(Published in The New Indian Express, School Edition, on 16 November, 2011, retrieved from http://expressbuzz.com/school/kalam-and-frisky-us-security-personnel/333599.html)
NOTE: This is not opinion. It's a factual summary of the frisking controversy.
Former President and renowned scientist APJ Abdul Kalam was recently subjected to a thorough, double security check at the JFK Airport in New York. While former Heads of State are not usually frisked, Kalam’s belongings were checked a second time on board his flight.
After India lodged a strong protest, the US apologised to Kalam and India. However, not only is this the second time Kalam has been frisked against regulations, it is also the latest in a series of security checks and detentions of high-profile Indians at international airports.
What Happened to Kalam?
On September 29 this year, the former President boarded an Air India flight to return to Delhi, after completing several engagements in the US.
Having been frisked during the regular security check, the 80-year-old Kalam boarded his flight. Then, security officials forced staff from Air India to open the door of the plane, and put Kalam, who was seated by then, through the humiliating experience of handing over his jacket and shoes, to check for explosives. The items were later returned them to Kalam.
While Air India lodged a complaint against the US Transportation Security Administration, Kalam’s office informed the Ministry of External Affairs about the incident, on his return to India. A furious Indian government took the issue up with the US.
Kalam’s Security Check in 2009
This was not the first time the smiling, silver-haired Kalam has been put through a security check by US officials. Despite being on the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security’s (BCAS) list of people exempted from security screening in India, he was frisked by staff of America’s Continental Airlines at the Indira Gandhi International Airport at New Delhi, as he was about to board a Newark-bound flight.
Though Parliament protested, the airline remained unrepentant, saying the checks were in accordance with guidelines issued by the US regulatory body Transportation Security Administration. That organisation issued a statement saying: “There are reports that the government of India has an official list of VIPs and their spouses that are exempt from pre-board screening procedures. However, while travelling from an international location to the US on a US commercial aircraft, former heads of state and other VIPs are screened according to the same screening procedures as for any other passenger.”
However, then Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel condemned the incident, calling it “unpardonable”. Continental Airlines was issued a show cause notice in the case. When the airline didn’t reply, an FIR was filed under Section 11A of Aircraft Act, 1934 for wilful violation of the directions issued by BCAS. The airline issued a grudging apology and conveyed its regret.
Reaction to Kalam’s Frisking in 2011
While Kalam hadn’t raised the issue in 2009, this time round, his office informed the Ministry of External Affairs about the incident. India immediately protested against the second screening, on board the flight, but not against the regular security check. Incidentally, visiting US dignitaries are exempted from security checks as a measure of courtesy in India, but the US hasn’t reciprocated.
A fuming External Affairs Minister S M Krishna called the security officials’ action “unacceptable” and threatened to retaliate against US dignitaries in India. He also directed Indian Ambassador to US Nirupama Rao to take up the matter in writing at the ‘highest level’ with Washington.
The Obama administration responded with a written apology, saying, “The United States government has the utmost respect for former Indian president Abdul Kalam. We deeply regret the inconvenience that resulted for him as a result of a September 29 incident involving the security screening at John F. Kennedy airport in New York.”
The letter went on to say the US “deeply values and appreciates [its] strong relationship and partnership” with India, and is “confident that despite this regrettable incident, [it] will continue working closely with India in the many areas of our strategic partnership.”
The Charge D’Affaires of the US Mission in India, Peter Burleigh, also personally hand-delivered a letter from the US Transportation Security Administration to Kalam, and a similar letter to the Indian government. The letters admitted that “appropriate procedure for expedited screening of dignitaries had not been followed” and promised to work on preventing a recurrence.
Kalam himself characteristically shrugged off the incident, responding to a reporter’s question with, “Forget about it. It is not worth talking about.”
Other Controversial Checks
On December 9, 2010, then Indian Ambassador to the US, Meera Shankar was given a full-body pat down in Jackson, Mississippi, where she had been attending a conference. She had reportedly been singled out because she was wearing a sari.
At the time India threatened to review the privileges accorded to US Ambassadors.
The Transportation Security Administration was, again, unapologetic, saying diplomats are not exempt from pat-down searches and that bulky clothing is one reason for additional screening.
The Ministry of External Affairs summoned Donald Lu, second-in-command to Ambassador Timothy Roemer, and told the pat-down had violated diplomatic courtesies. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised to look into the incident, and the next day, the US tendered an apology to Meera Shankar, and to India.
On March 15 this year, Amritinder Singh – the coach of Indian golfer Jeev Milka Singh – was forced to remove his turban in public for a security check at the Milan airport. A distressed Singh told the press that he was being harassed despite being a sportsperson from a country whose Prime Minister wears a turban.
The Italian Golf Federation immediately sent him a letter of apology. However, he was subjected to the same exercise at the same airport by the same security official on March 23.
S M Krishna condemned the incident and India issued a demarche to Italy.
Indian actors have had their fair share of harassment at US airports too. On 15 August, 2009, it was learnt that Shah Rukh Khan had been detained for two hours. The actor alleged that he was not allowed to make calls initially. When he was finally allowed a call, he spoke to Congress MP Rajiv Shukla, who contacted the Indian Mission in the US, who secured Khan’s release.
US Ambassador to India Timothy J Roemer issued a statement which described Khan as a “global icon” and a “very welcome guest in the United States.”
A furious Khan said this wasn’t the first time such an incident had taken place, and that he was feeling disturbed after being quizzed about his phone numbers, hotel numbers and reasons for visiting. He returned to India five days later.
A few months before Khan, on April 29, actor Mammootty was detained at the JFK airport, and questioned about his surname ‘Ismail’. After remaining in the custody of the US Homeland security for two hours, he was released after the Indian Consulate in New York intervened.
TIMELINE OF KALAM’S CHECKS
April 21, 2009
Abdul Kalam frisked before boarding a Continental Airlines flight at New Delhi.
July 9, 2009
Show-cause notice issued to the Station Manager of Continental Airlines asking why action should not be taken against them for violating BCAS guidelines.
July 21, 2009
FIR filed against Continental Airlines.
July 22, 2009
Continental Airlines apologised to Kalam and India.
July 24, 2009
Transportation Security Administration says the airline was not at fault.
September 29, 2011
Kalam subjected to double security check, made to remove jacket and shoes at JFK airport.
November 13, 2011
US apologises after India protests and threatens retaliatory action.
November 14, 2011
S M Krishna says he will continue to address the issue with the US; Kalam plays down the incident.