“The United States and India Investing in the Generation of Tomorrow” Remarks by Ambassador Verma

Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India

(As prepared for delivery)

A Historic Institution of Learning 

Good afternoon everyone.  Vice Chancellor Talat Ahmad, Dr. Tasneem Meenai, members of the faculty, thank you for your kind words.  It’s an immense honor to be here today at one of India’s leading universities with such a distinguished group of students and scholars.  I understand Jamia Millia Islamia celebrated the 96th anniversary of its founding last week.  Congratulations.  Jamia embodies the very best of India and its alumni have made countless contributions to academia, business, media, and many other fields.  I understand Shah Rukh Khan even studied here for a time so your reputation as a celebrity university is quite warranted!

I’m proud of Jamia’s long history of partnership with the United States.  Over the past twenty years, more than 50 students and faculty associated with Jamia have participated in U.S. sponsored educational and professional exchange programs, a testament to the leading role Jamia plays in cultivating young Indian leaders.  For example, earlier this year Dr. Tasneem Meenai, Director of Jamia’s Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution, was part of a delegation from South Asia that traveled to the U.S. to learn about best practices in American university administration.  We hope to bring more university administrators like Dr. Meenai to the United States in the future.

Next week, on November 11, Indians across this diverse nation will celebrate National Education Day, in honor of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, India’s first education minister.  As you all know, Maulana Azad was a leading figure in India’s independence struggle and an early patron of this university.  I’ve always admired Maulana Azad’s firm belief in the power of education to transform individuals and societies.  He once said “The light of knowledge is strong enough to brighten the darkest recesses of humanity.”  In an era where we are witnessing a rise in xenophobia across the globe, Maulana Azad’s message of diversity and knowledge is more important than ever.

Education – A Family Commitment

I come from a family of educators.  My dad, who hails from Punjab and overcame the struggles of Partition in 1947, was committed to building a better life for his family.  He knew education was the key to unlocking new opportunities.  He immigrated to the United States in the 1960s and eventually became a professor of English literature at the University of Pittsburgh –Johnstown, where he taught for over four decades.  My grandmother was also an educator and, following in her footsteps, my mother was also a teacher in Punjab, and later became a special needs teacher in Pennsylvania.  Last year I had the opportunity to visit the school in Punjab where my grandmother taught and DAV College in Jalandhar from where my father graduated.

These were moving and inspiring experiences that reminded me of the strength of the roots we have here and that we are all supported by a network of friends, neighbors, family and mentors in our respective journeys.  I was glad to meet this network from Punjab, some 50 years after my parents departed – they were as strong and supportive as ever.  And we owe them so much.  I remind you of that today because as you look around at this great institution there’s no question you will one day credit the faculty, staff, and friends you met here for helping propel you on your respective journeys – wherever those may take you.

Growing up in an Indian immigrant family in the United States, education was front and center.  And you can only imagine what it was like to have two Indian educators for your mom and dad – bringing home a report card was a harrowing experience!  I also had no shortage of relatives insisting that medicine, not law, was the real measure of professional success.  In fact, one of my friends called me soon after I was sworn in as the United States Ambassador to India to ask whether my parents had come around to the fact that medical school was no longer necessary!

But I realized medicine was not for me.  I attended Lehigh University on an Air Force scholarship, where I studied industrial engineering.  Even though I did not pursue an engineering career, the skills, mentors, and experience I gained at university had a lifelong impact.  I subsequently attended law school, which I loved.  My law professors taught me to challenge conventional wisdom, to stand up for what I believed in, and instilled in me a lifelong commitment to public service.  In my two decade career in the military, the U.S. Congress, and the State Department, not a day has gone by where I didn’t use the skills I gained from my higher education.  And it all began with my parent’s passion for learning.

US-India Education Linkages – The Ties that Bind

This is why I’m such as ardent champion of greater educational linkages between India and the United States.  Last year, the number of Indian students in the United States reached 132,000, the highest number ever, and we would like that number to grow even higher.  We have EducationUSA advising centers in seven cities across India, which are assisting students in accessing higher education opportunities through virtual and in-person outreach sessions and one-on-one consultations.  I encourage all of you interested in studying in the United States to check out educationusa.state.gov.

