Pioneers Who Brought India and America Closer

Second of a three part series highlighting how the ties between the world two largest democracies are rooted in history. The first article can be found here.

In 1893 author Mark Twain filed for bankruptcy. He had invested most of his wealth from his Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn books into failed publishing and printing ventures. To monetize his fame and regain liquidity Twain undertook took a year-long speaking voyage.

He spent three months in India of which he later wrote it is "the country of a hundred nations and a hundred tongues, ... the one sole country under the sun that is endowed with an imperishable interest for alien persons, for lettered and ignorant, wise and fool, rich and poor, bonded and free." Twain travelled to Bombay (now Mumbai), Poona (Pune), Allahabad, Banaras (Varanasi), Calcutta (Kolkatta), Darjeeling, Agra, Jaipur and Delhi and spoke to paying audiences of thousands at each location. Twain ultimately paid off his debts.

Johnny Appleseed of India

Throughout the 20th Century a few remarkable men and women from India and America created an impact on the other country. Here are a few of their stories.

A Quaker from a wealthy family, twenty-two year old American Samuel Evans Stokes arrived in the foothills of India's Himalaya Mountains in 1904 as a missionary. Stokes ultimately married an Indian woman, became a prominent leader in India's Congress party and its fight for the country's independence and converted to Hindusim.

Changing his name to Satyananda Stokes, he also became famous for bringing American apples and orchards to the town of Kotgarh. Some called him the Johnny Appleseed of India. Today Kotgarh and the surrounding areas of Himachal Pradesh are renowned for their apples, thanks to an intrepid American. (Vinod Stokes, his grandson, taught me Dynamics and Mechanics of Solids when I was a mechanical engineering student at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur. More on that school later in our story.).

Meanwhile, in America

Here in America, more than 20 million adults practice the ancient Indian art of yoga today. Many of those don't even realize that yoga originated in India.

It all began when Paramhansa Yogananda landed in Boston on board the SS City of Sparta in 1920 and began teaching meditation. Among his followers was the daughter of Mark Twain, Clara Clemens Gabrilowitsch. Yogananda moved to California and established the Self Realization Fellowship, a church which lives on today. Yogananda was followed by many celebrity promoters from India, including Mahesh Yogi, Bikram Choudhury, B.K.S. Iyengar and Yogi Bhajan. In fact the yoga "industry" in America now exceeds $25 billion in annual revenue. Those who swear by yoga are not just Hollywood stars such as Meg Ryan and Jennifer Aniston but also macho athletes including LeBron James, forward for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Victor Cruz, wide receiver for the New York Giants.

The Dark Side

Some Americans of Western European extraction resented the presence of brown-skinned Asians and through their efforts the ugly Chinese Exclusion Act was extended to cover all Asians including "Hindoos." There was much debate in America whether people from India were to be treated as white or not, culminating in a Supreme Court ruling in U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind that they were not. Legal immigration from India came to an almost complete halt in the mid 1920's as a result.

Enter a charismatic, tall and charming Indian immigrant, Jagjit "J.J." Singh who led the India lobby in the United States for over two decades. He charmed Representative Clare Booth Luce of Connecticut who was married to Time magazine publisher Henry Luce. This led to a Time cover story on Nehru, later to become India's first Prime Minister. In a 2006 study of the India lobby entitled "Sikhs, Swamis, Students and Spies" Dr. Harold Gould refers to weekend soirees at a mansion called Castle Rock in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. where much of the serenading took place. Clare Booth proved to be a great friend of India on Capitol Hill.

It came down to money and war finally. Large numbers of Indian soldiers had fought in World War I and II on the side of the allies. As New York City Representative Emmnauel Celler put it to Congress, "India is a huge untapped reservoir for American good, capital goods and consumer good. We must take advantage of it." On July 2, 1946, President Harry Truman signed the Celler-Luce Bill which put an end to the ban on Indian immigration to the Unites States. In just ten years, Indian-born Dalip Singh Saund became the first Indian American elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from the Imperial Valley of southern California.

American Visionaries

Upon holding parliamentary elections in 1952 and re-affirming Jawaharlal Nehru as its first Prime Minister, India supplanted the United States as the world's largest democracy. Eleanor Roosevelt, a longtime supporter of India, came to India to celebrate in the next year and wrote back to her husband's successor, President Harry Truman, "The problem here is much the same as that of China, though in Nehru we have a leader of infinitely higher quality than Chiang."

