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Monday, March 28, 2011

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(Published in, on 24th March 2011, retrieved from

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On the 15th of March this year, Indian golfer Jeev Milka Singh’s coach Amritinder Singh was forced to remove his turban in public for a security check at the Milan airport. He told the press that he was being harassed despite being a sportsperson from a country whose Prime Minister wears a turban.

Ridiculously enough, despite having received a letter of apology for the conduct of the security officials from the Italian Golf Federation, Amritinder Singh went through exactly the same humiliating exercise at exactly the same airport on the 23rd of March.

While Foreign Minister S M Krishna has condemned the incident and India has issued a demarche to Italy, we’re left wondering why the incident occurred, and then repeated itself.

Is it racism? Is it religious prejudice? Is it a sadistic streak in a single security official? Is it paranoia? Or was it caused by the same twisted impulse that makes a watchman force someone to change the way he or she has parked the car, or a security guard ask someone to empty out a wallet or handbag at the entrance to a mall – ‘I will because I can; and I’m simply doing my duty’?

Most of us have been subject to such invasive searches at pilgrimage sites, as to put us off religious trips, if not religion itself.

The actual procedure is so cursory and indifferent as to allow anyone to carry anything inside – and it might well be, since terrorists are unlikely to pack bombs into their backpacks.

But the guards on duty often seem to find a bizarre pleasure in making a squirming visitor as uncomfortable as possible. And each one of the people who choose to exercise the little power they have in the most insulting manner possible has a ready excuse – “there have been so many terror attacks!”

Some people may shrug their shoulders and agree that the security officials have a valid point.

However, I doubt any country other than India has had a former President, a current Ambassador and a sportsperson frisked at international airports.

Abdul Kalam was subjected to a body search, reportedly including his footwear, in June 2009, at the Delhi airport of all places. The search is believed to have happened at the behest of the American head of Continental Airlines, and the story stayed away from the press for nearly a month.

The Indian Ambassador to the US, Meera Shankar, was singled out for a full-body pat-down while visiting Mississippi in December 2010 – purportedly because she was wearing a sari.

In both cases, the airlines coolly said there was no violation of protocol, and that their security rules allowed no exemptions, in response to India’s protests. We took it lying down, as always, just in case the harmony of our relationship with the US was disturbed by our remonstrations.

Now, the coach of a leading Indian sportsman has been coerced into submitting to an act he equates to stripping in public.

When security officials have got away with frisking two people carrying diplomatic passports, whose credentials don’t suggest they intended to hijack the planes they were travelling in, do we really expect this protest to be taken seriously?

Whatever the airline or the Italian government has to say, chances are that our politicians and diplomats will smile, shrug and shake hands, while the media goes berserk.

The fact that this particular incident comes so soon after American diplomat (and suspected CIA spy) Raymond Davis literally got away with murder in Pakistan makes me wonder why India throws up its hands so easily when it has reason and logic on its side, when clearly, other countries don’t hesitate to back their citizens even when they have none on theirs.

Is it simply a reflection of the attitude that made us subject to foreign invasions for so many hundreds of years? Is that what made us pack Warren Anderson off to safety after the company he ran had destroyed so many lives? Is that what makes us issue ‘strong condemnations’ and then sit back?

If we chew our lips thoughtfully, and then concede that the turban is a terror threat this time round, we’ll know the answer. Or, perhaps we should wait for Manmohan Singh to oblige the same official on his next trip to Milan before we know for sure.


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