Learning from the Meera Shankar incident

In an embarrassing moment for the U.S. and India, the Indian Ambassador to the U.S., Meera Shankar had to undergo a TSA pat down at the Jackson airport in Mississippi. The Indian Ambassador was singled out of the security line up for extra screening as she was allegedly wearing “bulking clothing” – the Indian sari in this case. A perfectly reasonable case can be made from the TSA’s ‘security concerns and procedures’ point of view. The TSA personnel were following standard security procedure, and some people might even want to pat them for implementing rules without any discrimination of rank or profile.

Meera ShankarBut this is the second time in three months that a senior Indian official has been pulled aside for security reasons at U.S. airports. The Indian Minister for External Affairs, S. M. Krishna termed the treatment meted out to the diplomat as “unacceptable.” The U.S. expressed regret over the incident and promised to ensure that such incidents are not repeated. It has however, not apologized.

Irrespective of its diplomatic implications, this incident is significant in terms of the invasive security measures undertaken by the TSA and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). What began as heighted security measures after Sept. 11, have merely increased in their intensity of invasiveness and discomfort to passengers. The ongoing debate on full body scanners at airports, have shown how the travelers personal space, privacy and dignity are disregarded, even causing trauma to some. ( Certain media reports talk of how rape and sexual abuse victims who are particularly sensitive to invasion of their personal spaces have reported being traumatized by the full body scans and pat downs.) While the importance of these measures is understandable, the TSA needs to reevaluate if they are truly helpful in eliminating dangers. Or do they add to tense paranoid atmospheres at airports, and take away the fun of travelling?

The TSA’s evaluation needs to consider how a person’s basic human dignity can be secured, along with securing borders. A smarter mechanism that outthinks terrorists, and not follows them (shoe bomber then screen shoes, panty bomber then full body scan etc) needs to be devised. A method that makes passengers want to volunteer cooperation would be much helpful over those that force them to do so. The screening procedure for foreign diplomats and other dignitaries should also be reevaluated such that the dignity of their office is not compromised even accidentally.

So will this public humiliation of the Indian Ambassador to the U.S. on U.S. soil affect bilateral relations? Unlikely. The fact that the incident came to light only through a local Mississippi newspaper and not through the Indian embassy shows that neither the Ambassador, nor India grants it enough importance to damage bilateral relations. It is highly unlikely to be perceived by India as a deliberate attempt to humiliate its diplomat. However, it is possible that a repeat of such incidents will dampen relations (particularly interpersonal relations) considering that protocol and formalities are an important part of such equation. For now though, such excesses are sure to be overlooked in the interest of the larger bilateral benefits and goals.

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