While India was a backwater in most U.S. eyes, a couple of extraordinary Americans had the vision and the courage to see the potential.

Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith came to India in 1956 and returned several times, including a stint as President Kennedy's Ambassador to New Delhi. Galbraith was a key contributor to what became the largest American educational venture overseas and led the installation of India's first computer (an IBM 1620) and the creation of the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur. I was fortunate enough to obtain a mechanical engineering degree from this great institution which is now ranked at the top in India.

For his many contributions to U.S.-India collaboration, India conferred upon Galbraith, its second highest civilian honor, the Padma Vibhushan. At age 92, Galbraith exclaimed as reported in the Harvard Gazette "Nothing gives me greater pride than looking back on my two excursions to what we shall one day call not only the world's largest democracy, but also the world's most successful democracy, both politically and economically."

India rarely grants such high awards to foreign citizens, but another American, often credited with saving a billion lives, and also received the same Padma Vibhushan award. Norman Borlaug, trained as a plant pathologist, developed a "semi dwarf" variant of wheat, both shorter (and not prone to tipping over prior to harvest) as well as disease-resistant and amenable to fertilization. Yields soared with its introduction in India in 1965. By 1970, over 40 million acres in India were devoted to cultivating a derivative of Borlaug's creation.

Borlaug and Indian geneticist M.S. Swaminathan fostered the "Green Revolution" which made India self-sufficient in food production and averted famine. While Borlaug was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, his name remains relatively unknown in the country that gave him birth.

The Dark Side, Part Two

Unfortunately, some well-known Americans more powerful than Borlaug or Galbraith developed quite a distaste for the world's largest democracy. President Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger preferred to ally with the brutal and compliant dictatorship of Pakistan rather than the democratic but stubborn India. Nixon referred to India's Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi as "the old witch" and Kissinger went a step further in a transcript from November 5th, 1971, "The Indians are bastards anyway."

This was just days before the Indian Army began the liberation of what is now Bangladesh and was then part of East Pakistan. In support of Pakistan's junta, Nixon and Kissinger ordered the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise and the Seventh Fleet sail into the Bay of Bengal and to get ready to attack the Indian Army.

While the U.S. intent was common knowledge in India, the official line published in the New York Times was that the USS Enterprise's mission was to evacuate Americans stranded due to the war. U.S. military intervention on the subcontinent was narrowly averted when Pakistani Lieutenant General A. A. K. Niazi signed an instrument of surrender and India took 93,000 Pakistani soldiers as prisoners of war.

Today as American defense suppliers vie for weapons and equipment sales to India, I ask their executive to read up on this bit of sobering history. Many of India's political and administrative leadership have vivid memories from formative years about this unpleasant aspect of U.S.-India relations.

Good Times are Coming Now

Fast forward to today and things are much better. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and now Barrack Obama have reached out to India. Prime Ministers Atal Behari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and now Narendra Modi have reciprocated. Bilateral trade has skyrocketed.

In the Deep South, two Indian Americans are now Republican Governors. In South Carolina, 42 year old Nimrata "Nikki" Randhawa Haley was elected in 2010 and two years earlier Piyush "Bobby" Jindal a former Rhodes Scholar, won in Louisiana. Jindal, 43, is occasionally mentioned as a future candidate President of the United States. While Jindal and Haley both converted to Christianity, the U.S. House of Representatives elected its first Hindu in 2012. 33 year old Tulsi Gabbard, formerly known as Gabbard Tamayo sits powerful Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees.

Back to Business

The most powerful figure in Hollywood today is probably director-producer Steven Spielberg. The largest investor in Spielberg's Dreamworks, is India's second richest man, Anil Ambani. Ambani, a Wharton MBA who is married to former film star and Miss India Tina Munim, infused $525 million into Dreamworks in 2009 and 2010. The partnership has done well, celebrating Oscars for Lincoln in 2013 and critical acclaim for this past summer's Hundred Foot Journey.

Anil Ambani, and his brother Mukesh, who is even richer than Anil and attended Stanford's MBA program are ethnic Gujaratis. So is India's new business friendly Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who arrives to attend United Nations General Assembly this week before heading to Washington to meet President Obama.

In the same week India's first Martian probe, Mangalyaan approaches the red planet, guided by the Deep Space Network of NASAs Jet Propulsion Lab in another act of quiet collaboration between the two democracies. While both Modi and Mangalyaan have some risks to bear, the collaboration in technology and in in business between India and the United States appears to be on the verge of takeoff.