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Sir Mark Tully, who worked as the correspondent for the BBC from 1965 to 1994, was in Bangalore on October 7 to deliver the 9th Dr Stanley Samartha Memorial lecture on religious tolerance, organised by the Bangalore Initiative for Religious Dialogue, at the Rotary House of Friendship, Lavelle Road.

Sir Mark is a celebrity in India. He is sometimes described as more Indian than Indians. Not without reasons. Unlike many other foreign journalists, he contextualized and interpreted better the socio-political and economic events he covered. His reports resonated with deep understanding of the country, and he played a huge role in demystifying India to the world. And he become  easily one of the most acclaimed correspondents, not just in Delhi but in the BBC itself. He has written a number of books, and still does programmes for the BBC. He resides in Delhi.

 

Sir Mark Tully at the Rotary House of Friendship, Lavelle Road, Bangalore.

 

He was gracious to grant me an interview the next day, at the Bangalore Club where stayed overnight. He is a very down-to-earth person, totally bereft of any vanity.

The following is the full text of the interview, an abridged version of which appeared in The Times of India, Bangalore, on October 9.

Sir Mak, you came back to India to start your career in 1964. You have seen at close quarters Indian democracy evolve. How do you compare Indira’s India with Sonia’s India?

Indira’s India was tightly controlled in many ways particularly economically. Indira herself exercised tight control over politics and country. Today there’s much more freedom, particularly economically. That’s one reason the country is flourishing. And politically, Congress party is not as powerful as before. And certainly, Manmohan Singh and Sonia together are not as powerful as Indira was.

The middle class has changed, has become more westernized. More people now have cars and are more mobile than before. Poor people also have changed. They are now more willing to claim their rights. There’s more migration to cities. There was a recent survey that showed that Dalits are not prepared to accept traditions even in rural areas that keep them in subjugation and humiliation.

 

Sir Mark Tully delivers the 9th Dr Stanley Samartha Memorial lecture on religious tolerance, organised by the Bangalore Initiative for Religious Dialogue, at the Rotary House of Friendship, Lavelle Road, on Oct 7.

 

 

You spoke about how India has been developing, especially getting westernized. There are people who think this is not the right way forward, and at least some of them think the current Maoist troubles are a result of rampant western commercialization of Indian society…

One of the biggest problems of India is the government’s inability to deliver. India was recently described by an American academic as a “flailing state”. What he meant was that you have many bright people in the IAS, but the machinery for them to implement what they want to is simply not there. So, there are two factors in the tribal areas: One, neglect and inefficiency. Then there is the problem of land acquisition: it becomes an easy issue for the Naxalites.

There’s a policy vacuum, particularly with regard to acquisition of land of poor people in rural areas. And why does it take so long to start thinking of the possibility of people — whose land has been taken away — having some form of share holding in the new projects? Why is it taking so long?

The other problem of land acquisition is the antiquated and inefficient court system. Land disputes are getting stuck in courts for ages. Just as the government machinery is in urgent need of reforms, the courts are also in urgent need of reforms.

Talking of courts… we recently had the Ayodhya verdict. What has not gone unnoticed is the remarkable equanimity with which the people of India accepted the verdict. There was not even the slightest spark of unrest, leave alone major violence, anywhere in the country. Do you think this is symptomatic of the dawn of a New India, an India that is fed up with violence, an India that is eager to move on…?

I am very wary of expressions like ‘dawn of a new India’ etc. India has been changing gradually. I just want to take you back to the days of the telecast of Ramayan on Doordarshan. There was this huge outcry over how it’s a breach of secularism and all. And when I argued that it’d be a great pity if India couldn’t broadcast one of its great epics, I was accused of being pro-Hindu etc., and now you look at the television and you have a whole lot of channels devoted to people preaching Hinduism. This is one of the changes that came about; and now there’s a mature attitude towards religion in India.

And we should also realize that the whole Ayodhya thing was whipped up for political reasons. There was more of politics than religion, actually. If we are not whipping it up this time, it shows that BJP also realizes that the form of extreme Hindu politics does not pay.

