WASHINGTON D.C. — In a farewell exclusive interview with India Abroad—his first after the announcement that he would be India’s next Foreign Secretary— outgoing Indian Ambassador to the U.S., Harsh Vardhan Shringla reflected on his ambassadorial tenure and the key highlights, and praised the catalytic role played by the Indian American community in serving as a bridge in the burgeoning and continuously evolving U.S.-India relationship.
He said the Indian American community is looked upon by India “as a major resource in strengthening relations between India and the United States,” and declared they are “a matter of pride” to India and “an inspiration to all of us, particularly the younger generations” because it shows that “with hard work, entrepreneurship and integrity, you can achieve unlimited potentials.”
Shringla also spoke of his rationale for — of his own volition — reaching out to some disaffected members of the Sikh American community who were complaining about discrimination against Sikhs and Sikh Americans being on a blacklist and barred from travel to India, etc.
“Now, the way I see it, in diplomacy, you need to deal with not only those people who are with you, but more importantly with people who have a sense of alienation,” he said, and added, “The Sikh American community, by and large, has been extremely supportive, but there are a few groups that have been harboring some sentiments, and it is important to reach out to them.”
In terms of the key highlight of his stint in the U.S., Shringla acknowledged that it’s a no-brainer that it was the ‘Howdy, Modi!’ event in Houston, which featured Prime Minister Modi and President Trump together on stage speaking to over 50,000 Indian Americans from all across the country.
“For any ambassador, an event of that sort is very unique and comes once in a lifetime and I was really fortunate to be there at that event and to be associated with the run-up to the event,” he said.
Excerpts from the interview:
How would you describe your tenure as ambassador?
It has been a very intense year and a year in which we’ve had the opportunity to fully utilize whatever options that were available to us. There were a number of events, opportunities and challenges that came up during the year. Quite early, after my arriving here, we had the issue of the terrorist attacks that took place — terrorism sponsored by Pakistan. We had to take steps to inform the administration, inform our interlocutors, the U.S. Congress and others on this issue and we found a great amount of positive goodwill and sentiment, plus a very strong desire on the part of U.S. policymakers to make sure that terrorism in any form or manifestation is dealt with strongly. That was also evident from the number of statements issued by not only the president and members of the administration, but also by senators and Congressmen across the board. We also had around that time the Farmington issue involving a lot of our students. We believe that while the authorities had done what they had to do in accordance with its laws, entrapment is something apparently that is allowed under U.S. provisions, but in India, we don’t have any such provisions of entrapment and that many of our students were actually misled into believing that this was something that was actually genuine, considering that there was also a sense that this was also endorsed by the authorities. So, we had to deal with this on quite an emergency basis, and we deployed all our resources to deal with it, and within a matter of a week to 10 days, we had met some 150 of our students in different parts of the United States, including remote corners of this country. So, that was quite a feat that we insisted on and got consular access to so many of our students. We also worked pro-actively with community organizations to ensure that they had legal assistance — legal advice and guidance — and that in all cases, they were either released or allowed to go back home, except in the case of people who were organizers of this scam, and in those cases of course, the law had to take its course.
As you depart Washington to begin your new avatar as foreign secretary, what lessons do you take with you?
For any ambassador, a high point is always when your head of government visits the country. In our case, the prime minister’s visit was in many senses historic and unprecedented because it was associated with the ‘Howdy, Modi! ‘event. As you know, this event, which was held in Houston, included the participation of some 50,000 plus Indian Americans, but it also brought together on the same platform, uniquely, the prime minister of India and the president of the United States. You will have many events in the future, but you will find it difficult to replicate the atmospherics and the uniqueness of the ‘Howdy, Modi!’ event. People had come from all parts of the United States. There were 48 different states represented in that arena. And, of course, the fact that the Indian American community came as one to welcome the prime minister and that the speech of the prime minister was received with a great amount of enthusiasm, and what is unique — and I can say that to you with a certain amount of knowledge — is that I went to India after the event and I visited remote parts of India, including parts of the country I come from (Darjeeling), and everywhere I went, people told me that they had tuned in to the ‘Howdy, Modi!’ event even though it was very late at night. I am talking about people in the remotest parts of India, staying awake to watch ‘Howdy, Modi!’ and, I certainly feel privileged to have been part of that event. The president himself, conveyed later that he was not scheduled to stay back (after his remarks at the outset), but he was so interested in the speech (by Modi) that he actually stayed back. So, for any ambassador, an event of that sort is very unique and comes once in a lifetime and I was really fortunate to be there at that event and to be associated with the run-up to the event... it was such a great experience.
