US frisks Kalam, says sorry

India protests, threatens retaliation for action
Last Updated : 13 November 2011, 20:04 IST
Last Updated : 13 November 2011, 20:04 IST

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“We deeply regret the inconvenience that resulted for him (Kalam) as a result of the September 29 incident involving the security screening at JFK Airport in New York,” a statement from the US Embassy here said, noting that it had the utmost respect for Kalam.

Eighty-year-old Kalam was frisked in New York on September 29 before boarding an Air India flight home.

Sources said even after Kalam had taken his seat in the aircraft, the US security personnel forced the crew to open the door and took away the jacket and boots of the former president to check for explosives since they had forgotten to do so before his boarding. The items were later returned to Kalam.

Outraged at the frisking incident, India on Sunday threatened retaliatory action against US dignitaries unless such “unacceptable” practices were stopped.

In a statement, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said: “The ministry had immediately lodged a protest over this incident with the US side. The US government has promptly written to former president Kalam to express its deep regret over the incident and has assured us that it is taking corrective steps to prevent recurrence of such incidents in the future.”

The two governments are also planning to hold discussions to explore appropriate mechanisms for facilitating airport procedures for dignitaries, in accordance with national regulations, said the MEA.

The MEA said that incident happened when the former president, a regular visitor to the US, was to return home on September 29 by an Air India flight from New York.

“The US authorities have explained to us that, under existing US regulation, former president Abdul Kalam does not fall into the category of persons exempt from security screening. However, the US authorities extended usual courtesies to him at the airport, including escort and private screening,” the MEA said.

After the former president had entered the aircraft, US Transport Security Agency agents requested Air India staff for Kalam’s jacket and shoes, reportedly as these had not been checked according to the prescribed procedure during the private screening.

Air India staff then sought the consent of the former president, who had by then removed his jacket and shoes and settled in his seat, to hand over the jacket and the shoes to the TSA authorities. These personal belongings were returned shortly thereafter, the statement said.

External Affairs Minister S M Krishna spoke to Indian Ambassador to the US Nirupama Rao and directed her to take up the matter in writing at the “highest level” with Washington.

In its damage control exercise, the US came out with a written apology to Kalam and the Indian government, saying “appropriate procedure for expedited screening of dignitaries had not been followed.”

The US said subsequent to the frisking incident, US Charge d’ Affaires Peter Burleigh personally hand-delivered a letter from the US Transportation Security Administrator to Kalam and a similar letter was delivered to the government of India regretting the incident.

The MEA said Krishna has sought a detailed report from its mission on the incident which was “unacceptable.” The MEA  further said if this continues, there is a possibility of reciprocating as per diplomatic norms.

Sources close to Kalam said he doesn’t give much thought to such incidents and never complains about them. However, this time, his office informed the ministry about the incident after he returned home.

This is not the first time that Kalam has been frisked by US aviation officials. He was frisked by officials of US airliner Continental Airlines in April 2009 despite his name featuring in the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security’s list of people exempt from security checks in India.

A detailed report on the latest incident was prepared by Air India’s Director (Security) S Mathur and sent to the Civil Aviation Ministry which in turn forwarded it to the External Affairs Ministry in October.

“As the incident happened on American soil, I have been informed that US security agencies are investigating it. Such incidents should not happen,” Civil Aviation Secretary Nasim Zaidi said.

Opposition livid

The incident has evoked angry protests from opposition parties, including the Left and the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP). The BJP asked the government to take up the issue with the US saying this “cannot be tolerated.”

“The way former President Kalam was treated was an insult to him. The government must take it up with the US,” BJP leader Shahnawaz Hussain told reporters.
CPM General Secretary Prakash Karat sought similar treatment to the United States authorities.

He said that countries like Brazil had to resort to such retaliatory measures after US actions to their citizens.

Published 13 November 2011, 09:42 IST

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