Coming back to the verdict, as you’d recall, the judges relied on faith to decide an aspect of the case. All three judges in concurring judgment said the disputed site was the birth place of Lord Ram. Now this was seen by many as a dangerous precedent, wherein the judiciary instead of going by incontrovertible evidence invoked the article of faith to decide a contentious issue. And, it’s also feared that this could be a dangerous precedent for deciding some other similar cases pending in courts… What’s your take on this?

My own position is that the judiciary should have restricted itself to who owns the land legally, and left to the government the decision on whether or not a temple or mosque could be constructed. To bring in the matter of faith, raises a lot of questions. And I am sure the Supreme Court will look into the question.

 

Sir Mark Tully talking to yours truly at the Bangalore Club on October 8.

 

 

The religion of Islam has been going through a troubled phase. Though it’s said that terrorism doesn’t have a religion; it’s a fact that perpetrators of violence have been using the word Islam and Muslim, for reasons they think are legitimate. How do you see this linkage between violence and religion?

What’s important is for religious leaders to stand together and tell very clearly that terrorists are defaming the religion. So it should be possible for Islamic leaders and the local clergy as well to make this clear to everyone.

9/11 brought in a new dimension to Kashmir problem. Some commentators have seen it as a widening of the conflict zone. They feel the insurgency there is now a part of what is called the “wider terror network”….

I think irrespective of 9/11 and related issues, Kashmir is purely an India-Pakistan issue. India has genuine concerns of the message that will go out if the state with the largest Muslim population is cast away. On the Pakistan side, its army is very powerful. It needs the Kashmir issue to justify its existence. If there’s no Kashmir issue, if there’s no enmity with India, what do you need the army for? Now, of course, there’s another need, in the northwest of that country.

It needs two hands to clap, and during Musharraf’s time, it looked as though the two hands were willing to clap. Both India and Pakistan should be willing to make concessions if this problem has to be solved.

Just to take you back to the time you had to leave the BBC… What exactly was then Director-General John Birt trying to and why was it disagreeable to you, forcing you to leave the organization?

He was trying to create a revolution in BBC, whereas I believe in evolution. He denigrated the BBC, he poured scorn on all work the BBC had done previously. The denigration was unjustified and also very damaging. He bureaucratized the organization. He changed it entirely from a position where the responsibility was held at producer/editor levels to where it went to the hands of managers.

Are you aware of the Facebook page in your name, which has over 1,000 fans? How do you see the emergence of online journalism?

No I am not aware of that… Well, there are going to be changes. But I don’t think any media will die. When TV came everyone said that the radio will die. But that hasn’t happened. I don’t think newspapers will die.

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(Crossposted from Kaleidoscope)

December 6, 1992 will never be forgotten, for all the wrong reasons.

September 30, 2010, will never be forgotten for all the right reasons.

Yesterday’s verdict of the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad high court on the Ayodhya land title suits will be remembered for many reasons; and one of them is that it was not an escapist verdict, an easy-way-out-of-a-difficult-situation verdict.

The court addressed controversial issues head-on. One of them was that of faith. All these years, Hindu-leaning parties and organisations have been saying that “matters of faith can never be decided by a court of law”. It was a dangerous proclamation. But luckily all their leaders, most prominently, L K Advani and Narendra Modi, said as loudly as they could, that they would accept the court verdict.

A matter of faith was indeed decided by the court. And now, post-verdict, some commentators — most ironically those not sympathetic to the Hindu viewpoint — are saying that the court shouldn’t have decided on a matter of faith.

It was incidental that in question here was the faith of one community. It could have been the faith of any community.

We all believe in something,
may be something rational,
may be something irrational,
but we all believe in something.
And it’s here that faith comes in.

For a moment, let’s forget the temple and the mosque. Take something very ordinary.

Would we have travelled in a train if we didn’t have faith in the train driver? No, we wouldn’t have. We buy a car because we have faith in the car manufacturer. We go to a doctor because we have faith in his ability to cure us. We approach a teacher because we have faith in her. We live because we have faith in everything that the future holds. Faith is all over the place. Faith does play a big role in our everyday life.

Imagine for a moment if the court had ordered: “Let there be no temple, no mosque; forget 2.77 acre or whatever, get all the land people are fighting over; and let there be a childrens’ playground or a library or an educational complex on it.” That would have looked such an artificial compromise. We need courts to settle disputes; not to cover them up.

