“Advancing Shared Values,” Remarks by Amb. Richard R. Verma at National Law University

Law School and Beyond

Professor Singh, Mrs. Nath, faculty and student body of the National Law University, it is a great pleasure to be invited to give the Seventeenth Annual Bodh Raj Sawhny Memorial Oration today. I am especially pleased to be giving this address in your Moot Court Hall. It’s good to be back in a court-room – I have a great many memories (actually, even some nightmares!) about my moot court experiences and my trial court experiences. I just hope no one today plans to object to my remarks!

You should know that my parents were not necessarily thrilled with my decision to study law. Medical school – that was the true promised-land and the real measure of success. In fact, one of my friends called me after I was sworn in to be Ambassador – and he said “finally this is the one credential – Ambassador of the United States – that will maybe convince your parents that you do not need to go to med school!”

But I am so glad I became a lawyer, and truth be told, my parents were too. I loved going to law school, studying law and practicing law. I enjoyed the classroom debates and I appreciated my teachers who used the Socratic method to ensure we explored all sides of an issue and asked the tough questions. Our teachers taught us to challenge conventional wisdom, to stand up for what we believed in, and ensure we realized the special obligation we had as lawyers. I know your faculty here is committed to the same goals and ideals.

I went to law school because I was interested in government service, in history, and particularly in international law. I was also always interested in helping the underdog and those without a voice. Some of that probably resulted from being part of a first generation immigrant family. I saw first-hand how the American legal system helped protect vulnerable individuals. I realized the law was the best way to help those who are often left behind. The fair application of the law levels the playing field – status, wealth, and lineage are to have no bearing.

I graduated from law school 23 years ago. Over that time, I’ve been privileged to serve as a military attorney and as a lawyer in the U.S. Senate. I also worked in private practice, and have been fortunate enough to serve as Assistant Secretary of State and now in my current capacity here in Delhi as Ambassador. Not a day goes by where I don’t use the skills and critical reasoning I developed as a lawyer.

Over the years, I’ve tried to help people in need – in the military, I was proud to do thousands of hours of pro-bono legal services for military servicemen and women and their families; in private practice, I had the privilege of arguing an asylum case for a young man from Central America who sought refuge in the United States because he was being persecuted by gangs because of his sexual orientation; I was proud to be the President of the South Asian Bar Association in Washington and in that role was committed to helping people with roots from this region excel in the American legal profession. I know there is so much more to be done, and one day, I do look forward to returning to a profession I love and one where you can make a difference in people’s lives. Whatever career path within the law you choose, I hope you will keep in mind this obligation to serve others through the law. You are all so accomplished – that’s why you are here. When you graduate, continue to stand out, but most importantly stand up for those who need a voice.

Our Shared Values

You may have noticed U.S.-India relations, which have been on a strong trajectory for the past decade, have made great strides in the past two years in particular. Our two leaders, Prime Minister Modi and President Obama have met 8 times, including last week in China and then again in Laos. We have well over 100 initiatives that were launched in three big bilateral summits and there are nearly 40 government-to-government working groups that meet regularly on everything from global health and defense to cyber security.

Many people have asked, why have things gone so well? Let me mention a few reasons. First, there is a certain chemistry between our two leaders, that’s for sure – and that definitely helps move big issues to closure. Second, so many people of good will have been working on this relationship for decades – and it’s their hard work that has begun to pay off. And, third, our people-to-people ties have only grown stronger – there are now some 3 million Americans of Indian descent in the United States. They serve as a natural bridge for so much of what we do.

But I believe there is something deeper and stronger at the heart of our relationship – something that made Prime Minister Modi call us “natural allies” in a recent interview with Time Magazine. And, that is our shared values. These shared values were forged over the past two centuries by some of our great statesmen, activists and jurists. We know, for example, that American philosopher Henry David Thoreau, had read and was influenced by the Bhagavad Gita – a book he read at Walden Pond. We also know that one of Thoreau’s most famous works – Civil Disobedience, was an inspiration for Gandhi’s passive resistance campaign. In 1959, Dr. Martin Luther King would spend one-month in India at the invitation of Prime Minister Nehru, learning from the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi, and declaring when he returned to the United States that he had a greater determination to achieve freedom and racial equality through non-violent means. And, of course, the great constitutional scholar Dr. Ambedkar studied at New York’s Columbia University in the early twentieth century, under the tutelage of Professor John Dewey, another great scholar of democracy. It is now well understood that Dewey’s book on Democracy, and his optimistic and pragmatic approach to democratic systems heavily influenced Ambedkar, particularly in how democratic institutions and the political process were the best ways to advance social and political equality for all people, regardless of their race, class, religion or socio-economic background. These views are deeply embedded in the Indian Constitution – a document that I believe is the foundation for our shared values.

