian government has never raised its voice in support of its diaspora in any of these cases. Perhaps that was acceptable when India was a starving banana republic, holding out a begging bowl. But this is not acceptable when India aspires to be a major power.
Then there was the event that showed Indians that the British imperialists were truly evil: April 13, 1919, Jallianwallah Bagh. The Indian government has never demanded reparations or even an apology from the British for this crime against humanity: 1650 bullets, 1579 casualties.
The Canadians recently decided to make a belated apology for the shameful Komagata Maru incident of 1914, when they denied Indian refugees succor. More such apologies must be demanded.
India deserves a government that leaves no stone unturned in protecting its citizens and its diaspora.
Rajeev Srinivasan considers San Francisco and Kerala his two homes. His columns also appear in Rediff on the Net and The Sunday Observer.