The Indian Ambassador’s Mississippi Pat-down

blue.gloves.jpegDo you know someone who prefers to wear saris everywhere? One of my aunts wore a sari every day to work in downtown Los Angeles and post-retirement, I hear that she’s only been spotted in non-sari clothes while attending a local yoga class. When I heard about the new federal guidelines for screening air travel passengers, I wondered how she might fare and feel if she’s chosen for an enhanced pat-down at an airport the next time she travels to Georgia to visit her daughter and family.

Mississippi is not Georgia, but Indian Ambassador Meera Shankar’s recent pat-down experience at a Mississippi airport which had no body scanners may shed some light on what it’s like across the U.S. under the new federal guidelines for women who wear saris while traveling (WWWSWT). I suppose WWWSWT could include any of us who wear saris if you’re on a really tight schedule and flying to or from a wedding, for example. But I’m guessing they are more likely to be women like my aunt who simply prefer to wear saris all the time.

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WWWSWT also includes India’s current ambassador to the U.S. She’s used to being treated differently in daily life due to her diplomat status. As India’s foreign minister S.M. Krishna stated, there are “certain well-established conventions, well-established practices, as to how members of the diplomatic corps are treated in a given country.”

But at Jackson-Evers International, the airport officers didn’t single out Shankar, 60, for being a diplomat. They singled her out for wearing a sari.

Shankar apparently was selected for enhanced screening, even though she did not set of the airport’s metal detectors. Witnesses tell the Clarion-Ledger security agents told Shankar she was singled out because she was wearing a sari, which the paper notes is as “a traditional Indian robe that is draped across the body.” (USA Today)

Though Shankar hasn’t officially said anything yet, her Mississippi university hosts described her as humiliated and saying “I will never come back here.” Perhaps like the mutineer who called this incident Draupadi-gate, you recalled the attempted stripping of Draupadi in the Mahabharata when you heard about the ambassador’s pat-down.

In the Mahabharata, the divine hero Krishna protected Draupadi from humiliation by continuously extending her sari so that she could not be completely disrobed. In this news story out of Mississippi, the ambassador was not made to disrobe or partially disrobe to facilitate an enhanced pat-down. She wasn’t given much privacy either, despite her request for a private screening.

The guidelines also allow searches to be conducted in private if a passenger requests. Witnesses said Shankar asked for a private screening, but she was led to a clear box where two officers searched her in clear view.

“She is a very strong woman, but you could see in her face that she was humiliated,” Tsai said. “The Indian culture is very modest.”(Clarion-Ledger)

Krishna, the Indian foreign minister, called the incident “unacceptable” and vowed to “take it up with the government of the United States so that such unpleasant incidents do not recur.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed “concern” over the search and Homeland Security head Janet Napolitano said the search was “by the book”–neither apologized. (BBC) Should they have apologized?

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.

TSA spokesman Nicholas Kimball says that less than 3 percent of passengers receive a pat-down, and he noted that “bulky clothing” among other factors could prompt a pat-down (Washington Post). Have you worn a sari through airport security recently? I haven’t, and I’m unlikely to do so. But I’ll admit that I drove instead of taking a flight two weeks ago when I visited my parents partly to avoid the blue-gloved pat-down possibility–time constraints won’t allow me to drive every time, though.

Previous pat-downs: Some reports mention that this is the second time in three months that Shankar has been singled out for a pat-down. Also, Kunjun reminded me of Continental Airlines’ frisking of former Indian President A P J Abdul Kalam last year before he boarded his flight to Newark. The airline did not find the president exempt from its policies, and it didn’t sound like Kalam minded much.


68 thoughts on “The Indian Ambassador’s Mississippi Pat-down

  1. OK, I get the feeling a lot of people here haven’t flown for business a lot. I used to be a journalist who traveled at least twice a month, so perhaps my experience is different, but I’ll just say it loud and clear: TSA is a junk organization that achieves nothing useful ever.

    These numbskulls used to remove our HDCam tapes and batteries and swab them for terrorist pixie dust. They used to swab CABLES. They were so bloody incapable of thought that they couldn’t be bothered, however, to look inside of the tape slot to see if maybe someone had stuck anything in there.

    Let me make this clear to those who don’t know about big TV cameras: there’s a lot of room in one of them to store something nefarious. A lot. But, while these nincompoops were too busy swabbing the cables of doom, they never bothered looking inside the tape slot. Brilliant!

    Taking off shoes, telling people they can bring 20 3 oz bottles but not a 60 oz bottle (seriously?), or peanut butter for goodness sake, is theater for the sake of calming the frightened masses. It does nothing to make us safer. If this link shows us anything, it’s that TSA is making us less safe by giving us a false sense of security: http://consumerist.com/2010/12/eagle-eyed-tsa-screeners-dont-notice-loaded-handgun-in-mans-carry-on.html

    By making people think we’re safe by groping kids and the occasional grandma, we’re actually making ourselves significantly less safe. It’s just a stupid state of affairs, and it’s frightening to see how many Americans are willing to let Big Brother encroach upon what should be pretty clear boundaries.

  2. This is neither a summer blockbuster nor an episode of 24. Terrorists do not have Lex Luthor on their side and there are no Tony Starks being forced to create weapons in the caves of Durkadurkistan. These guys are essentially hicks from third world backwaters. People need to stop acting like they’re some fiendishly clever, unstoppable force. Sometimes they get lucky, that doesn’t make them elite ninjas.

    Hahaha I love this….although to be fair, most terrorists aren’t as dumb as the underwear-bomber

    WHY is our security system so much more intrusive than Israel’s whilst being less effective in spite of Israel’s larger profile as a target? These are the questions you should be asking yourself. Not “how long does it take to put my shoes back on?”

    what is israel’s security system like, for those of you who are familiar with it?

