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Ambassador's Address at the "People-to-People" Conference

State Department
Washington, DC

Under Secretary Judith McHale,
Distinguished members of the Indian American Community,
Ladies and Gentleman,

I congratulate Under Secretary McHale for taking the initiative to host this "People-to-People" conference bringing together a galaxy of Indian American community members from all over the United States.  This event is testimony to your growing presence in the United States, the strong influence you bring to bear in strengthening India-U.S. relations, and the great expectations we all have from you in taking this important relationship forward. 

With President Obama's visit to India only a little over a week away, there could not have been a better occasion to showcase the contributions of the Indian American community in realizing the extraordinary transformation that our relationship has witnessed in recent years. 

The theme of this Conference is particularly relevant. As India-U.S. relations move beyond what I may call the 'consolidation' phase, into one of comprehensive and multifaceted engagement, the content, shape and depth of the relationship will increasingly come from the creativity, enterprise and initiatives of our people, our private sector and civil society. And therefore, how well we nurture the people-to-people contacts will determine how firmly our relations will stand in the years and decades to come.  We are fortunate to have an Indian American community in the United States whose capability and contribution instills great confidence. Their ability to serve their adopted home in this country and make such sterling contributions to its society and economy is what, in my view, makes the Indian Americans such an important component of India's growing engagement with the United States.

We are all looking forward to the visit of President Obama. It is after 32 years that the President of the United States is visiting India in his first term in office.  This is a reflection of the growing weight of our relationship. 

The interest here in engaging with India has much to do with the way the Indian diaspora has helped in expanding and deepening India's image and understanding in this country.   Since the first Indian immigrants arrived on the U.S. shores, the Indian American community has indeed come of age, playing rich and diversified roles in almost all walks of U.S. society -- from art and culture to medicine, science, business, education, media, administration, politics and military, to name a few.  Tracing their ancestry from a country which itself has been a melting pot of cultures and civilizations for ages, they have taken naturally to the openness and diversity of their adopted home.  

The Indian Americans owe their success and achievements to their talent and energy as much as to the opportunities and welcome they have enjoyed in the United States as important stakeholders in American society and its progress.

The statistics are revealing. Indian Americans now constitute the largest Asian group in several states. They have one of the highest educational qualifications and are among the top wage-earners. Their ranks include eminent scientists and mathematicians, some of who went on to become Nobel laureates. 

Younger students are also leaving their mark. America's national spelling bee champion for this year is an Indian American teenager from Ohio. I have heard several American leaders speaking highly of the mathematical aptitude of the Indian American students.

There are 50,000 India-born physicians, many of them highly specialized, who are an indispensable part of the U.S. healthcare system. There are 10,000 Indian American owners of hotels and motels, who employ nearly 600,000 people. Around 40% of all hotel rooms in the United States are owned by Indian Americans, driving to a great extent the growth of the tourism industry.  The social mobility of the community is also reflected in its diversifying occupational profile.  Until a few years ago, the Indian American community could be almost exclusively categorized as professionals. But no longer.

Today, there are many who are making their mark in politics, in the Congress and in the Administration.  Dr. Rajiv Shah who spoke to you this morning is an example of that new niche. We have Indian Americans serving as the Chief Information Officer and the Chief Technology Officer of President Obama. The National Science Foundation is now headed by an eminent Indian American scientist.

We have a number of prominent Indian American figures who have won the popular vote to hold high offices in States. We have a Governor of Indian origin in one of the States.  Maybe we will have a few more in the not too distant future. Indian American names now figure among successful legislators in various States, having earned a firm following among their constituents over the last several years.  Many, I am sure, are on the way to making a mark in the Capitol in Washington DC. 

A large number of Indian Americans are now engaged with the legislative processes in the U.S. in an unprecedented manner. There are Indian-origin staffers on the Capitol, who provide a great deal of insight into and are intricately linked with the core functioning of the Congress. We now have both the House and the Senate hosting India Caucuses whose membership is truly inspiring in terms of the standing of its members as well as their numbers. These Caucuses have maintained close interaction with the Indian American community that has helped both to understand and project the priorities of the India-U.S. relationship.

I will be remiss here if I do not recall what an invaluable role the Indian American community played in seeing the India-U.S. civil nuclear agreement through the Congress two years ago. Their efforts were largely responsible for creating the right environment and understanding of mutual benefits to both India and the United States from the nuclear deal that eventually facilitated the successful passage of the 123 agreement. The fact that the agreement itself was a watershed in the transformation of the India-U.S. relations, makes the political activism and engagement of the Indian American community in the whole process that much more laudable. 

