‘Desi’ diplomats don’t have it easy

U.S. and other countries are sending more officials of Indian-origin to deal with India

July 29, 2014 01:47 am | Updated November 16, 2021 05:31 pm IST - NEW DELHI

It was an awkward moment for US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Nisha Biswal and US department of Commerce official Arun Kumar when they faced questions from a Congressman who mistook them for Indian diplomats last week. Ms. Biswal was forced to reply, "I think your question is to the Indian government. We certainly share your sentiments and will advocate that on behalf of the U.S. government."

In India just a few weeks earlier, Ms. Biswal had faced an equally awkward moment, when she was told by a retired senior official at a think-tank meeting, “It is a bad idea for the US to send Indian-American diplomats here, they end up having to prove their loyalty to the US more than others, and it doesn’t help us.”

Even so, Ms. Biswal is one of a growing number of Indian-Americans in the state department and in other senior positions. The Obama administration counts more than 30 officials of Indian-origin, including Ms. Biswal, who is the point-person for India. Ahead of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s meetings in Delhi on Thursday, others like Arun Kumar have visited India , and amongst those being considered for the new US Ambassador to India is Rajiv Shah, the head of USAID.

Countries like Australia, UK, Portugal have already posted envoys and sent officials of Indian origin to New Delhi over the past few years. Australian Foreign Secretary Peter Varghese was actually sent to India as High Commissioner to deal with anger over ‘racist attacks’ in Australia. A spokesperson for the British High Commission, that has posted two deputy High Commissioners to India told The Hindu that their appointments “reflect British multiculturalism in all fields”.

“It doesn’t really give them an edge”, says retired Ambassador K.C. Singh, and quotes the case of Chinese-American Ambassador Gary Locke, who ended a hostile tenure in Beijing earlier this year, because the Chinese government expected him to be more friendly to them. In the Devyani Khobragade incident too, much of the outrage in India came because all the officials connected to the case, from Nisha Biswal, to New York State Attorney Preet Bharara, to State dept official for Labour and Human Rights Uzra Zeya, were of Indian-origin.

“Sometimes we expect a greater level of empathy and cultural understanding from them, than we would from any other ethnicity,” says Singh. Former Deputy National Security Adviser Latha Reddy, however says, it is too early to judge the trend. "Indian-origin diplomats and senior officials are a relatively recent phenomenon," she says, "I guess we will just learn to treat them as professionals."

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