Just deserts

Imagine being a poor Indian villager. You’re recruited for an honorable blue-collar job in the Middle East. Your dad borrows money to buy you the ticket. Your travel agent takes pity on you and buys you decent clothes for your first day on the job.

When you arrive, customs searches your belongings. You’re shocked when they tell you they found a small amount of heroin in your shoes and throw you in jail. You quickly realize the travel agent was not as generous as he seemed. You spend the next five years in lockup. The Indian embassy doesn’t help.

One fine day, the police take you out back and cut off your head. Then, while closing out your case, they realize they made a mistake and send a message to the Indian embassy: you were innocent after all. Shrug. Body’s been disposed of. Shit happens. Whaddya gonna do.

Unfortunately, it’s not a macabre short story by Edgar Allen Poe. Naickam Shahjahan, a poor Muslim from Kerala, was beheaded two months ago in Saudi Arabia for a crime he didn’t commit (via Prashant Kothari). 1.3 million Indians work in Saudi Arabia, and 18 were beheaded in 2003. But when innocent Brits are caught in the Saudi sharia system, their government usually manages to get them out.

… an undetermined number of foreigners, among them Indians, have been sentenced to death in the kingdom and await execution. Details of their trials and the evidence presented to convict them are treated as a State secret. “The tragedy is that in many cases, the condemned men did not know they had been sentenced to death, and their embassies were only informed after the fact,” says Menon.

Last year, an Indian diplomat in the Gulf said no advance information is given to the embassy before Indians are beheaded. “We get the information after the execution from local newspapers,” he said. After the execution, the body is not returned to the family. Relatives receive no official information about the location of the mortal remains in Saudi Arabia…

“Innocent job-seekers are used by the drug mafia as couriers without their knowledge. They are caught and killed in Saudi Arabia,” says Nassar, who worked in that country for several years…

… the response from the Saudi government has been defiant. In 2002, then Indian President K R Narayanan petitioned the Saudi authorities to spare an Indian from execution… Narayanan got no reply. Instead, the Indian was executed the very next week. [Mangalorean]

This case reminds me of former Illinois governor George Ryan commuting all death penalties in the state because he was certain innocent people had been put to death. It reminds me of the death penalties for possessing drugs in Thailand or Singapore, which inspired the movie Brokedown Palace. It reminds me, of course, of India’s infamous ‘staged encounters’ by both the army and the police. And the Saudis’ banal cruelty reminds me of China executing Tiananmen Square dissidents and then charging their families for the bullets.

The Supreme Court says obscenity is hard to define, but I know it when I see it.

40 thoughts on “Just deserts

  1. That is just nightmarish and unbelievably upsetting. It almost leaves you speechless with horror.

  2. I dont think the Saudi Arabians care much for the lives of Indians though. That is what I heard. They think of Indians as inferior. I dont think white people will get beheaded. There was a case a while back about some British men who were thrown in jail in Saudi and they got out because the British Government pressured them. They were in prison for brewing alcohol illegaly in their compound and were tortured.

  3. Interesting comments about the event here :


    Hmm … what can I say, except that for a certain section of Muslims:

    1. Muslims killed by non-Muslims is condemnable, and rightly so.

    2. Muslims killed by Muslims, as in this case, is, errr, worth glossing over. Remember Darfur, anyone ?

    For the record, while I don’t deny that the Indian legal system sucks, we need to differentiate between inhuman laws, as is the case with Saudi Arabia, and the improper execution of a humane set of laws (provided you’re not gay, see Article 377), as is the case in India.