In the realm of culture and ideas, too, we can see a rich exchange taking place between India and the United States, which owes much to the bridge provided by the Indian Americans.  Terms like "Boston Brahmin" and "Movie Moghul" have an India connection. The popularity of Yoga and Bollywood movies in this country is another example. I was pleasantly surprised to see that some of the American Universities now hold Bhangra competitions and that many aerobic gym classes use Bollywood dance for their exercises. Since my last posting in the United States 15 years ago, I find that the number of Indian restaurants have multiplied not only in Washington D.C., but in many other cities across the United States. Interestingly, some of them serving vegetarian food are now also popular as kosher restaurants!

The experiences of the Indian American community are also impacting in new ways on India's own culture.  This is visible in the rise of pop music, as also in the way classical musicians in India are experimenting with jazz and fusion music or classical dancers are blending elements of modern choreography into their compositions. Perhaps a good example of this dynamic osmosis is the Aloo Tikki Burger served by McDonalds in India, which is vegetarian!

Ladies and Gentleman,

Economic engagement between India and the United States is going to be a key driver of our strategic partnership in the 21st century. And the role that the Indian diaspora plays in nurturing this partnership is truly impressive.  Many of the companies run by Indian Americans are not only investing in India, but also partner in attracting investment from India to the United States, thus contributing to the growth of businesses and jobs in both countries.

Indian Americans have been at the forefront of development of the knowledge economy, too, and shaping the India-U.S. partnership in this new and promising area. Many of the IT and software companies that they have founded and their technologies are household names in India and, possibly, the rest of the world.  The rise of the Silicon Valley, which has a large number of Indian American entrepreneurs is a tribute to the innovative spirit and creativity of America.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The success of the Indian American community is a source of pride and encouragement for the people of India.  The Indian Americans are the window to India’s culture, tradition and ethos in the United States and a bridge symbolizing the friendship between our two great democracies.  There is much hope on both sides in their ability and enthusiasm to build newer dimensions of our relationship. Today’s event is an appropriate recognition of that.

Many of them have been contributing in their own ways to India’s social and economic progress by linking back to the land of their ancestors, helping to change perspectives and outlooks and bringing a modernizing impetus to a traditional society.  I believe that what is sometimes referred to as the "brain drain" in India's context is actually "brain circulation".   Some of the Indian Americans are also offering precious insights to help India’s rejuvenation through our Prime Minister’s Global Advisory Council of Overseas Indians. These efforts are appreciated by the people and the Government of India and are a source of new warmth in the bonds between our people. It is to honour and strengthen these bonds that we commemorate each January in India an Overseas Indian Day.

Ladies and Gentleman,

If the list of speakers and participants is any indicator, I am certain that you had a stimulating discussion over the afternoon, covering a number of specific segments of India-U.S. relations where people-to-people ties have either made important headway or which hold great potential for future engagement between our countries.  These are also some of the areas where we feel the Indian diaspora, with its expertise and innovative spirit, can play an important role.

On each of these, we are taking significant forward steps to build institutions to promote our future engagement.  We are working on an agreement to set up a Global Disease Detection Centre in India.  Similarly, a Clean Energy Research Institute is going to be an important outcome of our recently launched cooperation in energy security, climate change and clean energy.

The Obama-Singh Knowledge Initiative launched last year is a recognition of the cultural emphasis on education in both countries as a means for advancement of society. It is no coincidence that there are over 100,000 Indian students attending various U.S. universities.  

And of course, our economic relations have a pride of place in the newly carved India-U.S. global strategic partnership for the 21st century.  While the Indian American community remains one of the important interfaces of our economic engagement, Indian companies, too, are contributing to jobs and prosperity in the U.S.  According to a recently released study, between 2004-2009, Indian companies have made greenfield investments across various sectors in the U.S. worth $5.5 billion, and $20 billion in mergers and acquisitions, generating and sustaining thousands of jobs in America.

To have the Indian American community members discuss these frontlines of our future cooperation adds greater value to their promise. I am sure your conclusions today would be valuable inputs to the blueprint that will be drawn for India-U.S. relations during and after the visit of President Obama. As I mentioned earlier, the future of our engagement in these and other frontiers would largely depend on the contribution of the people of our two countries and particularly, the Indian diaspora. Your constant engagement in promoting the interests of the India-U.S. partnership gives us the reason to be greatly optimistic.

Before concluding, I would once again like to thank the State Department and Judith McHale for organizing this conference and for inviting me and my colleagues. I would like to assure you that the people of India fully reciprocate your sentiments as we make a collective endeavour to realise the promise of our Strategic Partnership in the 21st century.

Thank you!