Remarks by Ambassador Richard R. Verma “Shared Journeys Towards a Common Destiny”

Foreign Correspondents’ Club of South Asia
New Delhi, India

 (As prepared for delivery)

Good evening and thank you for such a warm welcome.  I am delighted to be here at the Foreign Correspondents Club of South Asia.  The FCC has been a Delhi institution for nearly six decades, hosting distinguished speakers such as my predecessor Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith, and I can think of no better venue — and no better group of friends – than this one to deliver my final address.  I would like to thank FCC President S. Venkat Narayan and Vice President Dr. Waiel Awwad for hosting me this evening. 

As I conclude my tenure in India, I depart with a deep satisfaction that our shared effort over the past two years has fixed the course of a partnership that will benefit and shape the lives of millions.  Today, at this very moment, the United States and India are working together on the most pressing challenges facing the planet, from combatting climate change to terrorism, from public health to internet governance.  Our work together doesn’t always grab the headlines, but we have quietly built up a trusted close partnership – one that President Obama calls “the defining relationship of the 21st Century,” with Prime Minister Modi referring to us as “natural allies.”  

Shared Journeys Have Common Starting Points and Destinations

Over the course of my two years in India I have often spoken of the relationship between our two countries as one of shared journeys.   I am fascinated by the connections that have existed between the peoples of our countries since the earliest days of the American republic.  I have spoken of the Indians who braved long sea voyages to trade with the first thirteen states and the poets and spiritual seekers who have traveled between our shores.  But I have also come to a deep appreciation that for journeys to be truly shared, they must begin from similar starting points, as ours have. 

For the United States and India our shared origins encompass an identity much larger than concepts such as Bretton Woods or Doha, or even Westphalia.  Despite the sometimes overwhelming clamor of our open societies, our identities as American and Indian citizens, equal and accountable to the rest of humanity remain tethered to our national consciousness.  It is a certainty that was present before Gettysburg, before Freedom at Midnight.  It gave rise to We Shall Overcome and Vande Mataram

I am not the first foreign Ambassador to be struck by the moral fabric of India’s national identity.  When the Greek Ambassador Megasthenes wrote his “end of tour cable” in the fourth century BC, among the “remarkable customs” he documented was that “the law ordains that no one among them shall, under any circumstances, be a slave, but that, enjoying freedom they shall respect the equal right to it which all possess.”  I can’t help but recall strikingly similar words, separated by millennia, by a famous visitor to America, Alexis De Tocqueville, who wrote, “No novelty…struck me more vividly during my stay [in the United States] than the equality of conditions” and “…all men feel that they have duties toward society and that they take a share in its government.”

Just as shared journeys have similar starting points, they also have common destinations.  And the United States and India have been moving in the same direction for a long time.  The constellation of great thinkers who have understood and celebrated the shared trajectory in the American and Indian experiences is a marvelous one.  In 1893, when Swami Vivekananda took his voyage to America, he did so without an invitation, not knowing where he would stay, nor even whether he would be allowed to attend the first World Parliament of Religions in Chicago.  But, like many before him and since, he set out in the belief that there was something in America that aligned deeply with his calling.  When Swami Vivekananda concluded his historic address at the World Parliament of Religions by urging an end to “all persecutions with the sword or with the pen,” he urged the citizens of the United States and India to look within and abide in the ideals of tolerance and diversity that ensure peace and progress.  It was in the same spirit that President Obama, during his 2015 address to the Indian people at Siri Fort, observed that as long as United States and India remain examples of common purpose in diversity, the world will look to us as leaders.  

At the beginning of the twentieth century Rabindranath Tagore perceived that the United States was emerging as the country that would guide a riven world through looming crises.  Over successive visits he appealed to our leaders, including Franklin Roosevelt, to stay true to the ideals and commitments in which our republic was born.  During his 1959 visit to India, Martin Luther King, encouraged Indians growing uncertain about their trajectory to cleave to Gandhian ideals and urged the citizens of my country to “help India preserve her soul and thus help to save our own.”

The Progress We Have Made Together

Inspired by visionary leaders, we have traveled far together and centuries later, the shared values observed by our visitors from afar today inform every element of the cooperation between our governments.  I can think of few other times in history when the leaders of two world powers met each other face to face nine times in the space of two years, as President Obama and Prime Minister Modi have done.  Energized by this extraordinary relationship, our governments have rolled up their sleeves and moved forward at a pace that few might have thought possible. 

Forty senior leaders across our government established formal dialogues with their Indian counterparts on subjects ranging from transportation to Central Asia to civil space cooperation.  This shared intensity of purpose has resulted in more than one hundred bilateral cooperation initiatives spanning the range of human endeavor.  As a result of our efforts, thousands of Indians will soon be employed building U.S. locomotives, nuclear power plants, and advanced military products.   We also stood together in a commitment to safeguard the health of our children, agreeing to limit the production of HFCs under the Montreal Protocol and greenhouse gas emissions under the historic Paris climate agreement.

