TSA subjects India's US ambassador to public grope because of her sari

The TSA is refusing to apologize to India's ambassador to the USA, who was flagged for an extended public grope because she was wearing a sari.
The Clarion-Ledger writes Ambassador Meera Shankar was in Jackson last weekend as a guest of Mississippi State University.

"While in town, Shankar met with Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, representatives from the Mississippi Development Authority and members of the Indian community in Jackson, and she spoke to more than 100 people at the Executive Lecture Forum of Jackson," the paper writes.

Shankar apparently was selected for enhanced screening, even though she did not set of the airport's metal detectors. Witnesses tell the Clarion-Ledger security agents told Shankar she was singled out because she was wearing a sari, which the paper notes is as "a traditional Indian robe that is draped across the body..."

The Clarion-Ledger writes "witnesses said Shankar asked for a private screening, but she was led to a clear box where two officers searched her in clear view."

"She is a very strong woman, but you could see in her face that she was humiliated," Tan Tsai, a research associate at MSU's International Security Studies center who witnessed the screening, tells the paper. "The Indian culture is very modest."

It all goes to show you: security theater means never having to say "your sari."

India diplomat gets 'humiliating' pat-down at Mississippi airport (Thanks, Zarabanda via Submitterator!)


  1. Doesn’t she know? If you want to not be humiliated like the rest of us, and be treated like a member of the ruling class, don’t fly commercial.

  2. Yeah more than likely, if I was her I would have given the TSA drones a hearty “Fuck you!” and returned to the consulate.
    As it is I think Hillary is dusting off the chopping block, heads will roll.

  3. I wonder why she didn’t just use her diplomatic immunity and bypass security altogether? Perhaps she was trying to see what it was actually like, or wanted to not get special treatment others wouldn’t.

    Big screwup on TSA’s part though, not realising her status and not giving her a proper private room. No mention of if they made sure female staff did the search just for that one bit of reduced insult.

  4. Speaking as someone who has diplomatic immunity (and posting anonymously rather than logging in, for work-related reasons), it doesn’t really work like in Lethal Weapon II, though it is fun to roar “DEEPLOMATIC IMMUNITY!!!!1!” with a fake Seth Efrikan accent whenever someone tells you that you can’t do something.

    It is diplomatic immunity *from prosecution*, which is intended to prevent international civil servants from harassment by the government/police of their host nation. Violating the spirit of this agreement, such as by purposefully flouting rules, laws or procedures, can get you in a lot of trouble. It was made clear to me, though I’m at a lower level than the Indian ambassador here, that if I ever actually had need of diplomatic immunity for something unlawful I did, I might escape prosecution but I would certainly be fired.

    On the plus side, traffic cops usually won’t bother pulling over a car with green diplomatic plates. Except in Geneva, where the cops are so totally over “diplomatic immunity”… they’ve heard it a million times.

  5. Who’s a bigger threat to US relations with the rest of the world: Julian Assange, or John Pistole?

  6. “It all goes to show you: security theater means never having to say “your sari.” ”

    They treated her like a piece of (Delhi) meat.

  7. I hesitate to refer to Her Excellency, Meera Shankar, as ‘diplomatic baggage’ but person and possessions of the Ambassador(and of any accredited diplomat) are by treaty and by law exempt from search or seizure.

    If the United States of America has withdrawn unilaterally from the treaties protecting diplomats, then India – and, presumably, any nation that has hitherto respected diplomatic status – has no further need to extend the rights of immunity from search to America’s accredited ambassadors and diplomats abroad.

    This matters rather more than US diplomats’ notorious reluctance to pay their speeding fines and parking tickets. It means that diplomatic communications and couriers are legally subject to interference, interception and searches.

    Nobody in Washington gives a damn about protecting American citizens within America against unreasonable searches and seizures, and they care even less about extending courtesies and legal rights to foreigners. But securing diplomatic papers (and more dubious items, from rolls of used banknotes to weapons and contraband) that travel in ‘diplomatic bags’… That’s a very different matter.

