'They used my religion against me': Ex-Army Major accuses SpiceJet

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New Delhi:  Mohammad Ali Shah, a former Army Major, says he had never known prejudice till a recent altercation at the Delhi airport, where he was allegedly targeted for being a Muslim. He claims he was told by SpiceJet staff that his name was enough to get him into trouble.

Mr Shah, 32, has alleged that that following a heated argument, the private airline's staff made anti-Muslim comments against him, blackmailed him and even threatened to brand him a terrorist and security threat.

All this, he says, happened to him on June 28, when he was all set to fly from Delhi to Guwahati on SpiceJet flight SG-893. The airline has however denied these charges. It claims Mr Shah is giving a religious tinge to what its calls his misconduct. The National Minorities Commission has now stepped in to investigate the matter. It has issued a notice to the airline to explain its stand.

Mr Shah says he had boarded the flight to Guwahati when he was suddenly asked to deplane. When he stepped down the aircraft, he says he found his bag lying open on the tarmac and his belongings strewn all over the place. He was told the lock of his bag had come open and hence it needed to be identified. As he argued over how the bag lock could come apart, the plane took off without him, he claims.

In the ensuing argument, he claims was targeted for being a Muslim. "They told me 'Oh your name is Ali Shah, right? We'll say you're a terrorist and you are a security threat and that is why we have deboarded,'", Mr Shah told NDTV. "Not all Muslims are terrorists, and I am an Indian before I am a Muslim," he added.

As an Army Major, Mr Shah had as served in Jammu and Kashmir and in the North East. "I looked after the security of the country and I am proud of that fact. I am a proud Muslim. I am a proud Indian. I am a former Army Major and I am well educated and that's why I have come out to tell the world what happened with me that day," he said.

Mr Shah's father, Lt Gen Zameeruddin Shah fought in the 1971 India-Pakistan war. He retired as the Deputy Chief of the Army and is currently Vice Chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University. His younger brother Naseeruddin shah is of one of India's most respected actors.

Mr Shah works in a multinational company and was recently transferred to Guwahati. In the legal notice sent by him to SpiceJet, his lawyer has said, "My client objected to being threatened and blackmailed. SpiceJet employee replied that all he had to do was to report that my client had been posing a security threat to the flight and given my client's Muslim name, nobody would doubt the report."

Copies of this complaint have been sent to airline regulator - the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) - and the National Minorities Commission.

Mr Shah says he was ready to forgive and forget after SpiceJet initially apologised and offered him a free ticket for the next day. But when he arrived to catch his flight the second time, he alleges the airline demanded that he give them a letter saying it was his own misconduct  that saw him being forced off the plane.

"They told me 'You will have to give us a letter saying SpiceJet did not board you out this flight because of your tampered baggage. Say that you were deplaned because of your personal misconduct. Don't mention racial slur'. They were very categorical on the racial bit," Mr Shah said.

When NDTV contacted SpiceJet, it denied all allegations leveled by Mr Shah and termed his charges as "incorrect, inaccurate and an incomplete version of the entire incident." Throwing the onus on Mr Shah for what happened on the tarmac, SpiceJet said he refused to come down the plane to identify his baggage and its contents. "After repeated requests, when he came, he started taking photographs on his mobile phone despite it being illegal and prohibited," the airline said in a statement, adding that the only letter it sought from Mr Shah was one confirming that he had deleted the visuals in his phone.

In his defense, Mr Shah says he took out his mobile phone and took a few short clips of the men who were screaming at him, so he would have proof later. "I was so cornered, so helpless. These people were calling me names and egging me on and I had no proof against them. I knew it would be my word against theirs later and I come from a good family. I had to protect their reputation....so I took these videos as proof. But I did not film the sensitive areas. I only kept my camera on the shouting employees".

The airline has alleged that Mr Shah "is seeking to give a religious colour to the incident to justify his illegal actions."

The National Minorities Commission says Mr Shah's complaint needs further investigation. It has sent an official notice to SpiceJet to explain its stand.

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