  4. As a South Asian expat who grew up in the Middle East and still lives there, I can tell you stories of the treatment of migrant workers (male and female) that are far worse than this one. It never ceases to frustrate me that the world continues to ignore the modern version of slavery in existence in the Gulf countries. It annoys me even further that its not just the “world” but South Asian diasporas who are so politically apathetic and divided along rigid class lines. All these brown folks can yap about is shopping for gold in Dubai or they spend most of their time raising their noses at the other brown faces of despair staring back at them. Better yet, the most common refrain I hear from South Asians here in the States when I tell them about the conditions and abuse facing S.Asians in the Mid east is, “Well, its their choice. They can go back home if they want and not have to deal with this.” Talk about a complete failure to understand how the global world system economy works. Anyways, given the monarchies that powerfully restrict our ability to mobilize from inside the country, its a shame that we can’t utilize the arms of the diaspora elsewhere to pressure both the lousy Indian govt. and the morally bankrupt Arab rulers to create decent standards of living for these workers, to stop scapegoating South Asians whenever the local population decides to challenge Arab govts, and to confront the racial and gender ideologies in place that allow Arabs to abuse South Asians and particularly female workers in the maid, nanny industry in the most sick and brutal ways. (ok i know that was an incredibly long sentence).

  5. It’s part of a larger issue highlighted by bb, it seems that among the races, Indians like to screw each other over than most. If you ask Indians about the situation, it will be mostly apathy. It’s the not in my backyard syndrome.

  6. Yes, the Indian Govt. needs to do something. The least they can do is to provide proper Advisory services – hell lets make it Mandatory Advisory services.

    Its a two way deal – the Arabs need Indian workers as much as the Indians need theri $$$. Although, this has begun to change and Gulf is no longer a major $$$ earner. Somebody needs some lessons in the Art of Leveraging.

    As for the rest of us – BOYCOTT where possible !

  7. Yeah the Gulf nationals generally look down upon South Asians (especially the Saudis and Kuwaitis).

    The police generally don’t bother going too deep into a case to found out who the true perpetrator is. A Lankan in Kuwait was once arrested because he was on board a yacht that had 10,000 cases of Red Label in it. Looking at his picture, it was pretty obvious that this guy could barely afford a house let alone a yacht w/ 10,000 cases of whiskey on it. Pretty sure it was a Kuwaiti who owned the thing, but they didn’t bother delving into details, the guy they caught was enough for them.

  8. Don’t expect any western govts. or Indian govt. to do anytime soon. Everybody loves their oil.

    The best solution for the problems of human right abuses in the middle east, US desire to control & dominate that area and the resulting backlash, and mullah inspired terrorism is for some smart sepia to design a great car engine which does not use oil. Once this dependence on the slippery fluid is reduced or eliminated, then these issues will be easier to tackle.

  9. Frankly, I am getting sick of Indians being mistreated from Malaysia to Jersey. We are one-sixth of the world population and my self esteem gets maraud everyday from reading anything from New York Times to Sepia Mutiny or stepping outside. I am going to be a Mo-Fo if I am still alive to see the century which belongs to India.

  10. Reminds me of a couple of incidents back when we lived in Kuwait:

    • My brother’s Keralite friend came back from India and was caught with marijuana on him, as was an American coming in on the same day. Never mind that both kids were in the wrong; the Indian embassy had their hands tied, while officials went out of their way to please the American embassy’s reps.

    My dad’s car was hit by a sheikh’s wife’s sportster … my dad, treated very poorly by the cops at the scene, had to pay all damages because he is Indian and inherently inferior to the ruling class. When the authorities found out that my mom represented Kuwait at the UN level, they gave us an all-day shopping pass to one of the big malls in town.

    I will never, EVER, EVAAAR live in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia again. No amount of money can make me take the shit of those inbred, nouveau-riche barbarians who can’t even give voting rights to the people who keep their country running (women and immigrants).

  11. So this is an example of how Arabs or other Western expatriates in the Gulf perceive “labourers”. Taken from my home newspaper is the following letter written to the editor:


    It refers to a common sight on the roads which is huge numbers of workers with charred skin from working in 50 degree celsius heat and 80 percent humidity sitting in the backs of long, open trucks. Sometimes they’re lucky to sit in trucks that are covered, shielding them from the sun. The person writing the letter asks, “Why do workers stare?”. He is very perturbed by the “disrespect”, these workers show when they stare at him and his wife. He fears that they are evilly lusting after his wife.

    Such self-centeredness is so completely dumbfounding. Does he think that one of these workers can even pick up an English language newspaper and read about him chiding them for their “rude” behaviour? Could they be ‘staring’ because they have nowhere else to look and can only wish they were able to sit in an airconditioned car and have the freedom to drive around instead of being imprisoned in their horrifying labour camps?

