India Protests Pat-down of Envoy at Mississippi Airport

India Protests Pat-down of Envoy at Mississippi Airport

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The second pat-down search of Indian Ambassador Meera Shankar at a U.S. airport in three months, and an incident in Houston, Texas, where India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Hardeep Puri was asked to remove his turban at an airport security station, have triggered protests by the Indian government.

Referring to the U.S. Transit Security Administration’s pat-down of a sari-clad Shankar last week at Mississippi’s Jackson-Evers International Airport, after the ambassador attended a program at Mississippi State University, Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna was quoted by the Indian press as saying, “Let me be frank. This is unacceptable to India. We are going to take it up with the government of the United States so that such unpleasant incidents do not recur.”

Contacted by India-West, Indian Embassy press spokesperson Virander Paul said the U.S. State Department has contacted the embassy to express “regrets about the pat-down.” He added that the incident will be handled between the State Department and the embassy.

During a press briefing last week, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley confirmed the State Department is looking into the incident. “We are in touch with the Department of Homeland Security. There may be ways in which we can improve communications so that officials at airports know when diplomats are coming and help to better facilitate their movement through security,” Crowley was quoted as saying by Press Trust of India.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has also indicated concern over the frisking of Shankar. “We obviously are concerned about it," Clinton told reporters. "We will be looking into it and trying to determine both what happened and what we could do to prevent such incidents in the future.”

Krishna was quoted as saying that in September Shankar endured a similar pat-down in Chicago. “There are well-established conventions, practices as to how diplomats are treated. I am surprised at the way our ambassador has been treated for the second time in three months," he said.

In the incident involving Puri three weeks ago, security officials at the Houston airport asked Puri to remove his turban. When he refused on religious and diplomatic grounds, airport officials held him in a holding area for more than 30 minutes until he was finally released.

India has also lodged a diplomatic protest on this incident through the consulate in Houston, PTI said.

Mississippi State University officials, who invited Shankar to give the talk, were also embarrassed by the incident.

"It was a wonderful program, maybe the best we’ve had, (but) this stupid incident ruined the whole thing,” Janos Radvanyi, chair of MSU’s International Security Studies Center, was quoted as saying in Mississippi’s Clarion-Ledger.

Radvanyi said Shankar, who has made no statement since the incident, was visibly upset. “We are sending her a letter of apology.”

“The way they pat them down, it was so humiliating,” added Tan Tsai, a research associate at MSU’s international center who witnessed the screening. “Anybody who passed by could see it.”

Shankar was reportedly the only person among at least 30 passengers selected for the pat-down. She was told she was being singled out because of what she was wearing, witnessed said.

Shankar was taken to a VIP waiting room, despite staff being told that she was an ambassador. She was later pulled from a security line and patted down by a female TSA agent.

TSA spokesman Jon Allen said the agency can conduct additional screenings when passengers wear “bulky” clothing. “After a review of this passenger’s screening experience, we determined that the TSA officers in Jackson followed proper standard procedure," Allen said. According to the TSA, less than three percent of passengers typically receive a pat-down.

Mississippi Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who met with Shankar during her visit to the state, said he regretted the incident. "Although I understand we need proper security measures to protect the passengers in U.S. airports, I regret the outrageous way Indian Ambassador Shankar was treated by the TSA while visiting Jackson," he said in an e-mail to the Clarion-Ledger.

Responding to a question at last week’s press conference, Crowley said diplomats, like other passengers, are subject to screenings.

“But to the extent that ambassadors may, in some cases, wear traditional dress, if that can help TSA with its assessment of the risk that any passenger might pose to the airplane, that may be helpful information for them to know.”

“As the Secretary (Clinton) said yesterday if there's a way in which we can prevent misunderstandings or help TSA anticipate whatever screening requirements might be required, we’re happy to help facilitate that. We’re just looking to see if there's any way that we can improve this process,” Crowley was quoted by PTI as saying.