Once upon a time, as a school going kid, in the library of my neighbourhood, I used to flip through the pages of a magazine named SPAN. A few years later, this magazine carried on its cover a small photograph of a man in dark suit and a bow tie with long face and beard but no moustaches. I had no clue who he was and what this magazine was all about. But I liked the photo so much that I cut it from the cover and kept in my school book as a book mark! For no reasons, quite a few times in a day, i would take it out and look at it. My friends found it rather crazy for a kid to look at the bearded face of an elderly man that too from an unknown land!
One afternoon, when i was a student of 10th grade, all the students numbering around 2000 were suddenly asked to assemble in the playground. There emerged the Principal of my college Mr Paliwal accompanied by other teachers. He announced in a sombre tone that the American President John F Kennedy had been assassinated. So, as a mark of our respect to him, the college will remain closed for the remaining day; in other words, we all could go home. While most of us didn’t mind going home a few hours early, we were also wondering why an Indian school should close for a foreign President killed in a country called USA several thousand miles away! To our immature and adolescent minds, it didn’t make much sense.
When in 1965 ,I joined Allhabad University in the city of Pt Jawahar Lal Nehru and the Sangam, confluence, of River Ganges, Jamuna and the invisible Sarswati, called the Oxford of the East, We heard the names of Oxford university, Cambridge University and the London School of Economics but seldom of Harvard, MIT and Stanford .Evidently colonial connections were still fresh and the fact that so many of Indian political leaders who studied in the UK came back and plunged in the national struggle for independence attached a degree of intellectual halo to the big Three Universities of UK; something which couldn’t be said about the American Universities. The two national leaders who studied in American Universities in pre-Independence era and played significant role in the public life in India after Independence were Dr BR Ambedkar and Jayaprakash Narayan.
But by the time I joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1972,I had come to know that SPAN was a magazine brought by the American Embassy in New Delhi, it still appears and the photo which I cut was that of President Abraham Lincoln ,one of the most respected American Presidents whose inaugural speech is widely and frequently quoted in India and the President for whom my college was closed was President John F Kennedy whose idealism still inspires millions across the globe and whose Camelot years are remembered by a whole generation of his time. He was arguably the most popular US President ever!
Funnily, as a young officer I was advised along with my peers not to read SPAN nor remain in touch with the American Embassy lest we were thoroughly brainwashed and possibly recruited by the CIA!! When I look back, I can’t resist a hearty laugh at this implausible argument. It showed the degree of suspicion harboured in the Govt Channels against the CIA. But it wasn’t onesided affairs, American leadership harboured similar, at times, more laughable suspicions against top Indian leaders. In a classified telegram to the US Ambassador in early 50s , declassified several years back, President Henry Truman is believed to have advised him to keep a close watch on Pt Jawahar Lal Nehru, the first PM of India, because the way he sat on his chair convinced him(President Truman) that he(Pt.Nehru) was a confirmed Communist !!
When I arrived in Santiago, Chile in Dec 1975, still reeling under the after-effects of assassination of democratically elected President Salvador Allende and seizure of power by the Military Junta headed by Agusto Pinochet, I was just a Second Secretary. Nevertheless, I was inducted as the CD’A of India with additional Charge of the Soviet and Czech Missions whose countries have broken relations and withdrawn their Ambassador. But I wasn’t alone; there were as many as 23 junior diplomats like me and including the tall, handsome American Cd’A who had a very beautiful and charming wife.
In 1978 on our way from Santiago to Hong Kong we passed though New York with our 3 year old son. One day, after the city tour in a bus and barely escaping getting mugged in downtown, by the time we reached the 5th Street, our son was so fagged out that we took refuge in a Cinema hall. While we watched the Star War, our son Manu slept soundly in a chair next to ours! He has no recollection of that afternoon or the iconic film which we saw.
In 19-85-86 ,in Damascus, in Syria, I used to know a tall American diplomat with rather tough demeanour but with sharp intellect named Ms Glaspie, Counsellor (POL) who rose to great fame during the first Gulf War; she allegedly conveyed the message which Saddam Hussein misread with tragic consequences.
