Indian ambassador body searched at airport

First published in World news

A university says it will apologise to India’s ambassador to the US after she was pulled from an airport security line and patted down by a security agent in Mississippi.

The embarrassing incident, which one state agency official called “unfortunate”, happened a day after sari-clad Meera Shankar had been invited to Mississippi State University during an international studies programme last Friday.

”It was a wonderful programme, maybe the best we’ve had, (but) this stupid incident ruined the whole thing. She said, ‘I will never come back here’,” said Janos Radvanyi, himself a former diplomat and now chairman of the university’s international studies department.

”We are sending her a letter of apology.”

But a US Transportation Security Administration spokesman said diplomats were not exempt from the searches and Ms Shankar, 60, “was screened in accordance with TSA’s security policies and procedures”.

The incident reflects the strong emotions surrounding the TSA’s pat-down procedures, and raises questions about the proper handling of diplomats as well as foreign travellers with different styles of dress.

The Indian embassy in Washington declined to discuss the incident.

A day after her university speech, a police officer escorted Ms Shankar to Jackson-Evers International Airport for a flight to Baltimore, Mr Radvanyi said, and she was taken to a VIP waiting room.

The officer informed airport police that Ms Shankar was an ambassador, but she was later pulled from a security line and patted down by a woman TSA agent, Mr Randvanyi said.

The Clarion-Ledger newspaper of Jackson quoted witnesses as saying Ms Shankar was told she was singled out for additional screening because of her dress. She was wearing a sari, which drapes across the body.

TSA spokesman Nicholas Kimball said a number of factors could prompt a pat-down search, including bulky clothing, but he said the agency did not generally discuss specific cases.

Passengers at some airports are asked to undergo a body scan, but the Jackson airport does not yet have them.

Ms Shankar is a career diplomat who has served as Indian ambassador since April 2009. Among her earlier postings was as ambassador to Germany.

India’s relations with the US have been cool at times, partly because of US ties to India’s traditional rival, Pakistan. However, relations between India and the US have grown closer in recent years.

Mr Radvanyi said at least one official from the Mississippi Development Authority, the state’s economic agency, witnessed the search, reportedly conducted in a booth or room with transparent walls.

Mr Kimball said less than 3% of passengers received a pat-down search and anyone who asked for a private screening would be taken to a room out of public view. It is not clear if Ms Shankar asked for the search to be done in private.

”Mississippi has always had a good relationship with the Indian government and we hope that this unfortunate incident does not damage the perceptions Indian officials have of Mississippi,” MDA spokeswoman Melissa Medley said.

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