It’s a matter of great pride for India’s judiciary that despite all fears being raked up, the issue was addressed, settled and a solution offered. It’s for litigants to agree or disagree. There’s a higher court of appeal. And, it’s such a music to the ears to hear that aggrieved litigants will treat the matter closed once the Supreme Court pronounces the final verdict.

It’s a matter of great pride for Indians that we all exhibited remarkable amount of patience and understanding post-verdict. This was unprecedented. There were no loud, animated, partisan, emotional, discussions and arguments, or fraying of tempers.

September 30, 2010, would also hopefully be remembered as the day India came out of its adolescent years. The day India quietly but powerfully broke off the beaten, dirty path, cut a new lane, on to a new, brighter tomorrow.

Finally, one request to Sonia, Advani, Lalu, Paswan and every other politician on whom the success of our democracy rests: Hope you all politicians saw the way we people reacted. We expect the same maturity from you. Please don’t play politics with this high court verdict. Let’s look ahead and move on. We have had enough of the past.

India has woken up to a new world on the first of October. Tomorrow is Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary. For once, he would have had a reason to smile.

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(This has been crossposted from Kaleidoscope)

All this brouhaha about Commonwealth Games makes no sense. It only betrays our lack of understanding about our own country. CWG preparations have been going on exactly the way any other event is organised. The collective astonishment and shock across the country is amazing, to say the least. O! those pictures of filth in the Commonwealth village? But isn’t that how an under-construction building anywhere else in our country looks? Don’t we all know about that ”final acid wash” which magically brings glitter to the floor tiles and smiles on everyone’s faces?

Since when are we so blind not to see garbage on roadsides and street corners? Litter-free streets of foreign cities always leave us baffled. We wonder as to whether people actually live in those cities. Even when terrorists found that garbage heaps are the easiest, the best and the most unsuspecting of places to keep an explosive, we still are comfortable with rotting, smelly piles of filth on roadsides. The comfort levels of Indians are indeed different from those in the rest of the world. Let us accept that.

We all believe that ceaseless honking is what makes vehicles move on our busy roads. We have an abiding faith in the power of the horn, especially when the traffic light is red. We are so proactive and enterprising with our vehicles, especially at junctions, that patience is an anathema. Even with so much chaos and noise on roads, even with so much litter, even without power and water, our tourism industry is booming. Foreigners keep coming back year after year. India Incredible!

Let us remember that all Commonwealth countries haven’t protested the way all Indians have. Every culture is unique. There’s nothing wrong with the way we do things; what’s wrong is the way others see it. Didn’t John Kenneth Galbraith, former US ambassador to India, once describe our nation as a “functioning anarchy”? So, it’s all about perception. People say we should learn lessons from the CWG fiasco. But when its few critics are now its most vocal admirers, and when CWG is all set to be a huge success, where are the lessons to be learnt!

The hustle and bustle, the clutter and chaos: that’s our USP, that’s the India the world is talking about. Our greatness is: we still deliver success, like pulling the proverbial rabbit out of the hat. Let’s not bow to criticism and change our ways. Then we will cease to be Indians.

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Shashi Tharoor — the flamboyant novice of Indian politics who got pitch-forked to the corridors of South Block — has got out.

He played a smashing innings that will be remembered for the big hits which got him neither sixes nor fours but just a few singles with great difficulty.

There is no doubt Tharoor walked into the Indian political pitch with great promise, commanding support and encouragement of his bosses. The way he humbled seasoned politicians in Kerala’s political hub in last year’s Lok Sabha election raised hopes of a new beginning for a state overtaken by the inertia of political stereotype and rhetoric.

But before long he began showing signs of getting distracted. Evidently his strengths were getting diverted. He retained the grit and conviction to bat on relentlessly against unfriendly googlies and bouncers. But all his efforts didn’t seem to be fetching him or his team any dividents.

The junor foreign minister was living on the edge. On a few occasions he got himself trapped, but got away with the benefit of doubt. Finally, the innings has ended.

Tharoor’s supporters and well-wishers hope this is just the first innings. He has many more chances to prove his mettle. Whether there will soon be a second innings or not, it may be worthwhile to examine, in retrospect, a few of the mistakes he committed:

1. He should have reaslised he is a greenhorn in Indian politics, which isn’t an easy turf to play on. With the goodwill he earned, he should have made a quiet and steady beginning with the aim of scoring, and not lobbing catches to the opponents.

