Tag Archives: security procedures

The Meera Shankar Incident – The Difference in Indian and U.S attitudes

It is widely acknowledged that American & Indian societies are similar in many ways. But there are a number of differences between these two societies, differences that lie at the core of their democratic practices. Such differences keep creating controversies between the U.S and India. The latest controversy is the security pat down of Indian Ambassador Meera Shankar at Jackson Airport in Mississippi.

The facts are clear. Ambassador Shankar was singled out for a security check because she was wearing a sari. When she presented her diplomatic status, she was taken to a VIP room for the security pat down. The Indian Government was angered by what they termed as “unacceptable” treatment of an Indian Diplomat. The U.S. expressed regret and promised to ensure that such incidents are not repeated. But the U.S. has not apologized. This has created an uproar in India and perhaps rightly so.

But this issue might illustrate a significant difference between the ways these two countries treat their own citizens. Look at the complaints lodged by the Indian Government against what it considers mal-treatment of its citizens. Every single complaint is about what the Indian Government calls a VIP – a Very Important Person. Forgive me, I mean to say VVIP or Very Very Important Person.

This is no joke. These words are commonly accepted in India and used by the Indian Government. Check out any Indian Government event or any event organized by Indians. You will see a special section for VVIPs and VIPs; you will notice special handling of people of these categories. The ordinary Indian is always treated as a lower class person with a lower level of care.

Who are these VIPs? Apparently any one with “connections.” So many VIPs were created in this process that the Indian Government had to create a special category called VVIP.

How many times has the Indian Government publicly complained about how ordinary Indian citizens are treated in other countries?  Forget about treatment by other countries. Ask Indian-Americans how the Indian Consulates treat them. Stand in line at any Indian Consulate and you will hear horror stories. Try calling the Indian Consulate, say in New York. Unless you are a VIP or a European-American, you will be ignored at best. This is also the attitude you see at any security checkpoint in India. There may be a long line but VIPs routinely bypass the line and go through.

This VIP type handling also extends to foreigners in India. The Police, the Security Staff and most local government officials are careful not to subject foreigners to any trouble. Recently, the Australian Cricket team, after losing its series against India, went on a rampage. According to media reports, they broke furniture and threw it out of the windows. The police saw this but did nothing. When asked, a police official replied they did not want to embarrass the Australians.

The U.S. is very different. The Australian Cricket Team would not have had the gumption to do in the U.S. what it did in India. Had they done so, the police would have acted immediately. The Australian Government would have apologized and the Cricket Team would have been subject to fines or punishment.

This is because there is no VIP culture in America. Almost everyone has to go through the security checkups and while that might be offensive, it applies to virtually everybody. Senior ex-diplomats go through the same security check that the regular folks go through.

Indian Media often use the word “commoners” to distinguish them from VIPs. This word says it all. The U.S treats all Americans as VIPs and others as commoners. India treats Indians as commoners and foreigners as VIPs.

America is relentless about its focus on security. Its overriding mission is to prevent a terrorist attack on America. This is why security guards at airports are given the license to search anyone they feel should be searched. This is due to the realization that the local security guard is the critical part of the security chain. If their behavior hurts feelings of some people, so be it.

India is relentless about how its VVIPs are handled. Foreign officials are included in the VVIP status. Protecting the feelings of VVIPs is far more important to India than preventing terrorist attacks on Indian citizens. This is why airport security procedures are centralized and airport security staff is not given the license to stop and search any one they feel should be searched.

Rather than complaining loudly about who gets frisked in America, the Indian Government should establish a policy of randomly and regularly frisking Foreign Diplomats and VVIPs at Indian Airports. If a senior American Diplomat is subjected to a physical frisk, I suspect that diplomat would at least publicly welcome the high level of security at Indian airports.

But would Indian VVIPs publicly welcome such random frisking? I doubt it. Because that would put Indian VVIPs at the same level of the common Indian. That is a consummation to be devoutly avoided in democratic India.

I await the day when the Indian Government begins treating the ordinary Indian as a VVIP. Perhaps, Ambassador Meera Shankar can begin this process with ordinary Indian-Americans at the Indian Embassy in Washington DC.

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.