We also have a number of first-rate student and faculty exchange programs.  The Fulbright-Nehru exchange program, which builds life-long bridges among our young scholars and academics, has tripled in size since 2009 and earlier this year we launched the Fulbright-Kalam Climate Fellowship to skill-up Indian and American climate experts.  29 scholars from Jamia have received Fulbright fellowships including Dr. Akhtarul Wasey, the former Director of Zakir Husain Institute of Islamic Studies.  He earned a Fulbright Fellowship in 2008 for his efforts to promote interfaith dialogue and also participated in the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP).  Barkha Dutt, who received her Master’s degree from Jamia’s prestigious Mass Communication Research Center, is another alumna who participated in a State Department exchange program.

Jamia has also been a great implementing partner for the English Access Microscholarship Program, which aims to provide English language lessons to young people between the ages of 13 and 20.  There are 100 students currently enrolled in the Jamia program.  Earlier this year, the University of Virginia launched a new study abroad program with Jamia. Two of the American students are returning to India to holiday with their friends and at least one of the students is applying to an Indian firm for her first job after college.  This is exactly the type of exposure and engagement we are looking to foster through study abroad programs.  We are encouraging more American students to study here through the Passport to India program, which aims to build internship and educational opportunities for young Americans in India.

Ambassador Verma in Jamia, November 1, 2016We’re also very pleased that India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development has included a recommendation in its draft National Education Policy to increase cooperation between Indian and foreign universities.  Many U.S. academic institutions are keenly interested in the Indian market and we hope this policy will be approved soon and implemented in a transparent manner.  We’re also looking forward to India’s approval of a bilateral Memorandum of Understanding between our two countries to enhance our government-to-government dialogue on higher education.

Education collaboration is just one part of the growing U.S.-India partnership.  Across 40 plus government dialogues, covering everything from health and clean energy to defense and counterterrorism, cooperation between our two governments has reached an unprecedented scope.  When I say the depth and breadth of our cooperation spans the fundamental particles of physics to the celestial bodies of the cosmos, that’s not just lofty rhetoric!  We are together exploring the most fundamental principles of physics through our joint work to build a state-of-the-art observatory to detect gravitational waves in Maharashtra.  And through the U.S.-India Mars Working Group, American and Indian scientists are unlocking new discoveries about the red planet.

The Promise of the US/India Partnership

Why does this all matter?  It matters because when the U.S. and India come together, we can make a difference in the lives of ordinary people. Ordinary people like my mom and dad, and your friends and neighbors.  We can also help overcome the shared challenges facing our citizens and people around the world.  It can be easy to be overwhelmed when you open up the morning paper or watch the evening news broadcast, with the dizzying array of new threats, challenges and transnational problems confronting us.

The 21st century is increasingly defined by a new security paradigm, one that includes terrorism and asymmetrical warfare, cyber threats, environmental degradation, climate change, pandemic disease, resource scarcity, and other non-conventional challenges.  Against this complicated global landscape, like minded partners must come together and leverage all the elements of our national power in order to overcome these challenges.

Strains to the international order, compounded by globalization and economic inequality, are also bringing to the fore voices who seek to exploit our fears and build barriers to cooperation.  We see this in many parts of the world, with growing pockets of intolerance and anti-immigrant sentiment.  This has included instances of unacceptable rhetoric against Muslims, including in the United States, and particularly during this Presidential campaign season.

In our quest to form a more perfect union, we may at times fall short.  But whatever our shortcomings, the democratic values upon which the United States was founded, embedded in our Constitution, must be the yardstick by which we measure ourselves.  Earlier this year, President Obama visited a mosque in Baltimore, a city close to our national capital in Washington D.C.  Speaking to young American Muslims, he said, “If you’re wondering where you fit in, you fit in right here.  You’re not Muslim or American, you’re Muslim and American.”  I love this message.  It reminds us that diversity is a source of strength and we all come together as Americans regardless of our backgrounds.

The same could be said of India.  Both our constitutions begin with the same immortal words, “We the People.”  Both our countries are melting pots where we celebrate and embrace diversity; respect minority rights and freedom of religion; guarantee equal protection under the law; and protect the freedom of speech and assembly.  The real promise and potential in this relationship is not any one government program, student exchange or transaction – it is in our shared values.

So as we look out into this complex world, and within some of the cleavages in our own societies, we can also be confident about our future and the future of India and the United States.  It may be a cliché, but when the oldest and largest democracies representing over 1.6 billion people come together, change happens and the world takes notice.  And that’s what we’ve seen over the past few years.  The United States and India standing up for the rule of law, the peaceful resolution of disputes, and accepted norms and rules in everything from cyber security, to environmental protection to freedom of navigation.  You see, there is this ripple effect that comes from U.S.-India cooperation – an effect that bolsters democratic institutions, norms and practices, not just in our two countries, but around the world.