  8. Sickening. I read elsewhere comments, like “oh too bad that you’re being treated like everyone else”. I really don’t understand American thinking anymore. I’m an American, born in the 50’s, but have lived outside the US for over twenty years. It blows my mind how my home country has changed almost beyond recognition in such a short time.

    1. I am in the same boat as you. After ten years of living abroad, I don’t regret the time spent away and begin to wonder if there is really anything to go back for other than to see friends.

  9. Diplomatic immunity doesn’t let you go wherever you want, it just protects you from prosecution. Security can still oust you from a theater, or in this case, an airport, if you refuse to comply with their rules.

    What’s interesting is that TSA agents admitted that they’re going to single people out based on ethnic and religious clothing, rather than at “random.”

  10. Jackson!
    Such short security lines. On my last trip there, the only people singled out for the grope around were a Sikh gentleman and a Mexican gentleman.

    I am sure there were legitimate, non-racial profiling based reasons to pull them aside.

    When I hit Houston, the only people I saw getting that treatment was a small group of white gentlemen all sporting Mossy Oak gear.

    It was a strange day.

  11. A friend of mine posted a picture he took of a nun getting patted down. I’m not a religious person, but that was shameful.

  12. I’ve been in that clear box before. It was about a year ago before TSA implemented the “enhanced” procedures. I was singled out, I guess, because I was wearing a long dress (I didn’t set the metal detector off). TSA kept me waiting around awhile before they did the pat down. It was pretty innocuous compared to the current groping policy, but I was humiliated to stand in front of my fellow passengers with a stranger’s hands on me. And while the TSO wasn’t overtly rude, she certainly didn’t go out of her way to treat me with dignity. Thank goodness my husband was there to keep an eye on my belongings; otherwise, anyone could have taken my stuff as it sat on the belt waiting for the TSO to get around to my public frisking. The Jackson airport doesn’t have the body scanners yet. Not sure how that will work out deep in the Bible Belt. We shall see.

  13. I have to believe that this has impacted the number of people flying. Has anyone seen any stats on that?

  14. This would seem to represent a clear violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (especially Articles 26, 29, and 31) in much the same way that, more generally, these sorts of searches would seem to represent a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. However, I would assume that TSA/Homeland Security lawyers would argue that this sort of search does not violate the Vienna Convention for the same reason they would argue that it doesn’t violate the Fourth Amendment – namely, that it is a routine administrative search (not a search pursuant to a criminal investigation) that is both necessary and reasonable. I have argued in other threads here on Boing Boing that this line of reasoning is seriously flawed with regard to the Fourth Amendment. It is every bit as flawed where the Vienna Convention is concerned; perhaps even more so.

    I have no doubt that TSA/Homeland Security lawyers will point to the wording of Article 26 in an attempt to justify these sorts of searches: “Subject to its laws and regulations concerning zones entry into which is prohibited or regulated for reasons of national security, the receiving State shall ensure to all members of the mission freedom of movement and travel in its territory.” They will argue that TSA screening policies are part of the “laws and regulations concerning zones entry into which is prohibited or regulated for reasons of national security” – even though that is clearly not what this article is referring to.

    Of course, if the Indian government doesn’t protest this, the case is moot. But it would be wonderful if the Indian government filed suit against the TSA in U.S. Federal Court for violating the Vienna Convention. That might force the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on the matter; and, assuming that SCOTUS ruled against the TSA on the legitimacy of searching diplomats, it would be much harder for the TSA to justify its screening policies toward non-diplomats.

  15. Yeah, I’ve been given that excuse before: “we’re patting down everyone wearing a skirt”. It must not be very heavily enforced, because my last trip through security I was able to just walk through the metal detector with my kilt on. The “we’re checking you because you’re wearing a skirt” excuse was given to me at San Antonio International, while my recent easy pass through security was in Lubbock, TX.