  12. Looks like a lot of sweat and blood and nastiness lies beneath the gleam and glitter of Dubai.

  13. I remember travelling on a bus through Edgware Road, the main Arab area of London, and seeing an elderly Bangladeshi man getting sworn and screamed at as though he was a dog for obstructing the way out of a shop when an Arab man and his wife were walking out. The Bengali Uncle was selling peacock feathers to tourists for £1.50 each. He was a ghetto uncle and a struggler. I will never forget that, the look on the Arab gentlemans face, and the way the Uncle was mystified by the contempt, the pure condensed contempt in his shouting. I expected him to spit on the Uncle.

    Another thing I heard is that an incrdeible proportion of the London gambling extablishments are run by Saudi Princes, and they keep half of London’s prostitutes in business during the summer months when they decamp to their London mansions for fun and games.

  14. Although the abuse of migrant workers deserves urgent attention, I also think the ridiculous citizenship policies of Gulf countries warrant notice because they directly effect the ability of “expatriate” communities to work in solidarity for their rights and ensure that people are silenced because they must look out for their own possibilities of livelihood. Gulf countries do not award citizenship at all. In the example of Bahrain, where many Indians arrived in the 1930′s when oil was first discovered (such as my grandfather), many of those who had settled there were offered citizenship in the 70′s in a rare move made by the past King. I think that most people didn’t take advantage of this because like all immigrants they expected to return home one day and didn’t want to let go of their Indian passport. Since then, citizenship has been awarded only to other Arabs such as the Lebanese, Egyptians, Syrians e.t.c and in some cases, Pakistanis, Baluchi cops because they are Muslim. The rest of us though despite being there for multiple generations, still have no civil, social or political rights, no protection from a state whose major institutions such as the police force are a complete joke. We live under the constant threat of being sent back should we step out of bounds. Our ability to stay in a place we consider home is contingent on our local Arab “sponsors” who charge poorer Asians exorbitant fees before they sponsor them. They take away their passports so they can’t leave and continue to extort money from them.

    What’s funny is how this is most visible in langauge. Third generation desis here in the States are able to hyphenate themselves. You can call yourself a “South asian American” or “indian american” or “pakistani american” …and so on. As a third generation resident of Bahrain, why is it that I’m still referred to as an ‘expat’ and cannot call myself an “Indian-Bahraini” or some other such term. It sounds ridiculous even saying it out loud “indian-bahraini” or “south asian bahraini” because you’re taught to see yourself as a foreigner. It’s so amazing how little assimilation has taken place over the last 80 years. I am still taught to think that I don’t belong in Bahrain, I belong elsewhere, in some “homeland”. Back “home” though, we’re told we’re not “really” Indian. Relatives can’t even make fun of us and say “Oh you’re just an American” (or English or Australian)…so what are we…. classic “no sense of belonging” case.. but it has a million and one material repercussions and is highly debilitating for those of us that want to be politically active.

  15. Our ability to stay in a place we consider home is contingent on our local Arab “sponsors” who charge poorer Asians exorbitant fees before they sponsor them. They take away their passports so they can’t leave and continue to extort money from them.

    I have an uncle in UAE under these conditions. Any time he doesn’t do exactly as his bosses tell him, they threaten to deport him at the drop of a hat. He and his family gave up everything for the job opportunity he has in UAE, including their passports to the evil overlord boss. And he’s in a good managerial role, yet they still treat him like an animal. It disturbs and worries me, but they’re doing their best to settle there. Might as well since they can’t leave…

  16. My boyfriend lived in Saudi Arabia from age 7-11 with his parents (Bangladeshi/Pakistani). His memories, other than about the unrelenting heat and watching public beheadings in stadiums, have to do with feeling very very trapped in their house. As his dad worked all day, his mother couldn’t go outside on her own, due to restrictions against unaccompanied females. He said his dad would come back from work all exhausted, to face a frustrated wife nagging him to take them shopping, take them out, take them anywhere. I always thought that was really interesting — how can an economy function when half the population is kept trapped at home, unable to be a worker OR a consumer, most of the time?

