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Let us grow up!

Last updated on: December 14, 2010 11:54 IST

Security is a science in the US, it is an art here. Former diplomat TP Sreenivasan offers his take on the controversy over the airport 'pat-down' of Ambassador Meera Shankar

A young and erudite political commentator on India-United States relations was bewildered by the storm in the tea cup generated by the security "pat-down" of Ambassador Meera Shankar at the Jackson-Evers International Airport at Mississippi. His simple comment was, "Come on, let us grow up!"

Meera Shankar herself reacted to the unfortunate incident with extraordinary dignity, poise and patience. It happened on December 4, 2010, but the news of it did not come out for nearly a week and not from the embassy of India in Washington, DC. She met US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after the incident, but did not take her aside to make a complaint. It was a diplomatic incident to be dealt with through diplomatic channels. She lived up to her reputation for her diplomatic skills, calmness and elegance.

External Affairs Minister S M Krishna was forthright, emphatic and firm in his public response when the story broke. The incident was "unacceptable", he said, a strong word in diplomatic parlance. Secretary of State Clinton was sincere in her expression of concern and regret. She went to the extent of saying that she will review the security procedures for diplomats, even though it is not in her power to do so.

As far as the real powerful person is concerned, the homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano, she pointed out that facilities existed for passengers with special credentials to notify the airport in advance and that no such intimation was sent in this particular case. The local officials who accompanied the ambassador did not take the precautions required. The officer concerned simply went by the book. It was also confirmed by a former ambassador that ambassadors are not exempt from security checks at US airports.

In accordance with diplomatic practice, the US deputy chief of mission was summoned by the concerned joint secretary in the ministry of external affairs to express concern and to warn that US diplomats would be frisked at Indian airports if checks on Indian dignitaries did not stop. The matter should have ended there, with the embassy having noted the procedure to be followed in the future and assurance from the US authorities that this would not happen again.

But sure enough, a galaxy of opposition leaders, super analysts and habitual US bashers found a gold mine in the incident. They saw a deep conspiracy to humiliate India by the evil empire. It was even portrayed as a way of conveying a signal of disapproval of Meera Shanakar's performance as the Indian envoy. The incident, according to them, was in the same league as the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and evidence of American perfidy and dark designs on India. It was made out as though it was left to a junior security official in an obscure airport to convey signals to India weeks after the US president had a successful visit to India. They mercifully stopped short of calling for breaking off diplomatic relations with the United States.

The first thing to remember is that the security culture in the US is vastly different from ours. It is not wrong to characterise it as paranoid. But that is the reason why no terrorist attack has taken place in the country since 9/11. Every attempt was thwarted one way or the other, because of the alacrity of security officials. They take no chances at all, not even with ambassadors and Nobel Peace Prize winners. When Mohamed ElBaradei arrived at the airport in Boston weeks after he won the peace prize on the invitation of the secretary of state, he too was accosted by a "pat-down" expert.

The sari is a most elegant attire and we are proud of our national apparel, but a security officer, with instructions to be wary of "bulky clothing", may look at it with suspicion. Knowing nothing about ambassadors or the delicate state of India-US relations, the officer concerned decided to order a "pat-down", apparently a humiliating method of search. Such a thing will never happen in India because our security culture is subjective. As in other things, we choose the law which is most appropriate for the person concerned. Security is a science in the US, it is an art here. Political leaders have breezed through security with live bullets in their hand bags. When the artist fails, an explosion occurs.

Much has been said about reciprocity. In India, ambassadors of the foreign variety (not our own ambassadors) are exempt from security checks, while in the US, ambassadors are not so privileged. This is a fact which was known to us and we should have demanded reciprocity long time ago. Most likely, the US would have given up the privilege for their diplomats here rather than open the floodgates for the army of ambassadors in Washington and New York. An equally important principle to be remembered in diplomacy is non-discrimination. Was our ambassador a victim of discrimination? Do the other ambassadors walk through without security checks? There is no such evidence.

Diplomacy has always been a hazardous profession and it has as many challenges as charms. Terrorism itself is a challenge for the diplomats. The humiliation of security checks is a fallout of the phenomenon of terrorism. Diplomats have been expelled, attacked and even killed for no fault of theirs. I know of instances of Indian diplomats being expelled from the erstwhile Soviet Union at the height of the 'Hindi-Russi bhai-bhai' phase.

I had two broken limbs and a hundred stitches on my head in an attack in Kenya on account of the tension between Indians and Africans. Indian diplomats were killed in cold blood in Kabul. The host countries have the responsibility to ensure the security of diplomats. But no one in India characterised these events as humiliation of the country. We expressed our concern and regret in private, but took them in our stride as these are the hazards of diplomacy. The authorities on their part expressed regret and apologised. Our relations with the USSR, Kenya or Afghanistan did not suffer as a consequence. Perhaps our commentators would have given another interpretation if the same incidents had taken place in the United States.

India-US relations are still hostage to history and we see behind every incident the ghosts of Goa, Bangladesh, Tarapur and other instances of US villainy. The world has changed. Let us grow up!

This piece was written before the news came out about the security check on Ambassador Hardip Puri, which took place two weeks ago

T P Sreenivasan is a former ambassador of India to the United Nations, Vienna, and a former Governor for India at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna. He is currently the Director General, Kerala International Centre, Thiruvananthapuram, and a Member of the National Security Advisory Board. For more articles by Ambassador Sreenivasan, click here

TP Sreenivasan