The Indian foreign ministry has once again expressed concern about what it views as inappropriate airport searches of its senior U.S.-based diplomats after its envoy to the U.N., Hardeep Singh Puri, was briefly detained at an airport in Austin, Texas, for refusing to remove his turban, U.N.-based diplomats told Turtle Bay.
This morning's disclosure of the November 13 incident in the Indian press follows previous Indian complaints over the treatment of India's U.S. ambassador, Meera Shankar, who was given a pat down earlier this month at a Mississippi airport despite her claims of diplomatic immunity.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton, expressed regret over that incident. "We obviously are concerned about it," she told reporters last week. "We will be looking into it and trying to determine both what happened, and what we could do to prevent such incidents in the future."
U.S. officials said that while foreign diplomats enjoy diplomatic immunity during their official assignments in the country they are subject to the intrusive security searches imposed by the Transportation Security Administration. But the practice had led airport security officers to target individuals that wear national garb. Shankar was reportedly singled out because she was dressed in an Indian Sari.
India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also wears a turban, which is an integral part of Sikh males' religious, social and cultural identity. Sikh men, who do not cut their hair, are obliged to wear them in public. After the 911 terror attacks, U.S. authorities have sought to compel some Sikhs not to wear their turbans for official duty. A New York City Transit cop sued New York City after he was removed from his beat after refusing to remove his turban while on duty. He won the case.
Airport security agents in Austin pulled Singh aside into a an enclosed glass holding room for questioning after he refused a request to remove his turban or allow inspectors to touch it, an Indian official who witnessed the incident told Turtle Bay. "He said no, you cannot check my turban," according to the Indian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "I won't allow you to touch my turban."
The Indian official said Singh offered to touch the turban himself and to allow the security agents to run a check of his hands for traces of explosives, but he said that one security official refused. Singh insisted that the security official had no right to check his turban, citing TSA regulations for searches of foreign diplomats. "Obviously you don't know your own rules. Please check your rules," he told the security agent, according to the Indian official. "The person insisted that he had to do it. He said, 'Don't tell me the rules.'"
The Indian official said that the security officials finally checked the security regulations and issued an apology to the Indian ambassador. He said he was unaware of whether his government had filed an official complaint with the United States over the issue.
A spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, Mark Kornblau, declined to comment on the specifics of the incident but said the U.S. regretted his treatment."We have a great deal of respect for Amb. Puri and regret any inconvenience this may have caused."
(Update: In an interview with Press Trust of India, Puri sought to dampen the controversy by saying he had not been physically patted down, and that he believed the airport security guards were simply doing their jobs. “No pat down took place,” he said. “I said I would comply with the procedures but did not allow him to touch my turban. The guard was unaware of the new procedures so I told him to go check with his superior officer. The important thing here is that I did not let them touch my turban.”)
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.