In 1957, Air France didn’t allow a Sikh woman to fly from Delhi to London just because it found the clothes of her four sons ‘dirty’

What would you do if an airline denied you passage on confirmed tickets only because it thought your children’s clothes were ‘dirty’?

Mrs Chanan Kaur, wife of Mr Piara Singh and mother of four boys, resigned herself to Air France’s decision of May 25, 1957, and flew out two days later on a KLM plane, from Delhi to London.

The incident, unusual though it was—Air France said it had exercised its discretion in the matter of flyers’ neatness for the first time in 33 years of doing business in India—would have been forgotten had the press not got wind of it a week later.

It was first reported on June 4, and on June 5 The Times of India wrote in detail about it. Sensing a row, the airline allegedly rushed a representative to Kaur and managed to obtain letters from the couple absolving itself of any complaint and claims. Yet, it had touched a raw nerve in newly independent India, and two months later, on August 13, 1957, the incident was debated in Parliament.

Then Union minister for transport and communications, Lal Bahadur Shastri, and his minister of state, Humayun Kabir, fielded questions ranging from “Was it the Indian dress—dhoti or kurta—or was it that the clothes were dirty?” to “Do these airlines authorities possess any special licence to determine the tidiness or otherwise of the dress of the passengers?”

The story begins on May 24, 1957, when Air France booked seats for Kaur and her four sons to fly to London from Palam early in the morning of May 26, 1957.

When the family reported at Air France’s Connaught Place booking office for check-in, in the evening of May 25, they were advised not to travel, as “the children’s clothes were dirty and likely to cause discomfort to other passengers”.

Although it later claimed it had taken the decision with “great reluctance” in the “interests of other passengers”, Indian parliamentarians were not convinced.

Dr Raghubir Sinh, ex-royal of the Sitamau princely state, raised the question and the government tabled a statement in response.

Sinh, however, continued questioning on the basis of TOI’s report: “The passengers were said to be wearing a very clean dress made out of coarse Indian material, and there is also the statement that the passengers pointed out to the manager that they should not be discriminated against simply for being clothed in the Indian dress.”

Amolakh Chand, a parliamentarian from UP, asked, “I have not been able to understand one thing. Was it the Indian dress—dhoti or kurta—or was it that the clothes were dirty, that is, not properly washed and cleaned? What was the objection of Air France?”

The government was asked whether it had instructed its embassies to contact the Singh couple abroad and get their version. The government said it had not thought it necessary in the light of their letters absolving Air France.

Kishen Chand of Praja Socialist Party asked: “The hon. minister (Shastri) has stated that it was on account of the odour emanating from the persons going to travel. May I know from the hon. minister whether several European passengers who travel by aeroplanes and emit similar odour are not deplaned?”

Admitting that there was a nationwide sense of hurt, Shastri, the future PM, said, “Mr (Humayun) Kabir and our DGCA met the Air France people and expressed that people felt hurt about it, and we told them that the whole thing has appeared in a very bad and awkward way and it was necessary that some form of regret should be expressed by them, and they have, in a good letter and in a good spirit, expressed their regret over this incident.”

So the government of the day had managed to make a foreign airline express regret. But Shastri agreed that Air France had not done the right thing by rushing to obtain a statement from Kaur: “My doubts and suspicions arose when I came to know about that statement, and I somehow feel that it was not quite correct on their part…”

The debate closed with a question by Har Prasad Saksena of Congress: “Do these airlines authorities possess any special licence to determine the tidiness or otherwise of the dress of the passengers?”

Humayun Kabir replied, “There are international rules.”

***

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