Good afternoon. Minister K. Pandiarajan, Historian V. Sriram, Family of the “Chronicler of Madras,” S. Muthiah, distinguished guests, members of the media, and long-standing patrons of the American Center: It is an honor to be here during Madras Week to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the U.S. Consulate General building in Chennai, and to celebrate the founding of this great and historic city 380 years ago.
Chennai – which was known as Madras when I grew up – is world-renowned for its rich history and cultural traditions. And it is a city that has welcomed American travelers for centuries. Dr. Martin Luther King, who appears in a photo during his 1959 lecture at Presidency College that is featured in this exhibit, was among the most famous Americans to visit Chennai. But he was by no means the first. Chennai has attracted American diplomats, businessmen, and seafaring merchants since the late 1700s. Although we stand here today celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Consulate building, our official relationship with this city began more than 225 years ago, when President George Washington and U.S. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson appointed William Abbott in 1794 as the first U.S. Consular Agent to Madras.
Our relationship evolved over the centuries and, in 1969, then-U.S. Ambassador Chester Bowles stood beside Madras Governor Sardar Ujjal Singh to inaugurate the present-day Consulate. Ambassador Bowles rightly stated at the time, “The building which we dedicate today is a symbol of the deep-rooted and long-established relationship between the American people and the people of South India.” He called for “bold resolve” to preserve and strengthen the bonds that our two countries hold in common – democracy, human dignity, and economic progress. That year – 1969 – we also broke ground on River House, the Consul General’s residence on the banks of the Adyar River.
I believe that Ambassador Bowles and Governor Singh would be pleased and impressed by the breadth and depth today of our commercial trade and our cultural and educational exchanges.
The Relationship Today
Our people-to-people ties, as aptly symbolized by the audience gathered here today, serve as the bedrock of the U.S.-India relationship. Nearly four million Americans of Indian origin contribute to our nation’s fabric – our economy, our military services, our educational institutions, our medical profession, our technological innovators, and so much more. This includes a large Tamil diaspora numbering approximately 500,000 and residing across the United States. For many South Indians, their relationships with the United States began in this very building.
The growth in people-to-people and commercial ties has been facilitated by the hundreds of American and local employees who have staffed this Consulate General over the years. In addition, the world-class American International School in Chennai attracts diplomatic and corporate families from all over the globe.
The U.S.-India Educational Foundation is also housed here in this Center. For fifty years, we have welcomed South Indian students and professionals interested in study and exchange in the United States. Today, more than 196,000 Indian students pursue higher education in the United States, assisted by our advisors in Education USA offices across the country. There are also 16,000 alumni of U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs, hundreds of whom have risen to important positions in India, including four prime ministers – one of whom is Prime Minister Modi, two presidents, and multiple leaders from media, civil society, and business.
In addition to growing our people-to-people ties, our commercial relationship has vastly expanded from the 18th-century trade in cotton, tea, spices, leather, and, of course, ice. Today, the United States is India’s best trading partner and top market for exports. U.S. companies see great opportunity in India, and we support India’s efforts to expand trade and investment by continuing to open its economy. Every day, the Consulate’s Commercial Service Office assists U.S. companies in identifying new trade and investment opportunities, and our Political and Economic Section works to develop policy and business relationships that benefit both countries. The Consular Section in Chennai supports the thousands of American citizens who live in South India, processes applications from Indian travelers wishing to visit or study in the United States, and issues more employment-based visas than any other diplomatic post in the world.
As we mark five decades of operating the Consulate and American Center at this location in Gemini Circle, we celebrate not only our iconic building, but the people – students, dignitaries, American Center patrons, exchange participants, business people, scholars, and staff – who have brought special meaning and great substance to the relationship of the United States of America with this city and the larger South India region.
Today, we also recognize the contributions of S. Muthiah and his work to demonstrate American connections to Madras, be it through the classic black-and-white Tamil films of American filmmaker Ellis Dungan, or the warm welcome that he always offered to members of the Consulate community.
The new S. Muthiah collection is located next to our library’s history section. But it is still separated by a certain distance, because Mr. Muthiah always called himself a “chronicler but not a historian of Madras.” This space will stand as a legacy to his work and the power of people-to-people connections in our bilateral relationship.
Finally, I am so pleased to be joined today by Minister Pandiarajan and Historian V. Sriram. The Minister, in particular, is an alumnus of an organization that was formed in 1953 to honor President Eisenhower’s contribution to humanity. Minister Pandiarajan, I understand that in 2000 you received an Eisenhower Fellowship for your pioneering work in human relations services in India. We thank you and Mr. Sriram for joining us today, are proud to be associated with both of you, and look forward to your remarks.
Thank you very much.