Remarks by Nisha Biswal, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs

Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Awards Ceremony, Bengaluru

(As Prepared for Delivery)

Honorable President Pranab Mukherjee, Ministers, Excellencies, Distinguished guests:  Thank you, it is such a great honor to be here today, accepting this award among such distinguished company.

Let me first thank His Excellency the Honorable President Mukherjee, Prime Minister Modi, and the Government of India– on my own behalf and on behalf of all of the recipients – for bestowing this great honor on us.

It is particularly humbling to receive this award from you, Mr. President, one of the most distinguished and decorated public servants that India has known.

The Pravasi Bharatiya Divas was established as a celebration of the influence and impact of the global Indian diaspora, in contributing towards and connecting their communities to their country of origin.

The Samman Award – the highest honor awarded to persons of Indian Origin – is indeed an award that recognizes the importance of building bridges and creating connections in this increasingly divided world.

This year’s recipients hail from 23 countries and include a Prime Minister and Members of Parliament who have become political leaders in their countries of origin, yet have retained strong cultural ties to India.

It was inspiring to hear of the Prime Minister of Portugal’s connection to India, and how he was influenced by his family’s Indian lineage.

The same is true across our cultural, artistic, and civic communities.  Dr. Sandip Kumar Tagore has devoted his life to cultural cooperation – strengthening India’s ties with Japan, following in the footsteps of his namesake Rabindranath Tagore.

Finally, there are award recipients who are lifelong community leaders – those who have contributed to their current local communities and to the villages where they were born… leaders like Ramesh Shah of Houston.

For all of us, the journey to find our place and make our mark has involved some struggles as we sought to establish ourselves in a new country and retain the emotional and cultural ties to our rich Indian heritage.

And there were times that we, or past generations that left India, felt the anguish of leaving – as was the case for my parents.

They left the small town in Gujarat, their family and friends, and the world that they knew to embrace a new world, encountering new challenges and countless hardships in search of opportunity.

Kanu and Lata Desai may have left India, but India never left them.

This gathering, and this award, is above all a celebration of that journey, and a reaffirmation of that connection.

And of course, in honoring those connections, we honor the most famous Pravasi, who went on to make his mark on India, and the world – Mahatma Gandhi.

I have been asked to speak on behalf of all of the recipients, in some part, because my very job for the past several years has been to be that connection, that bridge between the United States and India.

As Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, appointed by President Barack Obama, I have sought to deepen the partnership between the United States and India, between our governments, our businesses, and our peoples.

And the Indian Diaspora has been an important part of that relationship and has contributed to deepening those ties. They have kept the culture alive in their own families, but also shared it with their neighbors and schools.

Today, in America, Diwali is celebrated in every state of our Union, in schools and on college campuses – even in the White House.  And today, in America, you can send your Diwali greeting card in the mail with the first ever Diwali stamp.

Not too long ago, it was very different.  Emigres were accused by their families back home of betraying and abandoning their country of origin, and many felt pressured to hide their Indian heritage as they sought to blend in and fit in to their new homes.

But little by little, they stopped hiding and started sharing –creating understanding and building bridges between our societies.

Today, we see the results of those early struggles as Indian-Americans are leaders in the public life, in industry, and academia.  Indian Americans are omnipresent in the cultural life of America and have as a result become a part of that rich American tapestry.

Some of the largest and most successful U.S. companies – Google, Microsoft, Pepsi, MasterCard – now have Indian-American CEOs.

The success of the Indian diaspora in the United States is the story of America itself – independent, industrious, and ambitious people working for a better future for their family, their community, and their country.

Those were the values and goals that my parents instilled in me, and which have guided my career for the past two decades – especially over the last several years as Assistant Secretary.

As the first Indian-American to hold this position, which holds responsibility for all diplomatic engagements across the region – including the day-to-day management of the U.S.-India relationship – I have sometimes been asked how I prioritize among the interests of my birth country, and the interests of my home country.

Of course, as an American, I have always worked for the latter. But the wonderful thing about this job is that, far more often than not, those two interests converge.

They converge because the bonds between our two great countries are forged from our shared values of freedom, democracy, tolerance, and pluralism.  These values are not only enshrined in the laws that govern our countries, but they are etched into our very souls, and define who we are as nations and as peoples.

Much has been said about the chemistry between President Obama and Prime Minister Modi.  But the seeds of that relationship were sown decades ago when a young Barack Obama soaked in the Indian influences of his college roommate and a young Narendra Modi traveled across the United States.

Those shared values and shared experiences are what make our partnership a truly global one – a partnership that can fight the rise of the oceans, promote security on the high seas, deliver disaster relief, improve health in developing countries, and drive innovation and economic growth at home and abroad.

The progress our two countries have made together over the past few years, across virtually every field of human endeavor, has left me with great confidence – and filled me with great hope – that the United States and India will truly be the defining partnership of the 21st century.

And while those values and commitments may appear to be tested in recent weeks, where there is so much focus in the United States and around the world on the things that divide us, I am confident that our better selves will win out, that we will continue to build the bridges of friendship, both within our countries, and between our countries.

I am so grateful to be here today, accepting this award with a group of people that has dedicated and sacrificed so much, so that we can fulfill that sacred duty to those who will come after us.  Thank you.