Published in The Daily Sun, 2nd January, 2011
M. Serajul Islam
India and the United States are caught in a diplomatic row that contrasts sharply with the ambiance that surrounded the state visit of President Obama last November when both nations were gaga over visit that had opened a new era of bilateral relations. The row is over the Indian ambassador to Washington Meera Shankar. On an official visit to Mississippi, the Ambassador was subjected to humiliating security check at Jackson Airport even after the security officials were informed that she was the Indian ambassador to the United States.
The ambassador was not subjected to the routine security checks that are uncomfortable but customary in US airports. Meera Shankar faced “pat down” check after she was singled out because she was wearing the sari. The “pat down” security has been recently introduced by the Transport Security Authority (TSA) together with a new full body scanning machine that scans the entire body of the passenger for the officials to see through an individual’s clothing that many passengers, particularly from Muslim and conservative societies, find offensive. A passenger has the choice of the “pat down” or the scanning machine. Where the “pat down” is chosen, a security official feels every part of the passenger’s body. A female passenger can ask for a female security official for the “pat down” security check.
The ambassador’s conflict with airport security officials was not the first time an Indian ambassador has been subjected to humiliating checks at airport security. Meera Shankar’s predecessor Ronen Sen and his wife during their four years’ stay in USA were subjected to humiliating checks a number of times even after security officials were aware of their diplomatic status. Indian diplomats and dignitaries seem to have problem at US airports fairly regularly. Former Indian Defense Minister George Fernandez had two serious conflicts with US security; one at IAD when he was on an official visit. Recently, Indian Minister for Civil Aviation Praful Patel was subjected to humiliations at Chicago airport but the Indian Government let that pass because the Minister was on a private visit to USA. On November 13, Indian permanent representative to the UN Hardeep Singh Puri was asked to take his turban off at Austin Airport, Texas. After a 20 minutes hassle, the security allowed Hardeep Singh to check his own turban and later the security examined his hands for explosives! WikiLeaks leaks on communications from the US Secretary of State recently did not show that Hillary Clinton was particularly happy with Indian diplomats.
Quite understandably, Meera Shankar was very angry and let her anger be known to the officials at Jackson and to the State Department at Washington. New Delhi was furious. Indian Foreign Minister Krishnan called the incident “unacceptable” and said that the Indian Government would take it up officially with US Government so that “such unpleasant incidents do not recur.” US Secretary of State asked for an inquiry but did not apologize while TSA said that security officials applied the checks according to procedure.
The incidents have raised the issue of treatment of diplomats in the host country. The State Department is placing security needs ahead of diplomatic niceties, even in case of ambassadors. The Vienna Convention of Diplomatic Relations (VCDR) is clear; the host country should ensure that diplomats do not face hindrance to perform the functions for which they are sent. All that the host asks in reciprocity for granting diplomats such privileges is for them to agree not to interfere in the politics of the host country. The VCDR does not however clarify whether diplomats are exempt from security checks at airports to include incidents arising out of “pat down” checks simply because when the Convention was written, no one visualised that one day there would be a 9/11 and diplomats would be subjected to all sorts of security checks, even humiliating ones as the pat down or the scanner. “Pat down” and full body scan are not routine checks; they run into fundamental conflict in allowing an ambassador the freedom s/he needs to perform their job. Meera Shankar has said she would never again travel to Mississippi and subject herself to such humiliation.
Official opinion backs the controversial systems but Americans are divided over it. Nevertheless, one cannot question the need to meet security loopholes ahead of diplomats’ privileges. One must of course question whether TSA’s scanner and “pat down” systems have been deployed with due consideration to what is proper for many who are diplomats, or come from foreign cultures. It is not that the TSA has not even thought of such considerations; it has gone ahead and implemented the systems on totally wrong presumptions. In case of both Meera Shankar and Hardeep Singh Puri, the mistakes have been blatantly flagged. TSA assumed both Meera Shankar and Hardeep Singh’s dresses were those likely to be worn by potential terrorists. Unfortunately, one is a Hindu and the other a Sikh and they follow religions not connected with those that the TSA subjectively consider as potential terrorists.
Diplomatic norms notwithstanding, “pat down” and full body scanning are offensive for cultural reasons to people of other cultures who are otherwise perfect model for any security system. Scanning is so offensive to women of not just Muslim culture but all oriental cultures that they would give up travelling rather than subject themselves to a scanner. These women would also feel offended if they were being subjected to the search that is required under “pat down” even where carried out by a female TSA official.
That brings us back to the issue of treatment to diplomats. There are many like these two ambassadors who wear the sari and the turban for cultural and religious reasons. Therefore to accede to the TSA dictate, the Vienna Convention would need to be amended and diplomats should be warned against the sari and the turban which would cause a major impediment to the freedom of a diplomat and conflict with the spirit of VCDR on treatment of diplomats in a host country.
There has to be a way around this issue. The TSA must surely realise that they have run the risk of being accused of racial profiling and that too, on mistaken assumptions with the sari and turban. It is not that all those wearing the sari are subjected to “pat down”. They let go many sari wearing and turbaned passengers without the “pat down”. Former permanent representative of Bangladesh to the UN Anawarul Karim Chowdhury, when interviewed by Washington Post in connection with the Meera Shankar incident, said that he and his wife who wears the sari have travelled frequently without hassle. Hence in case of the Indian ambassador, the “pat down” could have been avoided by other security checks.
In the coming days and weeks, India and the US will surely work this out. Meanwhile, there will be a lot of people who would anxiously watch the outcome. Whatever the outcome, the privileged days of diplomats are on the decline. Is there diplomatic immunity anymore?
Writer is a former ambassador to Japan and Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.