    The most amusing time I’ve been given extra attention by TSA guys was a couple years ago. I was wearing a Utilikilt with a pair of New Rock boots, and after my boots went through the xray machine, one of the security guys picked up one of my boots and gravely asked me, “sir, are these yours?”
    “They’re really cool! Where’d you get them? HEY GUYS, COME CHECK THIS OUT!”

    1. Utilikilt *plus* New Rock boots, and you regularly go through Texas airports?

      +5 to you, sir.

      Years ago, I was pulled out for the special physical search because I did not immediately drop the youngest (a toddler at the time) and remove the flip-flops I was wearing (which did not have to be removed at the previous airport). Totally my fault: I foolishly asked the question “do I have to take these sandals off?” instead of immediately complying. They took me about 30 feet away and told me I couldn’t hold onto any of my children. Sure enough, the toddler started wandering off, while I’m being held in place and roughly gone over with the gloved hands.

      Every time I hear the claim “parents will not be separated from their children during screening” I chuckle bitterly.

      1. Every time I hear the claim “parents will not be separated from their children during screening” I chuckle bitterly.

        Less than a year after 9/11, my sister (a US citizen) was returning to her home in the UK (her husband is British) and was forced to undergo a search because she set off the metal detector twice (due to a foil gum wrapper, which was eventually found after they resorted to a wand).

        Because her husband had already passed through customs, she was not allowed to hand off their 2-year-old daughter to him. The agents insisted that she had to put the child down NOW. As she protested, armed agents converged and became physically confrontational.

        As soon as my niece was released, she darted off into the crowd like a typical “terrible two” is prone to do. The half-dozen agents refused to go after her, refused to allow her father back through customs, and when my sister tried to fight free they wrestled her down and held her at gunpoint.

        My sister has a marvelous command of French invective, and I am told she blistered the paint off the building over the next twenty minutes, but eventually she was released, her daughter was captured, and she made her plane.

        Just another day for the TSA! It’s been like that since day one, you sheep are just finally starting to wake up, that’s all.

        Remember, none of my family members were trying to take any contraband onto the plane. All they were trying to do was be good parents, and the TSA prevented that, because that is their job. Their job is to desensitize you, to make you abandon your dignity, to make you less of a human being.

  16. I’ve flown in and out of the Jackson, MS, airport – that it’s called International is a joke.

    My last trip through, about 3 years ago, TSA agents went berserk at the CMOY audio amp I had packed in my backpack. I was subjected to a pat down, my belongings dissected, questioned for 30 minutes, and sternly told that ‘homemade electronics of this sort are obviously going to get me scrutinized when carried on an aircraft.’

    Nevermind that the thing had traveled through Des Moines, Chicago, Denver, & Memphis and no one had even batted an eye until that point.

  17. Don’t these Mississippi morons who seem to be using left-over zombie brains from the Battle of Vicksburg realize that India has NUCLEAR WEAPONS???!!!

    Heads should roll. Hell, heads at TSA should BOUNCE, starting at the top of the stairs.

    1. amgunn, the number of stories of regular old folks getting raped by the TSA are too numerous to post on Boing Boing. They wouldn’t have room for anything else. So, it makes sense to only post ones that are unusual in some way.

      1. Razzabeth, my comment was directed more at the media establishment in general, not BoingBoing. You are right that BB has been fantastic in its coverage.

  18. I agree with amgunn. This is an outrage when it happens to anyone. A diplomat is not a special case. (Well, insofar as it could hurt international relations, that’s a special concern, I’d agree.)

    I’m actually sort of glad the TSA didn’t apologize. They owe us all an apology, not just the VIPs.

  19. I fly to South India every few years and I can say that all international flights leaving the country have the passengers go through a brief pat down. Female passengers get a policewoman and a plywood cubicle , not sure what my husband gets.
    From what I have experienced, a wand is waved and then quick check of the chest and waist area, nothing in the “crotchal” regions was touched.
    My last pat down was 2 yrs back.

  20. Diplomatic Immunity would only apply in a country that operated under Rule Of Law.
    The only way to get immunity that I know is to be a member of Congress. They’ve exempted themselves from such indignities now, in complete violation of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. (Of course, if you know enough about the Constitution to know that, then you may be a Terrorist!)