  17. Maitri, You mentioned the fact that Gulfies are inbred (I am presuming you called them that because they marry first cousins) I want to point out that Gulfies do not inbreed anymore than any other Muslims living in India or Morocco. In my Indian family, there are a lot of marriages between first cousins. So its a Muslim thing and not a Gulf thing.

  18. Al Mujahid: Do you have any insight if there is any socio-economic reason for muslims to marry their cousins? Is it specific to a geogrpahical area in India or is it done in all parts of india. I have read that some hindu communities of malabar also allow marrying cousins.

    With this said, I don’t know why one would want to do that but oh well….

  19. Its particularly disgusting how all over the Arabian peninsula these mullahs harp about Muslim unity and equality, while spitting on their supposedly brother day-labourers on their way back home. To make matters worse, a majority of Muslims in South Asia are nothing if not irrereverent of the Arab Moslems, blissfully ignorant and occassionally in vehement denial of the abuse their own family members suffer at the hands of the Arabs.

    With all this talk across the American Muslim diaspora (splashing occassionally into the mainstream media via 10 minute segments on 60 Minutes and the like)about the fight between fundamental Islam and moderate Islam, the experts consistently fail to bring up the racism issue within the religion. Even more worrying is the ability of fundamentalists to set aside those differences in the interest of fighting their ‘Jihad’, but the inability of moderates to do the same.

    The reluctance to confront this divide makes South Asian countries extremely vulnerable to the influence of the ever-growing cadres of fundamentalists in the Arabian nations.

  20. In regard to the cousin-marriage, I know it doesn’t answer the question directly, but MSNBC did a brief feature on this a few weeks ago. Then, if you do search on “kissing cousins” you’ll find some interesting thoughts. In regard to the overall subject:

    My uncle was murdered in Saudi Arabia, he was pushed from a car by his co-workers, all engineers. Our family tried to investigate, we were threatened in a number of different ways in India and Saudi.

    Nevertheless, does it help to say all this. Every year, for years upon end, we hear this, since we were kids… India should take care of its expats but India also has to take care of all those people living on their own streets.

    After my uncle died, some of his friends formed a coalition for expat and migrant workers, blue- and white-collar. They were, in some senses, like a relief-agency. They did it because they had the wherewithal to discuss, condemn and change it. Like most everyone on this site, myself included.

    Now, most of them are dead, primarily from cancer caused by working around fumes all day and night as engineers. So, the coalition’s gone, the workers are still dying and here we are. What’s the solution, I don’t know, but we could think about that in the same breath of talking about what happened.

  21. few days back i read this article in rediff(?)…..and was wondering what the ^&&* was the newly(few months back?) setup legal-help body for indian workers in saudi was doing when all this was going on? I think in another case when indian gov tried to intervene, the person was executed the very same week.

    NOW…I am not ashamed of the way I behaved with some rich arab kids back in university program, when they tried to pull that @$#@ on me.

  22. NOW…I am not ashamed of the way I behaved with some rich arab kids back in university program, when they tried to pull that @$#@ on me.

    What did you do?

  23. I’m a regular reader and I just want to say how much I hated Brokedown Palace–one of the most offensive and degrading films that I’ve seen in my lifetime. A generally disgusting portrayal of the Thai people and of the King. Had I known more about it, I would have avoided seeing it. Live and learn.

  24. Even though I agree with you guys on this execution because of lack of evidence, I however think that execution is a sentence which is a part of the shariah law and like it or not it stays! i guess non-muslims just don’t understand it, but it works! there are less murders in SA than in the other western countries. on the other hand, the Indian judicial system sucks big time! and i’m sure every indian agrees with me here. i don’t care if they have no executions in the judicial system or not but justice is something you can’t find in india. Again, I think this is a big mistake by the saudis of wrongfully sentencing someone with lack of evidence but the punishment should stay the same.

