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National humiliation with capital 'H'

By M K Bhadrakumar
December 10, 2010 14:34 IST
Anyone who has known Meera Shankar would vouch that she is a proud Indian who never bats an eyelid in articulating her views and convictions, says former diplomat M K Bhadrakumar.

Indian diplomats serving in the United States may now have to be prepared during their so-called 'local tours' to strip down to their underwear in front of the American airport staff at short notice.

The best thing to do is to wear designer underwear, if our diplomats can afford them. India's honour as an emerging power is in the crosshairs.

At any rate, wear clean underwear. One can never know who in the American judgment is a 'mature' Indian diplomat and who is not. It is classified information.

Indian diplomats serving in South Block appear to be 'mature' characters, as per the testimony recently given by the US ambassador in Delhi while praising the ministry of external affairs's stance with regard to the WikiLeaks disclosures.

What may appear to be a vacuous stance to most Indians strikes as an act of 'maturity' to the American side. Thereby hangs a tale. It is the 'immature' diplomats from India who are in danger of receiving nasty surprises at US airports. India's ambassador to the US Meera Shankar seems to fall into that category.

Of course, External Affairs Minister S M Krishna has expressed his surprise at the latest incident at the Jackson-Evers International Airport at Mississippi where Shankar was taken to a waiting room and subjected to a 'pat-down' despite being told about her status -- that she is the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of India -- and that she enjoys diplomatic immunities and courtesies laid down under the Vienna Convention.

Indeed, the US is not a country of bumpkins who've never heard of the Vienna Convention. If the American ambassador in New Delhi is asked to strip down to his underwear at Raipur airport, all hell will break loose and the US administration will come down like a tonne of bricks on South Block quoting chapter and verse from the international covenant guiding the norms of civilised diplomacy.

So, why this unceremonious treatment meted out to Shankar -- and, that too, not for the first time during her present assignment in the US? Whether the incident at Mississippi was accidental may seem the big question. But in international diplomacy, the line dividing accidental happenings is a very thin line. So thin that it becomes almost invariably irrelevant.

Shankar is unlikely to belong to the US category of 'mature' diplomats. Anyone who has known her would vouchsafe that she is a notoriously proud Indian who never bats an eyelid in articulating her views and convictions -- and unlike many in her peer group in the Indian Foreign Service fraternity, she has consistently shown that she does have the intellectual capacity and honesty to carry convictions of her own.

More important, from the very early days in her career in the Indian Foreign Service, Shankar has been known among her colleagues for that increasingly rare, old-world professional quality and intellectual integrity to view issues from the solitary prism of her country's national interests.

That is indeed a rare quality today in India in this era of lobbyists. The Delhi-based elites' culture -- bureaucratic, media and political elites -- increasingly places faith in the notion that Americans can help make or unmake interesting career graphs in the progression of their lives and it is, therefore, simply judicious to be judged 'mature' by Washington (and the American embassy in Chanakyapuri).

Quite possibly, Shankar may not yet be figuring in that ever-expanding American watchlist of 'mature' Indians. Look at the 'audacity' -- to use a favourite expression of US President Barack Obama -- of the Mississippi act.

A report in the Economic Times says: 'She (Shankar) was reportedly escorted to the airport by a host representative and an airport security officer. At the security screening, she was asked to step aside for a pat-down although she had presented her diplomatic credentials, and despite having not set off any alarm when she passed through the metal detector.'

'In this case, Shankar was not only asked to step aside for a secondary screening, but also put through a pat-down that was rather public, although... guidelines stipulate that the screening has to be conducted in private if the passenger so demands.'

This is not Krishnaleela. This is an act of national humiliation with a capital 'H'. A few fine words and then go back to the tennis court? No, Sir, that won't do.

There is a moral or two to be learnt here. Simply read up the arrogant remark by the Obama administration's point man for South Asia in the state department just two days ago.

Speaking at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia and Central Asia Robert O Blake publicly suggested that India's voting pattern at the United Nations Security Council during its forthcoming two-year term commencing January would have a bearing on India's prospects of realising its bid to become a permanent member.

Blake pointed out that records show that India voted only 10 percent of the time alongside the US on important issues at the world body. He then added, 'Over time that is going to change. That is going to change not because of pressure of the United States, but because of India's own desire to take up greater global responsibilities. That would surely be reflected in its voting record.'

What sails to mind is the famous Marlon Brando line from Godfather: 'I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse.' Obama made the offer in Parliament and our leadership already seems unable to refuse it.

South Block's decision to abstain for the first time on the voting in the UN against Iran's human rights record has been a good beginning, which has surely encouraged Blake to ask for more such 'change'.

Although away from the UN forum, strictly speaking, India's decision to step out of the line of majority international opinion and identify with the Western campaign over Liu Xiaobo would also doubtless enthrall Blake.

But there are inherent risks involved while cruising on this supine course. What happens when Arundhati Roy ultimately gets the Nobel Peace Prize?

Arguably, she won't get it for the next three-and-a-half years. But can we be so very sure when the Manmohan Singh era passes into dusty archives and the Americans are no more in the driving seat on Raisina Hill in that very same cocky way in which they are nowadays?

In the short term, anyhow from January onward, it is imperative that Krishna instructs the Indian diplomats posted in the UN in New York to wear clean underwear.

We just cannot be sure when they are going to be subjected to 'pat-downs'. It all depends on whether the Americans judge our guys to be 'mature' or not. Blake apparently thinks they are, but we can't take chances. The country's honour is at stake.

A final word. Shankar's tenure in the US is apparently ending. Do send as her replacement a 'mature' diplomat.

M K Bhadrakumar