Thursday, July 23, 2009

Controversy: The frisking of Dr. Kalam at New Delhi airport

Reports say that Continental Airlines have apologized for publicly frisking Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, former President of India and a world renowned scientist while he was boarding their Flight CO-083 on April 21. The expression of regret seems to be run-of-the-mill stuff – no offense meant, this is our policy, do fly with us again.

The incident took place not in Delhi, Iowa, USA, but at Delhi, India. The Continental staff was told who the personage was and that according to the rules he was not to be subjected to a security check. Still they went ahead with the body search, brazenly flouting the applicable law of the country. Is the belated apology by the carrier the end of the matter?

One can understand America’s security concerns after 9/11. The protective measures they adopted after that tragedy have been effective. There has not been a single terror attack in that country since then. But body searching someone like Dr. Kalam is over-reaction. And it is not acceptable.

Some of the Americans are prone to develop a mindset that leans towards phobia. In the 1950s there was Senator Joseph McCarthy looking under carpets for Communists. The level of this Red Scare rose to such alarming proportions that an old baseball team, Cincinnati Reds, even had to change its name!

So much for the Americans. But what about the Indian officials at the airport? Dr. Kalam reportedly asked them not to make an issue of the incident. That, an expression of his magnanimity and humility, was only his personal opinion. The situation involved national pride. Possibly the Indian security men on the spot did not have the confidence to act. So they took the escape route – reported the matter to the higher authorities, in this case the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS).

I would like to imagine how a Head Constable from the erstwhile Travancore Police would have handled the situation. (Travancore was a former native state and is now part of Kerala State. Its police was famous for handling difficult positions with comparative ease.) He would have asked the man who was about to frisk the former President for his passport, or gun license/permit if he was carrying side arms. Just to unsettle the person. If that was not on, he would have taken the man in for an alcohol test, saying that he smelt of liquor.

Maybe all that is not exactly according to the specific rules. But wasn’t there someone at the airport with the authority to prevent the flight from taking off till the Commander of the aircraft or a senior airline official apologized? That would have inconvenienced the passengers including Dr. Kalam, but justifiable in a matter of National honor. It doesn’t matter to us how the Americans treat their past Presidents, but we respect them.

And what did the BCAS do? Weeks later they sent a show cause notice to the airlines. That was reportedly ignored. Only when the issue came up before the Parliament, did the BCAS rush to file an FIR. I am of the view that the entire episode should be thoroughly investigated and appropriate action taken.

There was an ‘opinion’ piece in a major National newspaper which said that we have too many VVIPs floating around. I agree. But that is not the point. As long as a person is on the list, he should be given the prescribed treatment.

The entire nation stands by Dr. Kalam. Such is the esteem the country has for him.


ER Ramachandran said...

Thanks for raising a moot point. Did any airline frisk Hillary Clinton when she flew from Mumbai to Delhi?If we had guts we should have done that. We are known to be crawling / fawning whenever a foreign dignitary visits India throwing our dignity to the wind! China has got the guts to do 'tit for Tat' on any of the issue including biometric checking at Airport. We had our once-fiery fire brand Defence Minister stripped to Underwear by a US Airliner and this was reported not by the Minister himself or any of the media but by the Under Secretary of State Talbot in his book!That shows our low self esteem.


Maddy said...

I do not really know if it is a rule or if it is a continental airlines rule. but whatever said & done, Dr Kalam came away a winner. I will only respect him even more after this, that is my take, for he set a golden standard that no hilary or bush or obama can beat.

I cannot but help compare the recent furore happening in the USA where a black prof was hauled up by the police

Mysore Blog Park said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

If this is how they treat our former President, we can imagine waht they treat us like.

Dr. Kalam, as usual, was dignified.

A very nicely written post, highlighting the issue.

Sunita said...

I wonder why something that happened in July has succeeded in shocking us only 3 months later.
I think that if an airline does not respect the laws of a land, then it has no business trying to capitalise on its billion-odd potential clients.
I have the utmost respect and admiration for Dr. Kalam. That just escalated 3 times over with his non-reaction to what the whole nation sees as an affront.

Anand Antony said...