  21. Why the hell is what you’re wearing grounds for singling you out for an extra aggressive search? Do they pick a color of the day, everyone in navy gets a patdown? I can mayyyyyybe see if you’re wearing something metallic that freaks out the screening machines – so if the sari was the type with metallic thread or metal things sewn on – but otherwise there is NOTHING extra suspicious about any particular normal item of clothing.

    Also, if you ask for a private screening, that should mean an effing PRIVATE screening. Jesus.

  22. Zombie Ben Franklin says: They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. Oh, and braaaaains.

    To this day, the T&A won’t say if the Christmas pantybomber’s rig would be detected by the new machines. The GAO has stated several times that there’s no evidence that it would, but the TSA refuses to release any evidence showing that the machines are anything other than a revenue stream for the former Homeland Security head (now a lobbyist for the maker). Exposure to radiation, humiliation of citizens, costing taxpayers millions; at least there’s no evidence it does its job.

  23. I am truly sorry to hear of this nonsense and wonder why some sort of courtesy was not extended to the ambassador from India.
    Why is it that American bureaucracy can not solve it security concerns in a more professional manner other than using tactics that belong in a prison or involve unneeded irradiation?

  24. Apparently big breasts are a marker of a terrorist now.

    My H-cup girlfriend got the grope this weekend because she has to wear an underwire bra – being upright with no bra gets painful in short order, non-underwire just won’t hold ’em and the underwire sets off the metal detectors.

    I alerted her to the specifics for the “enhanced pat-down” ahead of time since she was unaware that it would be any different from the handheld metal detector and minimal patdown she’s dealt with before. As a result she knew to ask for the grope to be done in a private area, to have me be a witness and to have her belongings brought into that area to prevent theft or tampering.

    She’s threatening to do a “Flashdance” bra removal next time when instructed to “put all your metal items in the plastic bins” at an airport scanner conveyor belt. It’d be risky, though – a quick turn afterward and she could get charged with assaulting a TSA agent.

    1. Anon #39 Hopefully this will help your girl out:

      Land’s End sells tankini tops that I sometimes travel in. Rather than an underwire, the compression of the fabric holds you in place. They go up to a DDD, but because they’re tankini’s (long and tight all the way down), she may not be too big to fit into a slightly (1 or 2 sizes) upsized top (no wire helps- it’s just a question of seaming).

      Since we’re off season, she may be able to get one to try, and they have a really good return policy via web purchasing. http://www.landsend.com

  25. I am entirely opposed to what happened to her…and to the idea that she is entitled to treatment any different than any of the rest of us.

  26. As far as the original issue goes… I’ve been put into the clear box in shorts and a tank top. I had bought a last-minute ticket to fly into Austin the same weekend as a concert that had them worried about people bringing in drugs. I wasn’t even going to the concert – I’d won tix to the Hellboy II premiere at the Alamo, and had just found out.

    The box is an annoying place to be. Once they get you there, they “forget” about you for several minutes while your carry-on sits in full view of anyone who wants to walk away with it, and may have noticed that you were pulled aside. So even if you’re not doing anything wrong, the longer you sit there, away from your computer, clothes, medication, whatever, the more nervous you’ll look. It’s all designed to create a situation where probable cause exists. In my case, all this happened in 2008, so I didn’t get the “new & improved” treatment, but they were still friendlier and nosier than necessary. (Since when should I need to disclose my reason for travel within the U.S.?)

    What happened to the ambassador is both totally wrong and totally unsurprising. Hopefully some good will come out of it as the media have apparently found their darling in this issue. The TSA has been getting away with so much for so long now, and they just keep getting worse. No one in Washington seems willing to speak up against them, and look where it’s gotten them.

  27. Congratulations TSA, you have successfully convinced my retired working-class parents not to fly into the USA and possibly consider not visiting the USA at all on a trip that they have been planning.

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