  25. True Muslim > Wonder why you hide behind this psudonym, state your name if you have one. Indian judicial system has its limitations, just like every other country. Do not forget that it is this “sucky” judicial system that keeps the islamic kashmiri terrorists ( jihadis for you )alive. Had India got your super efficient ” shariah ‘ justice system, maybe India wouldnt have terrorism

  26. Rakesh: While trying to refute and mock TM’s post, you actually end up supporting his/her stance.

    TM: So your point is that since there is (conceivably) no bigger loss than the loss of life, it deters people from doing wrongful deeds. Hence, Sharia works and therefore the end justifies the means.

    lets consider another hypothetical solution. if someone commits a crime, you carve out a pound of flesh from their body every month and put red-hot pepper on it, for about 12 months. This scares the bejesuses out of me and I am sure it will have the same effect on any criminal. This may drop the crime rate even more. Why/Why dont you think this method should be followed instead of a relatively tame guillotine approach?

    This is NOT an attempt to troll, but just to understand why people think the way they do.

    Now, admittedly I dont know a whole lot about Sharia. My knowledge is passable at best. Your handle indicates that you may be able to significantly enhance my knowledge.

    I have nothing against the concept of Sharia, per se. I can understand that when the rule of Sharia was declared, it was pretty much the only “humane” punishment that they could have had. After all, a Bedouin (nomadic) community (Muhammad’s) living in deserts could not afford to take serious criminals with them everywhere in chains.

    From a logistical standpoint, a quick blow of sword made a lot of sense for serious crimes. For theft, chopping off hands, though it may have been a tad harsh, may have been the only way out.

    But now the rules of the game are VERY different. Saudi Arabia may still be a desert, but there is an organized government over there, who can easily take care of the crime. They can very well afford to build prisons and administer other forms of punishment. Why do you still support Sharia then?

    Sharia pretty much rules out any possibility that the dude who committed the crime just succumbed to a moment of weakness and can be rehabilitated with just a little effort. Chopped hands on the other hand, would just beget more violent behaviour.

    Whether you believe in the Sunnah or Hadith principles, the fact remains that Sharia is a system, that needs to change with time. It has got to evolve because the playing field has changed.

    What am I missing here?

  27. Naickam Shahjahan, a poor Muslim from Kerala, was beheaded two months ago…

    A poor Muslim from Kerala? Had he been a Hindu from UP, would you have said, ‘A poor Hindu from Uttar Pradesh’. We need to make our language as religion-neutral as possible.


  28. TM, you claim this form of governing provides “justice”…could you please explain your definition of justice?

    i’m just wondering if your definition includes “the beheading of innocent individuals”.

    and then i’m wondering if you would feel the same way about such a system if it was your own relative who was beheaded for no reason.

    i think the proper definition of this act is “murder” — not “governing”, and certainly not “justice”.

  29. We need to make our language as religion-neutral as possible.

    Shivam, here’s a neutral post I wrote just for you:

    Something bad happened to someone ;)

  30. Manish, you could easily say: something bad happened to Naickam Shahjahan. You can even specify what that something bad was. My objection is not to naming the person or explaining incident, as your one-line lampooning makes it out to be. But why point out that the victim was “a poor Muslim” from Kerala? That has communal overtones, the sort we all inculcate in our daily speech without realising it. If nothing else, “a poor Muslim” sound condescending.

    And janta: I’m not related to Manish!

    Cheers Shivam

  31. … why point out that the victim was “a poor Muslim” from Kerala? That has communal overtones…

    Because he was poor, Muslim and from Kerala.

    The poor part is notable because he has little recourse under the Saudis. The Muslim part is notable since Kerala is known for its Christians. The Kerala part is notable because of the large numbers of Malayalees working in the Middle East.

    Btw, I am not aware of any stereotypes about Muslims from Kerala, so you’ll have to educate me. But that phrase stands on its own merits as an accurate description regardless.

  32. Yes, Kerala is known for it’s Christians, but demographically it breaks down roughly to 60% Hindu, 20% Muslim, and 20% Christian. I’m speculating that our fellow Malayalees in the Muslim community haven’t been much in spotlight because many of them immigrated to the Middle East as opposed to the States. Plus, the Muslim community in Kerala (along with traditionally “low caste” communities) has been disenfranchised up until 1947. Stepping off the soapbox…

  33. The New York Times has a story today on Sri Lankan maids working in the Gulf, and the widespread abuse that they face.