The genesis of India’s relationship with the United States of America can be traced back to 19th November, 1792 when the first American President George Washington nominated Benjamin Joy of Newbury Port as the first American Consul to Calcutta. But Washington’s move was ill timed as the then Governor General of India Lord Charles Cornwallis, […]

The genesis of India’s relationship with the United States of America can be traced back to 19th November, 1792 when the first American President George Washington nominated Benjamin Joy of Newbury Port as the first American Consul to Calcutta. But Washington’s move was ill timed as the then Governor General of India Lord Charles Cornwallis, smarting from the ignominy of having surrendered to Washington at the battle of Yorktown, simply refused to accept Joy’s credentials. Interestingly, The Star-Spangled Banner, the national anthem of the United States, was written by a 35 year old American lawyer Francis Scott Key aboard an Indian teak built British warship, HMS Minden, on 14th September, 1814!
Indo-American business relations began literally with ice! By the 1830s, ice had become a very profitable American export. The most famous ice maker was Frederic Tudor, the founder of the Tudor Ice Company who was known as Boston’s “Ice King”. In 1833, Tudor was approached by Samuel Austin, a fellow Boston based merchant of silks and spices, to ship ice to Calcutta as ballast to add weight to his empty ships. The first consignment of nearly 100 tons of sparkling clean Massachusetts ice, popularly known as “crystal blocks of Yankee coldness”, arrived in Calcutta aboard the American brigantine clipper ship SS Tuscany on 6th September, 1833, after an arduous four month voyage of 14,000 miles. Joachim Hayward Stocqueler, a colourful journalist and editor of The Englishman, the forerunner of The Statesman, was rudely awakened by his Man Friday who could not wait to give him the news that “burruf” (ice) had arrived from America. “There it lay” wrote Stocqueler later, “in a square mass of purest crystal, packed in felt and fragrant pine dust. A quantity of rosy American Baldwin apples reposed upon the surface of this glacier.” Back in his office, Stocqueler continued to write, “How many Calcutta tables glittered that morning with lumps of ice. The butter dishes were filled; the goblets of water were converted into miniature arctic seas with icebergs floating on the surface. All business was suspended till noon, so that people might rush about to pay each other congratulatory visits and devise means of perpetuating the supply. Everybody invited everybody to dinner to taste claret and beer cooled by the American importation.” Clement Littlefield, the American captain of the Tuscany, was presented with a gold cup by the Governor General Lord William Bentinck and the romance of American ice was hailed as an achievement of his government. A subscription was raised for the erection of an Ice House. And anyone who could afford an icebox invested in one of those zinc lined wooden contraptions. Calcutta’s banqueting tables took on an arctic character with peaks of solid ice and delicately sculptured swans bearing mousses, galantines, caviar and cold soufflés were washed down with gallons of “Lal Sharab” (red wines). By 1853, India became Tudor’s most lucrative destination, with Calcutta alone yielding an estimated $220,000 in profits. The Bombay Ice House, built in 1843 by raising public subscriptions, was a double-shelled structure that could hold around 150 tons of ice. It was demolished in the 1920s. A few of the structures built to accommodate the trade still exist today like the 1842 built Ice House or “Castle Kernan” built by Tudor in Madras, now known as Vivekananda House (Swami Vivekananda stayed in the building when he visited Madras in 1897!) – an engineering marvel! When a letter with a 90 cent Lincoln stamp was mailed in 1873 by an ice exporter in Boston to his office in Calcutta, Mahatma Gandhi was a toddler of four, Swami Vivekananda was a stripling of ten, and General Ulysses S. Grant (who in 1879 accepted the offer of the US Secretary of the Navy Richard W. Thompson to travel to India, China and Japan aboard the USS Richmond, landed in Bombay, saw the Taj Mahal, which he described as “the most beautiful in the world” and met with Lord Edward Robert Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, the Viceroy of India) was the President of the United States.
Like the United States, India achieved freedom from British rule through a revolution though in India it was a peaceful, non violent revolution under the leadership of the great apostle of peace and non violence Mahatma Gandhi, who influenced many noteworthy Americans like Martin Luther King and President Barrack Obama. The American people gave their active support in the struggle for our own freedom. In October, 1949, our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, made his maiden visit to the United States. In the course of that visit, Nehru, in an address to the East West Association and the Institute of Pacific Relations, New York, said, “May I also say that all of us in India know very well, although it might not be so known in public, what great interest President Roosevelt had in our country’s freedom and how he exercised his great influence to that end”. In 1951, the well known American professor Arthur Ernest Morgan presented Nehru with a brass mould of Lincoln’s right hand that had been cast by the legendary American sculptor Leonard Volk in 1860. When Nehru visited the United States for the second time in December, 1956, he told the American people in a television and radio address, “It has been kept ever since on my study table and I look at it every day and it gives me great strength…..after all, we believe in liberty, the dignity of the individual and the freedom of the human spirit. Because of this, we are firmly wedded to the democratic way of life and in our loyalty to this cause, we will not falter…..Our two republics share a common faith in democratic institutions and the democratic way of life and are dedicated to the cause of peace and freedom”.
