Frisky business: Why Indian diplomats should be checked at airports

Published: December 24, 2010
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Should India really make this an issue of national pride?

What differentiates a democratic system of governance from colonial rule or from a totalitarian system or a feudal order is the rule of law and equality before law.

India has been a practising democracy for more than 60 years and several landmark social and political changes have taken place in the country to break the nation free from feudal and colonial ways.

But somehow the desire of the ruling  and rich class to see themselves above others is so deep rooted that whenever there is an attack on this hierarchy, the privileged class makes it a national issue and links it with national pride.

Frisk me not

Was the frisking of the Indian ambassador to the US Meera Shanker, by American airport officials an insult to the nation or just a normal security check which has become an unavoidable nuisance in a terrorism scarred world? A similar incident was the security check on turban wearing Hardeep Puri, Indian envoy to the United Nations: was this an attack on the prestige of the South Asian nation?

According to reports, the airport staff at the Mississippi airport singled out the Indian ambassador because she was wearing a sari. Has the airport staffs insulted the Indian representative or denied the privilege extended to diplomats from other countries because of this act? If there is racial profiling then India has the right to protest. India also has a case when only Indian diplomats are subject to this security check up and envoys of other countries are spared.

But no such discrimination took place. The outrage seems to be excessive as the Indian ambassador Meera Shankar was the victim of over cautious security checks rather than a victim of racial or other discrimination.

Officials do get frisked

According to Ronen Sen, Shankar’s predecessor in Washington, rules of airport security screening apply to all officials, including diplomats, in the US and several European countries and even cabinet ministers are not exempt when they are not on official visit.

Nobody is comfortable with this excessive security check but why can’t we accept the reality of the world post 9/11?

Modern day reality is not to the liking of the people who are seeped into VIP culture and privileges. In India it’s normal, much to the chagrin of common people, to see the elected representatives, ministers and celebrities and their relatives waltzing past airport and other security. Our officials want this indigenous double standard to become international.

It’s really a shame that India’s foreign ministry is attaching this issue with our national pride. The Foreign Minister S M Krishna has made it a bilateral issue. Is our national pride so brittle that it can get damaged so easily and on such a small issue?

A juvenile reaction

The Indian Express editorial calls the intervention of the External Affairs Ministry as “school –yardish” and says that the Indian establishment “swears by the feudal ideal of hierarchy that the foreign ministry has linked such incidents at US airports to the cordiality of bilateral relations.”

The whole reaction seems so juvenile and sometimes we as Indians wonder whether foreign relations are built on trivial or personal matters. India is a democratic country and our reactions should reflect this reality.

It’s not the first time India is overreacting about the VIP security check issue. The same noise was made when former President A P J Abdul Kalam was frisked in the US; furthermore, the socialist Defense Minister George Fernandese could not take the insult of being treated as a commoner at an American airport and the whole nation was dragged when the film star Shahrukh Khan had to pass through aviation security.

Elected versus ordinary

It seems we want to continue with the cordon of feudal privileges and extend it to the international arena while an attempt should be made to erase the great divide between the elected and the ordinary. As a democratic nation we should seriously consider reviewing and streamlining all privileges extended to foreign diplomats and other political and bureaucratic representatives rather than perpetuating the old divisive system.

Another question that comes to mind is this: how many times have Indian diplomats come to the rescue of ordinary Indians living abroad when they are subjected to far more humiliating discrimination?

Such discrimination is dismissed as resentment. I have heard so many cases when Indian officials posted abroad ignored the genuine pleas of a stranded passenger and came to the rescue only when there is political pressure from New Delhi.

One assumption drawn from such reactions from India might be that the country has started taking itself too seriously at a time when its stature is growing in the international arena. The rising nation is behaving like the nouveau riche and gets touchy about small issues. A sense of maturity and poise is needed when we are dragging the whole nation on an issue.

Security is a great leveler in the modern world and high and both the mighty and ordinary have to come under its radar. Linking such a trivial issue with national pride is a shame and insult to the nation.

As a democratic country our response should reflect the values we cherish and claim to practice. We should do away with what the Indian Express editorial calls “neo-colonial stratification” that is imposed at our own security barriers.

sanjay.kumar

Sanjay Kumar

The author is a New Delhi based journalist covering South Asian and international politics. He tweets as @destinydefier (twitter.com/destinydefier).

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.