During 1990-1995, in Maputo, Mozambique, the poorest country on earth facing a decade and half long civil war thanks to the rivalry of the Soviet Union and the US supporting respectively the govt of Samora Machel & later of Joaquim Alberto Chissano controlling cities and the rebels controlling the rural hinterland under Afonso Dhlakama .Without ever letting our differences spill over, I was on best of friendly terms with the two American Ambassadors namely David Ransom and Denis Jett!.
Ambassador Bellamy not only dined at the India House in Nairobi, Kenya in the company of the likes of Dream Girl Hema Malini ,Saod Maestro Usatd Amjad Ali Khan, danseuse Sonal Mansingh and politicos like Somnath Chattrejee, Speaker of Lok Sabha but also participated as a keynote speaker in my symposium: Gandhi in the 21st century at the UNEP HQ in Nairobi.
But my fascination for America as a country, it’s environment, work culture, attitude encouraging competition, innovation and excellence which encourage thousands of young, enterprising individuals to make their dreams come true, it’s willingness to embrace peoples from different countries espousing different religions, political systems, beliefs, customs, traditions, value systems ,cultural ethos grew stronger during my stint as the Consul General of India in Chicago, the windy city with two of world’s great Universities ie University of Chicago & North-western University! While the US Govt imposed a series of very stringent sanctions against India after she carried out nuclear test in May 1998 fooling the CIA and all other American Agencies monitoring such developments and banned Indian scientists, I encountered no problem whatsoever in organising a series of talks, discussions, film weeks, musical soirée, painting ,exhibitions, dance performances at Chicago University, North-western & North-eastern, Loyola, Wisconsin, Marquette Universities, Gene Siskel Film Center, Arts Council, International House, Chicago Cultutal Center etc. In fact ,it was amazing to hear Prof John Mearsheimer mount scathing attack at the American Govt for imposing sanction on India for carrying out nuclear tests while retaining thousands of warheads which made Allen Center erupt in a huge round of applause. Presidents of Chicago university, North western and North-eastern namely Don Randel, Henry Bienen, Dr Steinberg, Rudolph and Sussane Lyod, Prof Ralph Nicholas, Prof Matha Nussbaum, Prof Dipak Jain, Prof Ragurm Rajan, Prof CK Prahlad, Dr Patricia Walker, Presidents of Columbia college & Kent college of Law, Dr Marshall Bouton of Chicago Council of Global affairs, Kareena Kostenlusta of Executives Club, Dick Friedman of National Strategy Forum, Tom Miner of Mid America Committee continued doing business and carrying out our dialogue for creating greater understanding and friendship between India and the US. Congressmen/women and Senators such as Jan Schakowsky, Judy Biggert, Danny Davis, Jesse Jackson Jr, Mark Kirk, Frank Upturn , Henry Hyde, Carl Levin, Joe Biden were more than happy to interact with The Indian Consul General notwithstanding the Sanctions .
Here in lies the message, let the Govts and its various Agencies & the Business communities do their job. And let the opinion makers from different walks of life in the two countries continue networking, inter-facing, interacting and exchanging thoughts, ideas and views on a host of issues which are relevant for the peoples of India and the US .There is so much to learn from each other and so much to share and do without straining resources and energy of the Govts and their official channels. Greater understanding and appreciation of each other’s history, political, legal and social systems, centuries old values, customs and traditions, cultural heritage: Fine art, litt, music, dance, academia, theatre, films, photography, sports and other spheres of larger interest is bound to bring the peoples of the two countries nearer and closer and generate friendship and goodwill between the oldest and the largest democracies.
To the extent the Indo American Friendship Association, New Delhi is able to pursue and achieve this laudable goal, it would have served the basic objective of its creation. I urge all likeminded people who wish to see closer and warmer relations between India and the US to support and strengthen the endeavours of IAFA.