During President John Fitzgerald “Jack” Kennedy’s tenure, Indo American relations reached their zenith. In an article published in the Foreign Affairs, New York, seven months before Kennedy’s brutal assassination on 22nd November, 1963, Nehru wrote, “Indo American relations have seldom been as close and cordial as they are now. The deep sympathy and practical support received from the United States in meeting the Chinese aggression has created a wealth of good feeling and apart from that there is much in common between us on essentials. President Kennedy’s vision of a world of free and independent nations, freely co operating so as to bring about a world wide system of inter dependence, is entirely in accord with our own ideas.”
Another very important development took place during the Nehru-Kennedy era. The titanic Indian philosopher President Dr. Sarvepelli Radhakrishnan made his very first visit to the United States. On 3rd June,1963, when Radhakrishnan alighted from the plane, the weather was stormy with heavy rains in Washington. Thereafter, Kennedy received Radhakrishnan on the North Portico of the White House. Greeting Radhakrishnan with a warm handshake and a smile, Kennedy expressed disappointment at the rain that had spoilt the warm reception he had arranged for him. To this, Dr. Radhakrishnan smiled and remarked courteously “We cannot always control events, but we can always control our attitude towards events.” Dr.Radhakrishnan naturally had the Indo-China war and the Cuban Missile crisis in mind!
Indo-American relations hit an all-time low under the Nixon administration in the early 1970s. During the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War, the US openly supported Pakistan and even deployed its aircraft carrier USS Enterprise towards the Bay of Bengal in support of the beleaguered West Pakistani forces. The Nixon administration’s support for Pakistan during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 adversely affected Indo-US relations until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The true ethos of the age old Indo-American relationship was re-captured by the prodigious lawyer, philosopher and linguist Pamulaparthi Venkata Narasimha Rao, who was sworn in as India’s 9th Prime Minister on 21st June, 1991. Rao took Indo-American relations to hitherto unattainable heights and walked the extra mile to give such relations a new and important depth, dimension and direction. He also emerged as the grand architect of economic liberalization and globalization in India. After his first six day Prime Ministerial visit to the United States in May, 1994, that saw him swing through New York, Houston, Boston and Washington, there was no looking back. Rao, was at his forceful best in explaining to Clinton that India’s security threat came mainly from China. Rao’s insightful assessment of China was indeed uncanny! His eventful five year tenure witnessed an upward march in Indo-US relations. Significantly, in the economic field, the US emerged as the largest investor in India mainly in power, infrastructure and many other industries.
On 26th May, 2014, Narendra Damodardas Modi took over as the 14th Prime Minister of India. He visited the United States from 26th September, 2014 to 30th September, 2014. He held meetings with Obama, members of the US Congress and political leaders and interacted with members of Obama’s Cabinet. He also reached out to the captains of the US commerce and industry, the American civil society and think tanks and the Indian-American community to boost his “Make in India” initiative. This was followed by Obama’s visit to India on 25th January, 2015 who became the first US President to be the Chief Guest at the 66th Republic Day celebrations of India held on 26th January 2015. During Obama’s visit, the two sides issued a Delhi Declaration of Friendship and adopted a Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region. On 24th September, 2015, Modi travelled to the US West Coast and thereafter travelled to New York for the 2015 UN General Assembly meeting where he had bilateral discussions with Obama. The enthusiasm, coverage and above all the hype that the trip generated was simply stupendous. The highpoint of Modi’s visit was his Bollywood style appearance at the famed Madison Square Garden in New York where he delivered a truly awesome speech to over 18,000 thunderously cheering members of the Indian diaspora from a rotating stage. In March-April, 2016, Modi visited the United States to attend the 4th Nuclear Security Summit and also had a bilateral meeting with Obama. Two further visits by Modi in June,2016 and June,2017 respectively were exclusively bilateral in character. On 7th June, 2016, Modi met Obama in the Oval Office at the White House and on the very next day he addressed a Joint Session of the US Congress highlighting the common traits of both democracies and the long-term friendship between the two countries. On 26th June, 2017, Modi once again visited the United States and met the newly elected 45th US President Donald John Trump. In September 2019, Modi visited the United States for the sixth time. On 22nd September, 2019, Modi made a spectacular appearance at the famed Houston NRG stadium in Houston, Texas, at a truly historic event described as “Howdy, Modi : Shared Dreams, Bright Futures”. The event was attended by a mammoth gathering of over 50,000 thunderously cheering people, mostly members of the Indian diaspora. Trump made his first official 36 hours trip to India in February, 2020 which commenced with his visit to Ahmedabad, Gujarat, on 24th February,2020. On 22nd September, 2021, Modi landed in Washington at the start of his seventh official visit to the United States. On 24th September, 2021, he met President Joseph Robinette “Joe” Biden Jr. at the White House in his first bilateral face to face meeting with Biden during which the two leaders discussed a wide range of priority issues, including combating COVID-19, climate change, economic cooperation as well as events in Afghanistan. In his welcoming remarks before the bilateral meeting, Biden said, “I want to welcome my friend…back to the White House. And, Mr. Prime Minister, we’re going to continue to build on our strong partnership…As..I think you know, Mr. Prime Minister, I’ve long believed that the U.S.-India relationship can help us solve an awful lot of global challenges. In fact, back in 2006, I set that hope out, where I said that by 2020 — when I was Vice President — 2020, India and the United States would be among the closest nations in the world with one another…I think that the relationship between India and the United States — the largest democracies in the world — is destined to be stronger, closer, and tighter. And I think it can benefit the whole world….Of course, our partnership is more than just what we do; it’s about
who we are.
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