Yes, the incident happened in Delhi but the procedure had to do with the security of the air plane en route to the US. IMO then the airline should have the right to carry out the security procedure provided it is conducted with dignity. Now some pertinent questions. Are all US dignitaries frisked according to the airline's protocol? Do Indian airlines have the right to have theri own protocols in the US airports? Was the frisking done with respect and professionalism? Is it true that the religion of Kalam played no part in proceeding ahead with frisking even after his status was conveyed? If the answers to all these questions are Yes then the airline has done the right thing. Otherwise not and the matter should be taken up. My opinion is that all dignitaries should be frisked when travelling in commercial airlines. One exception will lead to another and the safety may be compromoised at some stage. A past incident comes to my mind. Years ago JRD Tata was denied entry to an exclusive club in Pune because he was not in the right attire (the necktie was missing). JRD came back after getting the tie and later conveyed his appeciation of the sense of duty displayed by the officer. JRD was also a great Indian like Kalam. In conclusion the main issues are consistency and professionalism when dealing with issues like this.

Kamini said...

Bravo, Dr. Kalam! He is the only winner in this situation.
Thanks for a coherent, well-written piece on this matter.

Nebu said...

Frisking of Dr. Kalam by Justice (Retd.) K.T. Thomas

The news that A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, a former President of India, was recently subjected to security-checks by the staff of Continental Airlines at the New Delhi airport as he was leaving on an overseas trip has evoked a sharp reaction in India. Barring Mr. Kalam himself, there appears to be near-unanimity of opinion that the frisking of a former President amounted to humiliation. Mr. Kalam has not come out with a statement that he personally considered it a humiliation.

Frisking was imposed with extreme rigour in the U.S. after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre.

For passengers, such pre-embarkation inspection often leads to a harrowing experience. Yet, after that monstrous man-made catastrophe in the U.S., nobody is exempt from such pre-emptive scrutiny — not even the U.S. President. (I am told that for security reasons the U.S. President is being checked by a separate set of personnel). In India also security- checks became rigorous. Still, exemption is given to VVIPs. Should they be exempted from it?

In 2004 I was in the Cairo airport as one among 32 passengers waiting for an onward flight. The security-check involved the frisking of each passenger and the examination of cabin baggage apart from X-ray scrutiny of the check-in baggage. It took six hours to complete the pre-embarkation checking of 32 passengers.

When my turn came, the chaperoning senior officer was heard murmuring to the security staff a plea to exempt me from elaborate checking on the ground that I was a former Judge of the Supreme Court of India. A senior staff-member came and asked me: “Sir, we can trust you. But can you trust that none would have stamped a button type bomb in your trouser pockets?” I said I cannot. Next he asked: “Can you trust that none would have surreptitiously inserted a nail-type bomb in your baggage?” I said I cannot. Then he said: “Sir, this checking is not only for our security, it is for your security also.” I explained to him that I never wanted exemption from the security-check.

The remonstration that the former President should have been exempted from checking is over a non-issue. When Zia-ul Haq was President of Pakistan, he and his baggage were exempted from security-checks. His weakness for ripe mangoes was well-known. It has been reliably theorised that his adversaries managed to have a small packet of mangoes to be included in his cabin baggage, that one of the “mangoes” was in fact a small bomb and that it exploded when the aircraft was air-borne. All the crew-members and passengers in the flight, including the General, were killed in a trice.

What is disquieting is the criticism that a security-check amounted to insulting or humiliating the former President. In an egalitarian society like India, if something is insulting or humiliating to a VIP or VVIP, it is equally insulting to other citizens.

It is indeed an agonising exercise for the security staff of airlines and the security agencies to subject every passenger to pre-embarkation frisking, and scrut
inising minutely all baggage, whether it is cabin baggage or checked-in baggage. It is a monotonous and weary job when each day thousands of passengers and their baggage are to be individually checked. Some of the passengers put on a long face.

Yet, by and large the security staff does it with dedication because they know they are thus ensuring the safety of the air-borne passengers.

To exempt some persons from security-checks by categorising them as VVIPs is but the consequence of a hangover of a feudal and colonial culture. Let Mr. Kalam stand out as model to our ruling elite and other VIP-VVIPs to persuade them to willingly yield to security-checks in the same manner as any other citizen of India.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Thank you all for your comments. Today I have made a post on the views of Justice KT about the frisking of Dr. Kalam. Please do read it.

Kariyachan said...

More notable is the paranoia of the US authorities , than the frisking incident.

The utter contempt towards a former president of India, shows what a common man can expect while travelling to the US.

On a positive note, India can strengthen the security apparatus , and no exceptions should be allowed for VIP's either including visitors in the future.

For eg: In future if any Ex US officials visits India, give them a taste of their medicine.. just Tit-for-Tat..would we will show the courage ?