Pat down, grow up

After speaking at Mississippi State University, Indian Ambassador Meera Shankar was subjected to a "humiliating" extended pat-down at Jackson-Evers Airport. Airport checks are a universally annoying experience, and it may have been hard to Ambassador Shankar to be plucked out of a line and put through an indignity her job has so far insulated her from but is it really a strain on our bilateral relationship, as it would seem from External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna's demand for an immediate apology?In the airport's defence, the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has recently ramped up its rules. Diplomats are not automatically exempted; it's left to security officers' discretion. Though many of those offended on Shankar's behalf reflexively claimed racism, passengers who wear bulky clothing are usually put through a more rigorous search according to TSA rules and Shankar was wearing a sari. The rules are invasive and exasperating (as the furore over the full-body scanners highlights) and it may even be debatable whether the elaborate rings of security serve as reassuring theatre or actually deter terrorists. But that's not what India's diplomatic establishment is so agitated about. It's not even really about the way some individuals are subjected to more oppressive checks. It's simply about the TSA's temerity in picking on our ambassador, in not respecting the cordon sanitaire that divides high-ranking officials and ordinary people, and about the prickly insecurity we display when important people in India (George Fernandes, Shah Rukh Khan) are not treated with due reverence in other parts of the world. "Let me be frank, this is unacceptable to India," Krishna said, holding that he would extract a full accounting from the US government so that such departures from convention didn't intrude on "the very cordial relationship" between the two countries. Does a simple case of over-vigilant airport security warrant such emotion from India's foreign minister? Why are we so insistent on two cultures for VIPs and others, where a lucky few float through the processes that hold up ordinary citizens? There are certain exemptions that the diplomatic corps enjoy, but if those conventions are occasionally bypassed, that's not a grievous injury to India's self-worth.

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