The American and Indian Constitutions start with the same three words “we the people”. We are governed by the rule of law, by the people and for the people. We have complex systems for checking and balancing government excess. We hold free and fair elections. We both have federal systems, with strong and diverse states, with shared power between our central and state governments. We both have bicameral parliaments, with one chamber designed to be closer to the will of the people, and the upper house, a more deliberative body, serving as a critical check on unfettered power. Our exceptional militaries are overseen by civilians, a key facet of a well-functioning democracy. Both our countries are melting pots – we celebrate and embrace diversity; we protect minority rights; we guarantee our people equal protection under the law; and we embrace and protect free speech, the freedom of religion and the freedom of assembly.

We do not share these values with every other country. As we know, not all countries choose democracy, inclusiveness, equal rights or free elections. Therefore, these are the roots of a special bond we share with India. The United States set out on this democratic path 240 years ago, while India shed its colonial rule some 70 years ago. Our democratic journeys have not always been easy, and at times our systems did not give voice to all of society. The American struggle for civil rights nearly splintered our country; women in the United States did not receive full rights until the 20th century, and they still fight today for equal pay; disabled Americans were not afforded full work place rights until 1990; and American legal systems were slow in affording full rights to the LGBT community. Of course, our fight to ensure our legal and democratic systems keep up with the challenges of today continues, as Americans grapple with income and racial inequality, as we strive to find that right balance between liberty and security in an age of global terrorism, and as we adapt to new discoveries in science and technology that were unimaginable when our founding documents were first crafted in the late 1700s. President Obama put it nicely this summer when he stated: “We’re not done perfecting our union, or living up to our founding creed – that all of us are created equal. All of us are free in the eyes of God.”

Obviously, India too has gone through its share of similar challenges, and like any democratic system, it will continue to face the stresses and strains inherent in adapting to the needs of society, particularly in a more globalized world, and one where India is a leading power on the world’s stage. As future jurists, legal scholars and legal practitioners, you will face a special obligation to ensure the core principles of India’s constitution continue to flourish, while also responding to the needs of Indian society across economic, ethnic and political lines. I think your own National Law University website says it best under your teaching objectives and vision with the following: “Our students will not only be shaped as change agents as the country achieves its social and developmental goals, but will also be equipped to address the imperatives of the new millennium and uphold the Constitution of India.” This is an awesome responsibility, and one that I know you will take seriously and discharge professionally.

India Rising

So, as lawyers and future lawyers we each have a set of responsibilities in our own democratic systems – and we cannot ever forget that. But we also have new and exciting possibilities for collaboration on the global stage, made possible by our resurgent partnership. The bottom line is that when the world’s oldest and largest democracies representing over 1.6 billion people come together, important things can happen. As President Obama has said, “What our nations can achieve together is rooted in the values we share . . . and . . . the world will be a safer and more just place when our two democracies . . . stand together.” Prime Minister Modi expressed a similar goal last year when he noted: The United States and India relationship must not be just about what our two great countries can do for each other, but what together we can do for promoting peace and prosperity around the world.

The great promise in our partnership lies not only in our work together, but also in India’s rising influence and confidence on the global stage, which of course is generated from strength here at home. By 2030 – less than 15 years from now – India will lead the world in key categories: it will be the most populous nation, with the largest middle class, the largest number of college graduates, the third largest economy, the most patent holders, and most mega-cities. You will lead the world in internet and smart phone users. Development and infrastructure growth will be phenomenal, just imagine how much will change given that two-thirds of the infrastructure and cities of modern India are yet to be built. Clearly there will be accompanying challenges in governance, job creation and security, but these are challenges that any large and rising power would face. Beyond the challenges, I see a confidence and excitement about the promise of the future. I see it here in this hall with all of you – and I’ve seen it across the 22 Indian states in which I’ve had the good fortune to travel. I often think that this India — brewing with opportunity and excitement — this is the one my parents hoped for. Their India was quite different – uncertain, riven with conflict and division, and the daily struggle to make a new democracy succeed. My dad often tells the story about how he was supposed to graduate from high school in Punjab in 1947, but the graduation was put off for a full year given the turmoil of Partition and independence. How times have changed.