Indo-American Leadership on the World Stage

It is important that our partnership, this bold vision of global leadership, have a practical impact on the ground, and that is exactly what is happening.  Our work together is improving the lives of ordinary people everywhere.  Let me give you a few examples.

  • Twice in the last 12 months, the U.S. and India have come together to combat global climate change, first at the Paris Agreement in December and last month at the Kigali Conference on hydroflurocarbons.  Ladies and gentlemen, this is global leadership in action.
  • 18 countries across Africa and Asia are working with the United States and India to advance global development in areas like agriculture, nutrition, health, clean energy, women’s empowerment, education, and sanitation.  We’re partners next door in Afghanistan and Burma, and farther afield in countries like Kenya, Liberia, and Malawi.
  • One of our trilateral projects is focused on food preservation.  In partnership with the Indian NGO Science for Society, U.S. Agency for International Development piloted a cost-effective Solar Conduction Dryer for use in India and Africa.  The technology, developed by five engineering students in India, is now being used by 1,000 farmer groups in Kenya to process and preserve perishable fruits and vegetables, increasing their market value by ten-fold.
  • We’re also working to build security capacity in Africa.  Earlier this year, the U.S. and India launched a new joint training program United Nations peacekeepers from Africa.  The first batch of nearly three dozen African troops completed their training in August.
  • Indian students and entrepreneurs are often at the forefront of innovation.  A few years ago, a small group of American and Indian classmates at Stanford University decided to work together to build a new type of baby incubator.  Four hundred and fifty premature and low-weight babies die every hour, and traditional baby incubators can cost as much as $20,000.  The students developed the Embrace baby warmer, a portable incubator for use in poor and rural areas that doesn’t require electricity and only costs around $100.  After graduating from Stanford, this Indian and American team moved to Bangalore to continue working on their idea and launch their project.  Hospitals across India are deploying this innovative incubator, saving the lives of young infants.
  • And let me briefly return to space because this is truly one of our most exciting areas of cooperation.  NASA and the Indian Space Research Organization are working together to develop an advanced satellite that will observe and measure some of the planet’s most complex processes, including ecosystem disturbances, ice-sheet collapse, and natural hazards.  This satellite is expected to launch in 2020 and data gathered from the mission may one day potentially save lives.

These are but a few practical examples of the promise and potential of the U.S.-India partnership.

Students as Leaders of Change

I spoke earlier about the immense importance that education has played in my own life and in the ties between our two countries.  However, I must emphasize that in my view education is not a one-way process.  In addition to your responsibility to learn from your professors and enrich yourselves, as students you also have a duty to champion those issues that speak to your hearts and to chart new paths in practicing the values you learned from your families and communities.  As students, like your colleagues at universities in the United States, you are the pioneers of your society, guiding our world into the future with new perspectives on age old problems and evolving challenges.  The questions and debates that will shape the 21st century will be first articulated not in the conference rooms of governments but in university auditoriums like this one.  As they impart to you the wisdom they have gained during their lifetimes, your teachers and parents are looking to you to challenge old assumptions and relying on you to help us all see things in new ways.

This year the world lost a great social prophet in a supremely innovative New Yorker named David Bowie.  The words he sang about change back in 1971 could have been written yesterday as he reminded leaders that young people striving to change their world are “immune to your consultations.  They’re quite aware what they’re going through.”   I join your professors, families and fellow citizens of the world in calling on you to be confident in the immense importance of your ideas and courageous in your willingness to share your convictions with the world and stand up for what you believe in.


During Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Washington earlier this year, he said, “A transformed India, with one sixth of humanity, will mean a transformed world.  I invite you to join us on that journey.”   This vision is fully shared by President Obama, which is why he believes the relationship between the United States and India will be one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century.

I would like all of the young people in this audience to take this vision to heart.  India is a young country, bursting with energy and ambition.  The median age here is 25 and by the middle part of this century India will be leading the world in every category: largest population, largest middle class, largest workforce, you name it.  In many ways this will not just be an Asian century, but an Indian century.  You all here today, through the skills and knowledge you acquire, by the values you embrace, and the dreams you pursue, have an unprecedented opportunity to make a difference in your families, your community, your country, and around the world.  Maulana Azad’s example is as relevant today as it was six decades ago.  We should all strive to replicate his commitment to democracy, to education, to public service, and to making a difference.  This is indeed what a transformed U.S.-India relationship is all about.  Thank you and best of luck to all of you in your future endeavors.