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Frisking of former president causes a storm in India

Last update - Thursday, July 30, 2009, 13:07 By Metro Éireann

A diplomatic row over the “unpardonable” frisking of a former Indian president last April shows no sign of cooling down.

Airline staff carried out a body check on 77-year-old Abdul Kalam before he embarked on a flight from Delhi to New York. The incident, which breached diplomatic protocol, was roundly blasted by the Indian Parliament – with Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel describing it as “unpardonable” and demanding “corrective action”.
Kalam, a former nuclear scientist, insists he has yet to receive an apology for the pre-boarding incident, despite a statement from the US-based Continental Airlines that it has formally apologised for any “misunderstanding and/or inconvenience related to the security screening on 21 April”.
The frisking, in which Kalam was required to remove his shoes and undergo a full body check, was done under US Department of Homeland Security regulations designed to prevent repeats of the September 11 hijackings and last year’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
But the search violates Indian protocol for the treatment of VIPs and is considered deeply disrespectful by Indian cultural standards.
Continental was initially unrepentant for the incident, claiming it was a routine to search everybody. But when the Indian Bureau of Civil Aviation Security later reported the airline’s ground staff to the police for “wrongfully” carrying out a body check of Kalam, the airline made an about-face.
“Our intention was never to offend the sentiments of [former President] Kalam,” read a subsequent statement. “We apologise to him for any inconvenience caused.”
The case is causing a storm of controversy among Indians at home and abroad, and has raised some discussion about whether some traditional customs should continue.
“There are lots of different cultures in India and there is a certain etiquette of having respect for venerated people,” says London-based Indie Pearson, 34. “But this custom is dying out, and personally I don’t think that it is the worst thing that could happen.”
Before becoming president, Abdul Kalam was a celebrated author, nuclear scientist and pioneer of the Indian space programme. He has visionary plans for India to become a ‘knowledge superpower’ which will take a more proactive stance in international relations, and regards his work on India’s nuclear weapons programme as a way to assert India’s place in the world.
Kalam has been heavily decorated with India’s top awards and honorary degrees from universities all over the world.
The incident occurred as he was travelling to the United States to be honoured with the Hoover Medal, America’s top engineering prize, for his outstanding contribution to public service.

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