Think back twenty years ago to the time of the Kyoto Protocol.  Who, in their wildest imaginings, would have thought that two decades later it would be the leaders of the United States and India that would join hands to lead the world in reaching an agreement to combat climate change?   In 1971, when the aircraft carrier the USS Enterprise entered the Bay of Bengal, who would have believed that the United States would one day be supporting the development of India’s own indigenous aircraft carrier, not to mention a future helicopter program, and the production of advanced fighter aircraft in India?   At the height of the Nonaligned Movement, who would have predicted the United States, India, and Japan would establish a permanent trilateral military exercise like MALABAR in the Indian Ocean Region and the Pacific? 

Understanding the significance of this historic moment our governments seized opportunities to cooperate in unprecedented ways across the full spectrum of human endeavor.  Our armed forces and development agencies worked together in the aftermath of the earthquake in Nepal.  NASA supported India’s historic Mars Orbiter Mission with navigation data generated through its Deep Space Network and, along with India’s Department of Science and Technology, is laying the groundwork for joint research in gravitational waves that will expand the frontiers of physics.  Indian and American epidemiologists collaborated on a breakthrough discovery of the cause of toxic encephalitis, an achievement that will save the lives not only of Indian children, but will protect families from Jamaica to Vietnam.   

We’ve seen a more than the five-fold growth in bilateral trade to $109 billion over the last dozen years.  We have seen more than one million Indians employed by the five hundred American companies in India and the hundreds of thousands of Americans employed by the two hundred Indian companies in the United States, representing record levels of Indian FDI in the United States

Along strategic lines, experts agree that the 21st Century will belong to Asia, and the United Sates has been proud to support India’s emergence as a leading power committed to the preservation of the rules-based international order.  The Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean region endorsed by Prime Minister Modi and President Obama during their 2015 Republic Day meeting, stands as a new milestone in the history of Asia – the first time two preeminent Asia-Pacific powers have committed to advance security and prosperity in the region, home to the majority of the world’s population and economic activity, on the basis of democratic principles and human dignity. 

As often happens when two friends set out on a journey together, we have changed each other in small but important ways.   The United Sates has a better understanding of India’s needs and aspirations; and we now talk proudly about supporting India’s rise as a global power.  And India has, as the Prime Minister says, “overcome the hesitations of history” concluding with the United States a defense logistics agreement, a shared network to exchange information on foreign terrorists, and issuing final approval for multiple long pending defense sales.  We don’t agree on everything – no two countries do.  But when we don’t agree, we now have the mechanisms, the relationships and, most importantly, the trust necessary to solve difficult problems. 

I like to think that a journey more than twenty years ago helped plant the seeds for this extraordinary cooperation when, as part of the American Council of Young Political Leaders exchange program, Narendra Modi visited the United States and stopped, as millions of other tourists have, to take that iconic 1994 photograph in front of the White House lawn.  Two decades later, Prime Minister Modi’s address to a joint session of Congress was yet another milestone in the shared journey of the United States and India.  I would like to take this opportunity to thank Prime Minister Modi for his leadership, his vision of what is possible when our two countries work together, and as he said, what we can do for the world. 

My Family’s Journey

   I am privileged to be here today as the result of a journey started in 1963 when my father landed in New York with $14 dollars and a bus ticket to the University of Northern Iowa.  He knew no one, had never traveled outside of India nor been on an airplane.  He remembers clearly coming to the U.S. Embassy in 1963 for his student visa interview – the building and complex were in the same location as they are today, and I can assure you not much has changed with our buildings.  In these past two years, I have often gone to the consular line and visited with those nervously waiting for their turn – and I often think back to what it must have been like for my father.

Of course, he did not have to go to the U.S. – he was the head of a boy’s school just outside of Jalandkhar in Punjab.  He and my mother were settled and happy.  Four children, lots of good friends, close relatives, with an undergraduate and master’s degree.   But a scholarship from the University of Northern Iowa – a school in America’s heartland known for its teacher training programs – was hard to turn down.  When I ask him today, why he went – he simply says, “I went for you.”   He wanted all of us to have better opportunities than he did. 

My mother’s background is equally compelling.  She and her mother defied so many odds.  She grew up in Jhang, on today’s Pakistan side of the border.  My grandmother was a school teacher.   She raised my mom and cared for the extended family, when my grandfather passed away at a very young age.   My grandmother was a towering and strong figure – I thankfully got to spend time with her here in India in 1974, when I stayed the summer in her flat in the Basti Shek neighborhood in Jalandhar.    

My grandmother and mother had settled in Jalandhar following the partition after taking that long, dangerous and difficult journey taken by millions on each side of the border.  My mother followed in her mother’s footsteps by going to college, training as a social worker and teacher, and later getting additional training at Gandhi’s Sewagram Ashram.  She and my grandmother were so kind, but so tough.  The grainy black and white photos I have of my mother during these times say it all.  There she is, the pied piper, leading groups of women in the fields, to collect water, to march for better wages, a true community leader. 

