India’s indignation over (un)diplomatic conventions

December 10, 2010

Forget WikiLeaks, according to India’s Foreign Minister the greatest threat to Indo-U.S. relations are the hands of airport security guards on New Delhi’s diplomatic elite.
A Transportation Security Agency (TSA) worker runs her hands over the head of a traveler during a patdown search at Denver International Airport, November 24, 2010.  REUTERS/Rick Wilking
On Dec 4, Indian Ambassador to the U.S. Meera Shankar was pulled from the interminable airport security queue at Jackson-Evers International Airport in Mississippi and subjected to a full body pat-down by security officials, despite reportedly stressing her diplomatic credentials.

India’s three biggest English newspapers gave the story front-page treatment on Friday, jostling for column inches alongside the continued investigations into a $39 billion telecoms scam and India’s crucial role in the ongoing climate change talks in Cancun.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s view, that the incident was “appropriate under the circumstances“, fuelled a sense of injustice in New Delhi.

“This is unacceptable to India and we are going to take it up with the U.S. government and I hope things will be resolved so that such unpleasant incidents do not recur,” S.M. Krishna, India’s Foreign Minister, was reported as saying in response.

Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, presumingly taking a break from such pressing issues as thawing talks with nuclear-armed neighbour Pakistan and organising the upcoming visit of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, told reporters on Friday that India was awaiting a report from Washington before taking up the matter with American authorities.

But not everyone is caught up in the hyperbole.

“Just think there is too much fuss and fury wasted on this stuff. And anyway, why should a diplomat be above the normal rules?” prominent Indian broadcast journalist Barkha Dutt tweeted on Friday, as her channel, NDTV, screened U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s promise to respond to Krishna’s complaints prominently in its news bulletins.

And one mainstream media outlet appears to have seen this incident as little more than a cocktail of miscommunication and over-zealous security procedures — themselves attracting increased ire from ordinary Americans.

In an editorial titled ‘Pat down, grow up’, the daily Indian Express newspaper, which placed the news story on page 3 of its Friday edition, asked “Does a simple case of over-vigilant airport security warrant such emotion from India’s foreign minister?”

“There are certain exemptions that the diplomatic corps enjoy, but if those conventions are occasionally bypassed, that’s not a grievous injury to India’s self-worth,” the editorial concluded.

The perceived targeting of Indian VIPs, political or otherwise, by airport security officers seems to be the Ministry of External Affairs’ bête noire.

Praful Patel, ironically the Indian Aviation Minister, was stopped and questioned by airport officials in Chicago in September, Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan was detained by Newark Airport officials in August of last year and former President A.P.J Abdul Kalam was forced to remove his shoes and submit to a full body check by Continental Airlines officials at Delhi Airport in July 2009.

All three incidents had the foreign office rolling out stinging criticism.

The furore created by India’s diplomatic elite and whipped up by the fiercely patriotic press is in marked contrast to the coyness out of New Delhi with regards to Beijing’s pressure for India to boycott Friday evening’s Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo, in which jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo will – in absentia – win the global peace prize.

India has chosen to attend, but declined to use its decision to take a public stand for free speech or human rights.

VIP treatment for its diplomatic corps is obviously far more important.

6 comments

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It is hilarious that a country who is obsessed with Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan’s sexual preferences manages to publish an article questioning importance and priority of Indian media. Good job.

Posted by xeptf4 | Report as abusive

The story is incomplete. She requested for a screening in private but she was patted down in a clear box in front of others. TSA guidelines says that if passenger request a private screening then it should be made private. a clear box (I think a glass box) can’t provide privacy. TSA and US government should apologize to ambassador and action should be taken on those are responsible.
Its about breaking up of the TSA rules and guidelines by their own staff and about modesty of a 60 year old woman who represents worlds largest democracy here. What will happen if same procedure is reciprocated with US diplomats around the world? US is a responsible country and its officials should behave responsibly.

Posted by sunnypratt | Report as abusive

Indian diplomats must think that they are living in cuckoo land. The fact that the indian security is lax with foreign diplomats, this does not mean that the USA security people should make exception. One proposal in the States is to rely on profiling and do not expose every one to a security check. This will take time.

rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

As an American citizen, I believe the Indian Government is right to demand an apology from my Government for this violation of Ambassador Shankar’s diplomatic privileges. At the same time, the Indian Government owes an apology to the United States for a much more serious affront. Approximately 400 American aviators perished in the mountains of northeast India during the Second World War. These aviators have families who desperately desire to have their remains repatriated. But by imposing draconian restrictions on the scale of permitted crash site recovery operations, the Government of India has failed to fulfill its international law obligations to cooperate with America’s efforts to recover the remains of these aviators. Hopefully, an apology for these international law violations and a genuine effort to meet these obligations will be forthcoming.

Posted by GaryZaetz | Report as abusive

no surprise american media justify own country action where they taken self started war on iraq and afgan.

Posted by s_sr | Report as abusive

its really about quid pro quo – us diplomats go through the same checks as indian ones. but you’re right, non-issue…

Posted by BVBVBV | Report as abusive