India’s rise not only presents opportunities for India, but can shape a brighter future for Asia and beyond. That is why the United States unabashedly supports India’s rise as a great power on the world stage. India’s reach and influence reaches well beyond the Indian Ocean and South Asia. And this is a good development for the rules-based Post World War II order upon which both our countries have relied. Since the end of World War II, the international system has been built through global institutions, international rules and norms, with key tenets such as resolving disputes peacefully under the rule of law. When this order comes under attack – and it does from state and non-state actors alike – hearing India’s voice and understanding its views is essential.

Our Great Potential in U.S.-India Relations

When President Obama visited India in January of 2015 as the Chief Guest for Republic Day, the United States and India made their views clear in a joint agreement we reached on the Indian Ocean and Asia Pacific. It was not a long or complex document – it stands a just a bit more than a single page. But its brevity belies the historic nature of the enterprise on which the United States and India agreed to embark together. Throughout history there have been many agreements between great powers about geostrategic issues. In the past most strategic agreements between countries codified influence over territory based on military power. The Joint Strategic Vision was revolutionary in that it embodies a commitment by two leading powers that their approach to the most dynamic region of the planet will be guided by a commitment to honor and uphold the rule of law and universal values. I believe historians will look back on this document as an extraordinary inflection point for the 21st century. Two countries, resolving to base their approach to half the planet, not on territorial claims, or trade routes or political influence, but on principles of international law and human dignity. In effect, we have upended the bloc-based architecture of the 20th century and created a vision based on principles that have advanced human prosperity and progress around the globe.

And this revolutionary approach is not limited to one part of our planet. Technological advances are raising with unremitting urgency ethical and legal questions that would have been unimaginable to our predecessors. It will be the approach that the United States and India have pioneered, an approach based on a shared respect for human dignity and rights under the law that will be required to guide us through these uncharted waters. Recent advances in genome editing have provided us with the ability to transform life itself. As we become able to change the very genetic fabric of species, including our own, to eliminate genetic and infectious disease and increase agricultural output we will also begin to grapple with some of the most profound ethical questions humanity has ever faced.

Frontiers in other areas are being crossed on a daily basis. With the internet of things fast becoming a reality we will soon live in a world where not just our bank accounts and power grids, but also our vehicles, medical implants and homes will be dependent on online management, and vulnerable to malicious actors. These developments call out for democracies like the United States and India to work together to establish the rules of the road that will enable continued technological progress while safeguarding human dignity.

Our most tantalizing frontier remains before us with as our scientists begin to discuss space exploration and colonization in earnest. As we contemplate this step that will launch our children or grandchildren into the vast stretches of a universe ungoverned by human structures we must begin to ponder the charters and legal frameworks that will ensure that, as our species moves beyond our planet, we do not leave behind the ethical and legal principles that our ancestors forged over centuries of hard work and sacrifice.

As I ponder these weighty issues, I am reassured in the knowledge that the United States and India have established a new paradigm for addressing global issues based on the universality of legal principle and universal rights. As our countries did in declaring that our approach to the Asia-Pacific region would be based on a commitment to democracy and the rule of law, I am confident that the United States and India, led by lawyers from both our countries, will be at the forefront of establishing the legal and ethical safeguards that will provide for the uninterrupted continuity of human dignity and progress.


What I hope I painted for you was a rich canvas with India at the center of so much of what is happening today. We didn’t even begin to touch on all the many advances coming your way in the fields of health, education and international commerce. And, to be sure, there will be new strains as well. In the near term, the earth will get warmer, leading to more severe weather events. States will find it difficult to manage the threat posed by non-state actors, who embrace extremism, and want to return modern civilization to the dark ages. Disease outbreaks, rising income inequality and WMD proliferation will continue to present challenges to state security and public order.

But we have overcome great challenges before. And I know we will do so again. The challenge and opportunity before you is to find the place where you can add your voice and your talents as students of the law. You have a special obligation within this great constitutional democracy, and I know you will see it through.

Obviously, not all of us aspire to be diplomats, parliamentarians, famous court-room lawyers or Supreme Court justices – that’s ok too. Remember that the democratic experiment and the rights afforded to our fellow citizens are most often cultivated – and sometimes threatened – in the small spaces, as Eleanor Roosevelt said “so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world.” “Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice…” So, as we think big – about India’s role on the global stage, and of our new found resurgence in our bilateral ties and our work together, let us also find those small spaces, and as lawyers, advance our shared values and stand up for the equal justice enshrined within our respective Constitutions. I will strive to do my part – and I know you will do yours too.