The sad story of Maya Nand: thrice betrayed by history

May 28, 2008

This appeared in the Pioneer of 28th May at

Here is my original copy:

Thrice betrayed: how Maya Nand was executed by an American prison company

Rajeev Srinivasan on human rights violations by Homeland Security in the US

Maya Nand had the misfortune to be on the wrong side of history three times: and so he died, shackled, untreated for diabetes, in a prison cell in Arizona. (“Family struggled in vain to help suffering detainee”, International Herald Tribune, May 5, 2008 He, a legal immigrant or Green Card holder, made the mistake of applying for US citizenship. This was rejected on a technicality (a misdemeanor charge about domestic violence), and he fell into a Twilight Zone of the penal system. Without recourse to due process, he was incarcerated and essentially subjected to judicial murder in a privately-run prison.

This is startling because it seems like a huge miscarriage of justice, which legal immigrants to the most open and free society in the world should not be subject to. But there are three other aspects that stand out: that poor Maya Nand must have been especially cursed to be so violated by history, three times over; that on the fringes of the legal system of the US there are so many dark corners where people can become non-persons, to be brutalized at will; and that, yet again, the Indian State pays no attention to the oppressed amongst its diaspora.

For, 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 must have suffered from serious discrimination from the indigenous Fijians and therefore moved to the US as a refugee. Finally, with no opportunity to defend himself, he was killed. This is an outrage.

But more alarmingly, it appears legal protections US citizens take for granted are not available to legal immigrant and residents. There are gray areas in the US judicial system that take away the fundamental rights of the individual, including habeas corpus, the right to a fair hearing in court. And the famous ‘Miranda’ rules available to even hardened criminals: “You have the right to remain silent, to an attorney, etc.”

The story of Maya Nand, and a related story about European visitors (“Italian’s Detention Illustrates Dangers Foreign Visitors Face”, New York Times, May 15th, 2008 ), show there are constructs that put non-citizens into a Kafkaesque No-Man’s Land where they are legally not on US soil even though they physically are; and therefore normal US laws do not apply to them, even those that apply to illegal immigrants! Therefore, they 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 US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. That is another fiction where the base is not quite considered to be on US soil, and detainees are not considered either enemy combatants or prisoners of war, whereby the Geneva Convention doesn’t apply to them (let me hasten to add that I make no assumptions about the innocence or otherwise of those detained in Gitmo, I am merely observing the legal loophole used).

I must admit being shocked when I first read these stories. Accustomed as most of us are to the frequent proclamations about the US being the “home of the free and the land of the brave”, I could not believe such things could happen to holders of the coveted Green Card. (Although, in passing, I know some people who lied about their existing Communist Party affiliations – a big no-no – in their Green Card applications. 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 – 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. But then, America has a violent history, including the genocide and cultural extermination of the Native American.

Why does India does not stand up for the rights of its 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, was starved to death in another American prison in Fresno, Calif. Before that, there was Charanjit Singh Aujla, shot to dead by plainclothes policemen in Jefferson, Miss. And Navroze Mody, beaten to death in Hoboken, NJ, 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 was violence against Indians in Uganda, Kenya etc. in East Africa, again turning many into refugees; 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 13th, 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 (“Canada to apologize for Komagata Maru”, The Times of India, 13 May 2008, ). More such apologies must be demanded.

India deserves a government that is proud of the nation and leaves no stone unturned in protecting its citizens and its diaspora.

990 words, 15 May 2008


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