  3. I remember this Indian-American woman having a complete melt down (in Paris, I think?) because she didn’t have the receipt for her duty-free stuff and they wouldn’t let her board with it.

    On a flight back to NY from Afghanistan like 4 years ago, my grandma checked off that we had spent time on a farm, and then we were interrogated by some security guy (in America) and had our bags inspected to make sure we weren’t smuggling back “farm produce” (read: Opium, it’s like candy there).

  4. what is israel’s security system like, for those of you who are familiar with it?

    They start by understanding that people hijack planes rather than waterbottles and swiss-army knives.

    They have a bunch of trained profilers at the check-in counter and the security guards are trained to spot suspicious behavior. They watch you as you go about your business and before you check in the profiler will give you a short interview (reason for travel, etc.) They’re trained interrogators so they know what to look out for. Once you pass the interview you get on the plane with no fuss. No real worries about removing shoes or any of that malarkey. They just do a quick X-Ray to make sure nothing dangerous is in your bag, and by dangerous they mean things that are liable to blow up in an airplace cabin by accident like fireworks.

    They do random spot-checks on bags, coats, and cars but not to everyone.

    If the profiler does determine that you’re suspicious then you go in for a more thorough security check which is about on par with what we do to everyone.

  5. All that said, Israel’s system isn’t something that’s easily replicable in the US. It’s one thing to have highly trained profilers at every airport when you have like 10 or so airports in your country. It’s another matter when you have 100. Overall, though, the idea of finding suspicious people rather than treating everyone like a potential terrorist is a good one and one the TSA should operate with.

  6. (Although some experts say that the scanner is safe, but some equally smart experts say the scanner radiation/long term effects/etc is uncertain. Who knows.)

    Claims that it’s safe are based on the idea that you’re exposed to more cosmic radiation on the plane than you are through the backscatter. I think the scanner is equivalent to about 2 minutes on the plane. So it’s not necessarily that it’s safe, just that simply being on the plane is much worse than the scanner. This is partly why women are discouraged from flying while pregnant. I think there is some spot in the midpoint of the pregnancy where the baby is especially vulnerable but I’m among the few of us who was not destined for a career in medicine so you’ll have to find some other Indian for a better answer.

    Of course, ionizing radiation is ionizing radiation and the aim in general should be to minimize exposure. We shouldn’t be so cavalier about being like “Oh it’s just a little bit.”

  7. Are you serious? In comparison, to say, a country like Pakistan or an Arab country suspected to be heavily involved in terrorism, who would you pick? Clearly, a terrorist can be from anywhere but using your logical steps – Pakistan is strongly suspected of being a terrorist haven, most terrorists these days are muslim, let’s search all the Pakistanis and Arabs since they are all Muslim. What is partly being commented on here is that does not seem to be happening.

    Are YOU serious? Arabs/Pakis are the ones singled out the most, not Indians. Being named “Mohammad” is enough to guarantee a “random” security check every time you fly. Let’s be blunt since I hate being PC: In America, Indians are stereotyped as smart little Engineers/MDs with smelly food, but Arabs/Pakis are always stereotyped as terrorists. I seriously hope you don’t think Indians are being singled out while the Arabs skip on by to board first.

    Again, by your logic, all muslims should be instantly singled out and searched.

    Muslims don’t have green crescents stamped on our foreheads, you know. They can’t exactly announce: “ATTENTION: All Muslims report to Security for a “Random” security check!” Instead anyone who looks like they could be muslim (most Indians/Bengalis) get “Randomly” checked.

    Actually, what makes no sense is your logic here. If the immigration guys are smart enough to know someone is from India, then couldn’t they also tell that they were muslim from their name?

    Oh Good Grief – they can tell someone is from India because it clearly says “India” on the front of their passport in BIG BOLD letters, not because they have any famiarity with the culture. It obviously won’t say “Muslim” or “Hindu” or “Sikh” etc on their passport. Do you honestly think most Americans can distinguish between Hindu/Muslim/Sikh/etc names? Nope.

    And I agree the Indian Ambassador should have been shown a lot more respect, not singled out in the first place.

  8. for many of us desis living in canada, regular visit is as must as a visit to india. we consider this our lifeline and a backup job market.

    for a resident desi canadian, in the 70s & 80s, all that was needed was a landed immigrant status stamp on the desi passport, and you could breeze through u.s. immigration checkpoints without filling any forms which rest of the world did.

    moreover, as a canadian, we need only to show our driver’s licence at the border to drive into the states.

    i used to envy the americans, who could see off their family right into the seat of the plane, whereas in canada, we followed the indian/british policy of stranding the sends offs at the ticket counter.

    i cannot but feel sad at the tightening of the u.s. border controls, but i believe it is an inevitable result of the terrorist attacks on u.s. soil.

    for canadians it is doubly hard, for many of us, whites or desi heritage, look upon the concept of entering, living and working in the usa as an entitlement, and this attitude has been encouraged by the canadian governments of the past, and tolerated by the various u.s. administrations.

    hence, to me, it was a shockingly unpleasant surprise, when i met someone, whose two daughters had to return to canada because their TN visa was not renewed, when the girls moved to a new job. like all desis i supported obama’s election, but sometimes, i am perforced to think, that from a desi viewpoint, the republicans and bush were friendlier or tolerant of our aspirations than the democrats.

    as a regular visitor to the usa, i find the current regulations at the canadian airports,where we are pre cleared for entry to the usa, a wee bit tighter than before, but nowhere near some of the interrogations that i, with a canadian passport, have faced in britain (always polite though) or germany or even in new delhi/mumbai.

    i do not see us going back to the days of easy travel in my lifetime. maybe never. one of the less savoury legacies of our generation to our kids. :(