Since India Abroad’s key constituency is the Indian American community, what’s your take on the Indian American community during your assignment here?
The Indian American community has for us been the greatest catalyst and the greatest, let us say, ballast and support for the relationship. And, we’ve always counted on the community, and the community has always stepped forward unstintingly providing its support whenever we’ve required it. I’ve visited 21 states in the close to 12 months that I spent here, and wherever I’ve been, I’ve made it a point to go and meet representatives of the community, address community groups... The support that we have received in every form has been tremendous and all it needs is to galvanize the community. The community is there to say, ‘Tell us what we can do to further the relationship, to build bridges, to strengthen ties, between our country of origin and our country of citizenship,’ and this is where the embassy has tried to play a coordinating role of bringing different community groups, different communities in different parts of the country together. We’ve tried to work with the community and use the strength of the community in a manner that could be more meaningful and that is something that I take back as a matter of great satisfaction — that today, we are in the cusp of having a community that is far more organized than even a year earlier. A community that is aware of the national interests, the core interests that are important to us, a community that is willing to support us in these interests. So, it has gone from a vague sense of wanting to do something positive to a sense of purpose and direction and focus on what we need to do, and that is much more evident today.”
You reached out to the Sikh American community, when you found that there were vestiges of the old pro-Khalistani movement in the U.S. raising its ire and others who were complaining about discrimination against Sikhs and Sikh Americans being on a blacklist and barred from travel to India, etc. I know, you recently visited the gurdwara in Baltimore and reached out to them and engaged with them. What prompted you to actively engage with the Sikh American community and do you feel you helped to alleviate their concerns?
As you know, it has been a major priority of Prime Minister Modi and his government to try and address some of the long-standing concerns of the Sikh community, and those who were perpetrators of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots have been brought to justice. The Kartapur Corridor has been open, the 550th anniversary of Shri Guru Nanak Devji has been celebrated with the recognition that it deserves with the embassy playing a major role, and of course, a number of measures that are unique to the United States, have been taken to address (the concerns) of the Sikh community. Now, the way I see it, in diplomacy, you need to deal with not only those people who are with you, but more importantly with people who have a sense of alienation. The Sikh American community, by and large, has been extremely supportive, but there are a few groups that have been harboring some sentiments, and it is important to reach out to them. So, whether it is the organization of a large, special on Baisakhi, which I did at my residence, whether it is organizing a special commemoration on Guru Nanak Dev’s 550th anniversary on that very day on Capitol Hill, where we had three panels and a panel discussion on the contributions of the Sikh community, a discourse of Sikh history, cultural programs, or any other event that is linked to the Sikh community and also special steps I took by reaching out to gurdwaras, as you mentioned, the gurdwara in Baltimore, I was extremely happy to do that and go as a normal part of the congregation, and after the prayers, address them. So, all this is an effort to try and ensure that there is a sort of inclusivity that our country believes in — that no Indian or person of Indian origin is out of this ambit. I’ve always believed in pre-emptive diplomacy being the best form of diplomacy. You may not get credit for it because it’s pre-emptive, but you certainly would be doing a great service to your country. So, it has been a time of great engagement with the U.S., and the Indian American community, the Sikh community and various other groups and organizations. After the elections, we’ve had three meetings between the prime minister and President Trump.
We’ve had two meetings by our External Affairs Minister Dr. Jaishankar to the United States and that’s very unique because you can never imagine that a foreign minister of a country can come twice in a matter of two months to the U.S. We had a visit of our defense minister, we had two visits by our Commerce and Industry Ministry. We had a visit by our finance minister. So, we’ve practically had the entire cabinet community and security visiting the United States in a matter of a few months alone. So, all of that is producing results that you need because this relationship is based on the highest level engagement that you can get. It’s not a relationship that can be pushed at the official level. It needs a political push.