My mother would later say she cried for two weeks after we arrived in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where my dad got his first teaching assignment.  The town was cold, gritty and we were the first and only Indian family in the town.  While we were South Asian immigrants, our stories and experience were the same as millions of immigrants who had come before us — those that came mainly from across Europe and Russia.  We lived pay check to pay check, the language was sometimes difficult, and townspeople uncertain of what we were all about – what is that food you are eating, what are these strange religious ceremonies you practice, and why doesn’t your mother wear pantsuits? 

          I can remember clearly thinking, why do we have to be so different – why can’t we be like everyone else?  There were painful moments, but soon those became fewer.  We developed so many close friends and we became respected members of our communities, on the sports fields, and in the class room.  We didn’t stop being who we are, but we gained a better understanding of the people around us, and they began to support us and welcomed us into their hearts and homes.  We made our best friends there. 

Our journey was obviously not always easy – and we needed help, lots of it.    We needed the help of government in the form of student loans, we needed the help of teachers and neighbors who would confront and isolate those kids who would tease or taunt us for being different, we needed the help of the law, when some tried to take advantage of us, and we needed the help of political leaders to set the proper tone and create the inclusive environment that our country was built upon. 

Some have raised doubts about the current direction of politics in the United States and whether our traditions of diversity and openness are eroding.  We have confronted such doubts and headwinds in the past….and the American ideals upon which our country was founded have always prevailed – they will do so again.  It will require a resolve, and a commitment to speak up for those who may need a helping hand.  It will require us to live up to our finest traditions, to embrace diversity and to celebrate America as the great melting pot that it is.  It requires us to remember that the fight for social justice often takes place in the “small spaces” as Eleanor Roosevelt often said – the hearts, the minds, the cafes, neighborhoods and playgrounds of America – that’s where people need the help and the support of all us, including today’s political leaders, to ensure that all people are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.  That’s part and parcel of the American compact and history.  

I often think back to when my mother became an American citizen and how proud she was at that moment when she was sworn in and received her American flag.  My mother, a first-generation immigrant, spoke with an accent, wore Indian clothes, cooked Indian food, and retained her religious and cultural traditions.  But my mother was also a great American in every sense of the word – a law-abiding, tax paying, special-needs teacher who contributed immensely to her community and to her country – that is the American dream I will continue to cherish, celebrate and protect. 


In conclusion, I would like to thank President Obama, Prime Minister Modi, Secretary Kerry, Foreign Secretary Jaishankar, Ambassador Rice, and National Security Advisor Doval and so many others for their personal attention and commitment to this relationship, without which none of our achievements would have been possible. 

My own story is but one example of the countless journeys that have brought our countries so close.  The son of a teacher from Jalandhar who traveled to the United States with little more than a certainty that America would welcome him, I was nurtured by American openheartedness, served in its military, and educated in its traditions of opportunity for all.  And when I returned here to the land of my father’s birth as the envoy of his adopted country I was, in turn, welcomed by Indians of all creeds and stations in life, from Prime Minister Modi to migrant families making cricket bats by hand in Mysore. 

I would not be an Ambassador today had American teachers, neighbors and mentors not nurtured and encouraged me.  And my achievements as Ambassador would not have been possible without the warm acceptance and sincere friendship of Indians from Mumbai to Mizoram, and from South Block to highway dhabas.  I would like to personally thank the people of India who welcomed us as if we were family — as my Dad would say, as if we were all from the same place.  India will have in me a lifelong friend and partner. 

I often reflect on the interactions between great Americans and Indians throughout history – between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nehru, Vivekananda and Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Ambedkar and John Dewey.  Across vastly different periods in world history, through wars and peace, prosperity and want, American and Indian thinkers have come together to reassure each other that we are on the right path, and where necessary nudging each other back onto the road to our shared destiny.

I like to think that at one such interaction, a New York dinner in 1930, Tagore’s words on America’s moral responsibilities helped inspire Eleanor Roosevelt in her heroic efforts to bequeath the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the world.   I would like to conclude with words by both of these visionaries as we — all of us, in government, journalism, business, and academia — look to our work ahead.  As Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”  This call to undaunted hope, which is so critically necessary today, is perfectly complemented by a verse by Tagore, whose works Eleanor Roosevelt so admired.   “Let us not pray to be sheltered from dangers, but to be fearless when facing them.”  There are no better partners to confront the fears and seize the challenges of this century than the United States and India, working hand in hand for the good of humanity.  Thank you very much. 


 Link to checklist of accomplishments in U.S.-India relations, January 2015 to January 2017.: ntent/uploads/sites/71/2017/01 /Two-Year-UpdateWebsite.pdf