The humiliating pat-down of India's Ambassador Meera Shankar might sensitize Indian diplomats to the indignity and pain experienced by thousands of its citizens seeking consular services every year at the hands of inept, indifferent and callous Indian consular officers.
|The Indian media are in a tizzy over the “humiliation” of Meera Shankar, India’s ambassador to the United States, who was subjected to a “pat-down” by Transportation Security Administration agents at the Jackson-Evers International Airport in Jackson, Miss., in early December.|
India’s External Affairs Minister S M Krishna protested that her treatment was “unacceptable” and his ministry lodged a formal protest. Javed Ashraf, joint secretary (Americas) in the Ministry of External Affairs, fulminated, “We understand and respect every country’s security procedure, but we also expect that normal diplomatic privileges and courtesies are extended to the ambassador and diplomats.” He exhorted the U.S. State Department and TSA to “sensitize all its agents at all its airports to cultural and religious sensitivities of foreign diplomats.”
Earlier, TSA agents insisted on inspecting the turban of Hardeep Singh Puri, the Indian ambassador to the United Nations. Puri refused, citing the agency’s religious exception, which allows individuals to pat down their turbans and have their hands tested for possible explosives instead.
In the face of the diplomatic furor, the TSA has stood its ground, insisting that foreign diplomats in the United States are subject to security screening. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano asserted that Shankar’s pat-down search was “appropriate” and TSA spokesman Nicholas Kimball said that Shankar’s body search “followed proper procedure.”
“United States airport security policies accommodate those individuals with religious, medical or other reasons for which the passenger cannot or wishes not to remove a certain item of clothing,” Kimball said in reference to Puri’s inspection. “For religious headwear, a passenger can pat the item down themselves and then have their hand tested for traces of explosive residue.” Although TSA officials initially resisted Puri’s protestations, he was ultimately allowed to pat down his turban himself.
Ashraf hinted at retaliatory action, noting that India respects the privileges of foreign diplomats in the country and extends diplomatic courtesies to them: “Such incidents naturally lead to calls for review of privileges and facilities given in India (to foreign diplomats).”
India’s Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), which handles airport security, is exceptionally deferential to foreign diplomats and execuses them from security screening once they identify themselves. In the UK, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) maintains a diplomatic list of “very high ranking people” from other countries who are exempt from airport security checks.
The increasingly intrusive and often irrational airport security measures in the United States are a public menace and deserve to be thoroughly reviewed and revamped. However, it would be unwise and counter-productive for the public welfare to exempt foreign diplomats from them. The excesses and abuses of the system are best exposed when celebrities and public officials are caught in its crosshairs. The Indian government demonstrated little outrage after scores of its innocent citizens were caught up in the backlash of the post 9/11 whirlwind and indeed these same oppressive TSA practices.
Instead, hopefully, this real-life experience might sensitize Indian diplomats to the humiliation and pain experienced by thousands of citizens seeking consular services every year at the hands of inept, indifferent and callous Indian consular officers. And by all means, Ashraf should make good on his threat to revoke the courtesies extended to foreign diplomats in India so that U.S. officials can experience their oppressive security measures first hand.
Diplomats and government officials might thus be sensitized to the daily grind and humiliation their policies subject ordinary people on a daily basis.