2. He should have meticulously studied how Indian politics works, evenwhile focusing on his ministerial responsibilities.

3. He should have curbed his proclivity to be judgemental and opinionated. One thought that he was a diplomat, but there weren’t many indications of it.

4. He should have realised that the number of followers on Twitter didn’t mean much in real life. It’s no indication of how many tweeps actually follow him.

5. He should have realised that promoting cricket in Kerala was never his brief; and also that IPL is quite a different ball game altogether. He should have thought twice before padding up for it. Any injury on the field would affect his official work.

Wounded badly, Shashi Tharoor will surely ponder over what lies ahead and which way he should move now. All is not lost for him. His brilliance and scholarship have been proved beyond doubt. And there will be umpteen occasions for him to put them to good use.

There is one mantra he would do well to keep in mind: even if you don’t rub someone the right way, don’t rub them wrong way.

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Finally, K Chandrasekhar Rao has had his way. An hour back, the Union government decided to give in to the Telangana Rashtra Samiti chief’s fast unto death and set in motion the process that will lead to the formation of Telangana state.

No political party is opposing formation of Telangana! In fact, during elections, all parties had supported the Telanganga struggle.

Anyway, it’s ironic that a fast unto death resulted in formation of Andhra Pradesh & now another fast unto death has resulted in splitting of Andhra Pradesh. (The state of Andhra Pradesh was carved out of the erstwhile Madras Principality in 1953 following a fast-unto-death of Potti Sreeramulu in 1952.)

I really doubt if in today’s world, this is the right way to do things or get things done.

The controversy doesn’t seem to be over as yet. Since, there’s no word about the fate of Hyderabad, which falls in the Telangana region and should go to the new state. TRS says there can’t be Telangana without Hyderabad. There  was a proposal to make Hyderabad a union territory. No word on it yet.

There is a worry if this capitulation will lead to similar demands from other regions within different states. Similar thoughts were expressed when Chhatisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand were created. There are a number of dormant struggles in many other parts of the country.

I have a feeling that this trend of carving out smaller states is going to continue. For one strong reason, that it’s an emotive political weapon for our politicians. Tomorrow, another politician, looking for some issue, will launch an agitation for his region to be declared as a state… Sad that development or some other such strong criterion wasn’t the reason behind Telangana formation.

The inevitable question that’s being asked: Who is going to fast next and for which region?

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That Jaswant Singh’s views on Mohmmed Ali Jinnah would make his position in the BJP tenuous was well-known. But few expected him to be axed the way he was that too on the first day of the party’s brainstorming session in Shimla today. He was summarily expelled from the party, without even being shown the normal courtesies due to a senior leader who has served as the nation’s foreign minister and finance minister.

This was like using a hammer to swat a fly. The end might have been achieved, of seeing Jaswant out of the BJP or even from the larger Sangh Parivar fold. But the collateral effects might turn out to be more damaging and long-lasting. Not that Singh is a huge crowd-puller, but BJP’s image has taken a beating.

Who divided India?

Jinnah and Nehru, no doubt, are revered figures. They made their own contributions to shaping the events of 1947. But it is puerile to believe that one single person caused the partition of India.

Religion played a huge defining role in every part of the world. Indian subcontinent was no exception. Religion was an essential ingredient of the politics that was played out to get the British out. It was increasingly used by politicians to connect to the people. It was a convenient and potent tool to rally people.

To me, it was no surprise that India was partitioned on the lines of religion. So much was built up towards that end. It was sort of a fait accompli.

It was unfortunate that religion divided India. A discussion on whether that was avoidable or not is inconsequential. Jaswant Singh wrote the book as an individual not as a BJP leader. What he has said about Jinnah is also nothing new. Advani himself after his visit to Pakistan stunned everyone by calling Jinnah secular. At the same time, there are many others who feel just the opposite as well.

BJP should have just ignored the book

Yesterday, with BJP president Rajnath Singh’s statement that the party dissociates itself from what is said in the book, the matter should have been closed.

No one, least of all the BJP, would gain anything from harping on the topic. Jinnah is dead. Nehru is dead. So too Gandhi. The issue is also dead.

