The Indian ambassador to the United States Meera Shankar was pulled from a security line at the Jackson-Evers International Airport in Mississippi, USA, and was subsequently forced to undergo a pat-down body search by a Transport Security Administration (TSA) agent. On December 4, 2010 Shankar was about to board a flight to Baltimore after attending a Mississippi State University programme and although she did not set off the airport's metal detectors, she was singled out on grounds that she was wearing a sari, India's national dress. She mentioned her diplomatic status, but it did not stop the ordeal in front of the other passengers. Last September, Shankar underwent a similar pat-down in Chicago.
The incident sparked strong protests from India. Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao said that the incident is not good public diplomacy shown by USA and India's Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna reiterated that this is unacceptable to India. Indian opposition party BJP has demonstrated near the US Embassy in India demanding apology from US. The blogosphere is also buzzing with reactions as details are emerging.
There were mixed responses from the US authorities. The US Department Of State has reached out to the ambassador regretting the incident. However, according to news sources, TSA defended their action mentioning that diplomats are not exempted from the searches and that Shankar was “screened in accordance with TSA's security policies and procedures”. It may be mentioned here that not all passengers are subject to pat downs, only those passengers who set off the metal alarm have to go through the screening, and “Ms. Shankar had passed through the metal frame without setting off the alarm”. The US border search exception rule asserts that the officer must have reasonable suspicion or prior information to believe the search will reveal threat or contraband, and may have to have a higher standard or court-reviewed warrant for some of the more invasive searches.
The ambassador visibly felt humiliated as she was searched openly, inside a transparent booth. Pavani at Sepia Mutiny writes:
The airport involved did not have the new body scanners available so that option was out for the ambassador. But a clear box hardly sounds private enough for anyone uncomfortable enough to request a private search. And if simply wearing a sari is going to trigger a serious full-body pat-down, then an actual private option should be offered, as it should be to anyone requesting a private search.
Vivek comments on the above post:
One item that didn't make it into any of the news stories was that a TSA official, Anna Dushas, tried removing Shankar's sari before her supervisor, Kris (we only know her first name), intervened.
The incident shows the ignorance about the Sari, the national outfit of many South Asian countries which is worn by millions of women in this region and all over the world. A comment at NYDailyNews.com perhaps shows how many Americans feel about Sari:
Wear the garb of a terrorist and you should expect to be searched. Good work TSA.
What the reaction of the Americans would be should any of their officials (senators, ambassadors…) are subjected to a similar search in India?
Rajeev at Random Thoughts opines:
Rather than whine about it, we in India, need to take lessons from their security procedures and subject everyone to stringent security checks in our environment too. In matters of our country's security we should not be bothered about others’ opinions!!