|Leading up to U.S. Pres. Barack Obama’s visit to India, a major dust up erupted after several of Maharashtra’s top politicians, including Chief Minister Ashok Chavan and his Deputy Chhagan Bhujpal, threatened to boycott the visit because the U.S. Consulate in Mumbai demanded they produce identification papers to attend presidential events.|
A consulate invitation to the dignitaries sought details of their birth date, nationality, passport number, and PAN card. U.S. Consul-General Paul A Folmsbee publicly apologized for the security protocol glitch, “I have visited Chief Minister Ashok Chavan and Deputy Chief Minister Chhagan Bhujbal and personally apologized. It was just a clerical error.”
The apology mollified the Maharashtra government, but the infighting between the U.S. Secret Service and the Indian security agencies was a frequently entertaining and always frustrating backstory dogging Obama’s four-day India visit.
The press charter accompanying the president got first whiff of the dogged catfights among the security agencies soon after landing at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai. The reporters were whisked to the terminal on three buses, but upon reaching the gates, they were told that the examination of their passports and luggage had been waived and they would be led straight out of the airport.
The buses returned to the parked plane, whereupon a customs officer boarded, generally inquiring if anyone had firearms to declare. Told that no one was carrying firearms, he announced that the customs examination was complete. However, Indian immigration officials insisted that regardless of what customs officials decided, they had independent jurisdiction on immigration matters, so the journalists had to return to the terminal for immigration examination.
It was a foretaste of the intrusive — and often irrational — security disputes that shut down South Mumbai for the two days of Obama’s visit. The roads between the Mumbai airport and the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, where Pres. Obama stayed, were locked down, dampening Diwali celebrations in the city, even though Pres. Obama and his entourage did not drive to the hotel, travelling instead on a marine helicopter.
The Mumbai Mirror reported that a stand off between U.S. security agencies and Mumbai police over a U.S. Secret Service sniper stationed on the terrace of St Xavier’s College, where the president was scheduled to conduct a town hall, delayed Pres. Obama for 20 minutes at the Holy Name School. Reportedly, India’s National Security Guard insisted that it alone was responsible for peripheral security, while the Secret Service could provide Pres. Obama close proximity protection. The standoff was resolved only after the U.S. Secret Service relented and withdrew its sniper from the college.
Attendees at various Obama events were subjected to independent security checks by Indian and U.S. security agencies, with the Indian security services typically conducting the examination first and the U.S. agencies performing a screening after people had been processed by the Indian side. Frequently, the agencies argued with each other, often over the insistence by one side to frisk the other’s “VIPs,” who resented the personal intrusion.
In one remarkable instance, a U.S. security agent conducting a group search of U.S. reporters accompanying Pres. Obama threatened to blow up “in five seconds” a computer that would not turn on after he called out for someone to claim the computer and the owner, distracted in conversation, failed to hear his call.
The confrontation between the security details reached a head in New Delhi during Pres. Obama’s bilaterial meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, when Indian security officials insisted they would allow only five of the eight American journalists, who were part of the U.S. press pool for the day, in for a brief photo session. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs engaged an Indian security official in an angry verbal altercation. On this occasion, the Indian side relented after Gibbs threatened to pull Pres. Obama out of the meeting.
Scott Wilson of The Washington Post, who was part of the reporter’s pool at the event, reported: “At one point, Gibbs literally had his foot lodged in the closing front door, asking if the Indian security officials pushing hard to shut it were going to break his foot. More angry words ensued, and after Gibbs convinced them, through high volume and repetition, that he was serious about pulling POTUS (President of the United States), we all made it inside.”
Asked about Gibbs’ confrontation with Indian security officials aboard Air Force One at the end of his 10-day Asian trip, Pres Obama responded, “It was for a good cause,” mockingly adding, “I will say that his foot is still bruised.”
Meanwhile, security officials, on both sides, are nursing their bruised egos. Ironically, one of the top objectives of Pres. Obama’s visit is security cooperation between the two countries.