The only gainer from what the BJP has precipitated is the publisher of the book and Jaswant himself.

The reaction of the BJP to the issue is also symptomatic of our polity’s reluctance to let go of religion. Now that not just India, the whole world has seen the havoc religion can cause, it’s high time we restricted the use of religion in the public domain. If it serves some purpose it’s only in the personal, private domain.

When India is in close competition with China to take the place of the First World, the mainstream political parties can’t be feuding and wasting time on irrelevant bygones. Parties can’t be judging their leaders on the basis of their views of historical leaders. Instead of Jinnah and Jaswant, BJP at its brain storming session should have focussed on how best it can make the lives of Indians better.

Tailpiece

A tweet by my friend Kishor: “A few more books on Jinnah and BJP would be completely wiped out!”

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Identity is one big issue.

When a good old friend fails to recognize you, you feel hurt. You even begin to wonder: was the friendship worth all that?

Most of the political conflicts between states and nations are somewhere liked to identity.

The current uproar over US customs personnel asking SRK to step aside for a “secondary inspection” is also linked to identity. Why should India’s number one actor be so intensely and intrusively questioned on his entry to the US?

Shah Rukh Khan, known as the "King of Bollywood", was held for two hours at an airport outside New York. The actor has lashed out at airport officials over the episode. (AFP/File/Gianluigi Guercia - For source of photo click on it)

Shah Rukh Khan, known as the "King of Bollywood", was held for two hours at an airport outside New York. The actor has lashed out at airport officials over the episode. (AFP/File/Gianluigi Guercia - For source of photo click on it)

This hue and cry over Shah Rukh Khan’s so called detention is unjustified, I feel. It smacks of a lack of understanding of the way the US works and also of our glorified self-importance. There is nothing unusual about being moved aside for a “second inspection”. It’s done, when credentials of the entrant is not fully clear in the first instance and more details are sought. Such people are moved aside to another area, so that others waiting in the queue aren’t unnecessarily delayed.

It’s too much to expect an ordinary US customs officer to know who Shah Rukh Khan is, when many US citizens aren’t quite aware of what’s happening in their own country. (I recently happened to meet a professor of computer science from a US university, who was visiting India. We were discussing H1N1 infections. Quite surprisingly he wasn’t aware that all the US states had been affected, and close to 550 people had died in the US due to H1N1 virus!)

Generally in the US, processes are system-driven, unlike in India where they are largely person-driven. There could have been some point in SRK’s documentation that needed more clarification. When he had done nothing wrong, where was the need to panic? All Shah Rukh should have done was to sit back and let the process sort itself out. When US congressmen, senators, nobel laureates and other locally important people are similarly moved aside for further questioning, how can one expect an exceptional treatment for Indians.

I appreciate former President Abdul Kalam’s attitude to this. He complied with the security protocol of Continental Airlines, while he was frisked before boarding a flight to Newark in April this year. He didn’t have any complaints at all, and fully understood the procedure. Three months later, it was all others who seemed to have an issue with it.

When Indians prominent in India get stuck in such manner in foreign countries it becomes news. I am sure many ordinary citizens too have to undergo such experiences that no one gets to know.

My experience

Probably such things happen in other countries as well in various degrees. A few years back when I was on an official trip to Malaysia, at the KL customs clearance, the official was quite puzzled at what he thought was the low amount of cash I carried. (I don’t remember exactly the figure.) He became suspicious.

The official asked me how I could spend seven days in Malaysia with that low amount of cash. I told I was on an invitation from the Tourism Board of Malaysia, it was an official, sponsored trip, and that I had an international credit card (which I promptly showed) for my personal purchases. He wasn’t convinced.

He asked me to go to a room nearby and wait. I complied. In the room, I got a feeling that I was being suspected of illegal entry into the country. Since even after waiting for 15 minutes no one called me, I approached an officer and narrated what had happened. I explained the purpose of my visit. He took my passport. I produced documentary evidence for all the claims I made, like invitation card, return ticket, office identity card, details of stay and transportation.

After some 20 minutes, the officer profusely apologized and explained why some people in flights from south India are more intensely scrutinized. I told him I fully understood his concerns. Exchange of a few pleasantries, and that was about it.

Scene in India

Let us accept: many of us have a distorted blown-up image about ourselves. That has become a part of our way of life: what is commonly called ‘VIP culture’. A very good manifestation of that self-importance is on our roads.

Why crib about what’s happening abroad, when what happens in our own country leaves a lot to be desired. A number of us take offence when security guards ask for identity card or ask intrusive questions like “whom do you want to meet?”

So many times I have seen people fighting with security guards over such issues. And many upright officials have paid the price for playing by the rule in India. Probably, the only fault I find in such personnel is that some of them aren’t as polite as they ought to be. Look at the way we behave on the roads, the sort of respect we give for other drivers and for traffic laws.

Discussion on my Twitter page (may be updated):

Me: If SRK refuses to travel to the US in future, will the US be bothered? Will the US lose anything bec of that?

ullasd: It is question of self pride.

rajimuth: Do they care about anything/anyone outside their know? They don’t need us, we do them

ullasd: I was only referring to the arrogance of US officials. Take the case of APJ…

Me: I dont know if we can call it ‘arrogance’ or ‘over-enthusiasm of a customs official to play by rules”. Maybe partly both..!!!

rajimuth: We are going nuts! SRK maybe a film icon, Indians, more fool us, may worship him,cant expect him to be treated like god in other countries.

rajimuth: SRK should take a lesson in grace and dignity from Kalam’s behaviour. He has been spoilt by needless adulation from fans

Some facts about US customs procedure

Here is an extract from The Times of India‘s Washington correspondent Chidanand Rajghatta’s despatch on the issue. Towards the end of the story he gives details of the customs procedure in the US. Very informative. Read the article here.

Inspection at a US Port of Entry: What to expect/What do CBP (Customs and Border Patrol) officials do?

  • Upon arrival at the POE you must present your passport and other required documents. CBP officers will review these to determine whether to allow you to enter the US.
  • Your first encounter with CBP officers will be at a primary inspection station where they ask foreign nationals questions to determine their identity and nationality.
  • If they decide to admit you the CBP officer will also determine how long you will be allowed to stay in the US, and in what status you will be admitted.
  • CBP officers review passports, visas, and other supporting documents of each and every foreign national arriving at a US POE. The CBP officers also compare fingerprint records and name check databases for recent derogatory information, ask questions about the foreign nationals general qualifications for the visas they have, review the Form I-94 Arrival and Departure Record (or, for Visa Waiver travelers, Form I-94W).

What Kind of questions do the CBP officers ask?

CBP officers at US POEs will ask you questions to determine the true intent of your trip to the US. Inspections Officers are trained, and have the experience to back up their training, to identify if a foreign national has a pre-conceived intent behind their trip to the US, i.e., they are looking to see if you are actually coming to go to school or for a job interview when you say you are coming to visit Disneyland. If an officer is not convinced with your initial statements, they may ask for additional supporting documentation be allowing you to enter the US.

CBP officials – their power and authority – what they can do?

CBP officers have complete power and authority at the POE. It is up to their discretion to conclude whether or not a foreign national is eligible to enter the US. It is only after a CBP officer stamps and dates the I-94 form, places an admission stamp in the foreign national’s passport, and the foreign national passes through the inspection station that the foreign national is admitted to the United States.

Secondary Inspection – what leads you to a secondary inspection?

If the first CBP officer that a foreign national meets feels that the inspection requires additional time for review to determine a foreign national’s eligibility, the officer may refer the foreign national for a “secondary inspection.” This secondary inspection is a much more comprehensive review, and can take several hours to complete. Generally a foreign national referred for secondary inspection is not considered to be “admitted” to the United States.

What generally happens in a secondary inspection?

In secondary inspection, CBP officers will ask a foreign national more detailed questions about their travel plans for the US. Foreign nationals may even be asked to produce additional identification and other documentation in order to determine their actual identity and purpose of their visit to the United States. The foreign national and their belongings may also be searched, and the foreign national may be required to give a full set of fingerprints.

Any person, foreign national or person with a claim to US citizenship and presenting a US passport, may be sent to secondary inspection if the CBP officer has reservations about admitting him to the United States. A person may also be sent to secondary inspection if there is a possibility the person is smuggling contraband or violating any other customs or immigration regulations, or federal law in general.

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