U.S. diplomat Sandhya Gupta talks about her return to India more than 20 years after her Fulbright fellowship in the country.
Sandhya Gupta (third from left), a U.S. diplomat, came to India in 1998-99 as a U.S. Fulbright scholar to study women’s participation in panchayati raj. She later returned to India in 2020 as a Vice Consul at the U.S. Embassy. (Photograph courtesy Sandhya Gupta)
Sandhya Gupta, a consular officer at U.S. Embassy New Delhi, was in India in 1998-99 to study women’s foray into local government politics. Her research focused on women in rural Haryana and it left an indelible mark on her, she says, even while she studied law and became an attorney. She returned to India in 2020 as a U.S. diplomat.
Excerpts from an interview.
Please tell us about yourself and your role in the U.S. Embassy in India.
Before I joined the U.S. State Department in January 2020 as a Foreign Service Officer, I was a civil rights attorney in Cleveland, Ohio, where I was born and brought up. I had moved back to Cleveland after studying and working in New York City. Before that, I also spent some time in Washington, D.C., working for an international human rights organization.
As a civil rights attorney, I represented plaintiffs who were suing companies, public agencies, or others who had allegedly violated their rights. It was very intensive work, not only deepening my commitment to equity and justice but also building my skills in, for example, analytical writing, research, case management, and oral communication—skills I believe are also applicable in the Foreign Service. While there were various reasons for shifting to the Foreign Service after a career in law, I credit my Fulbright experience for planting the diplomacy seed.
I now work as a consular officer in New Delhi, where I adjudicate nonimmigrant visas. I also spent about a year during this first tour working as a staff assistant in the Embassy’s Executive Office, where I supported the Chargé d’Affaires and the Acting Deputy Chief of Mission.
Can you tell us more about your time in India as a U.S. Fulbright scholar?
I was a Fulbright scholar in India from 1998 to 1999. It’s hard to believe I came here nearly 25 years ago. My research was focused on women’s participation in panchayati raj (rural village councils). A few years earlier, India had passed a constitutional amendment mandating that one-third of all local government seats be filled by women. It was an opportune time to see how that policy had been implemented in rural areas.
My research initially was focused on the Haryana region because of a connection I made with a professor at Kurukshetra University and because it was close to Delhi, where I was based. There I visited villages and met with women serving on panchayats. But my research also took me around the country and I was able to compare the experiences of different regions.
The Fulbright afforded an extraordinary opportunity to meet people, gain insights into social factors affecting women’s pursuit of their ambitions, and visit places, especially villages, where I would otherwise never have gone. I will never forget singing the American song “We Shall Overcome” with school girls in Andhra Pradesh or sleeping on the rooftop of a family’s home in a village. I am grateful to the Fulbright program for the opportunity to explore, see the diversity of India, and build deep and lasting friendships.
Gupta (right) meets His Holiness The Dalai Lama. (Photograph courtesy Sandhya Gupta)
Why did you choose India for your Fulbright research?
Before coming to India, I had studied abroad in South Africa in 1997. It was an amazing time to be there because South Africa had recently held its first democratic elections and was grappling with its past of human rights abuses. I attended several hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and traveled to rural areas to study local governance structures in post-apartheid South Africa. I was interested in how democracy is strengthened when people take an active part in local decision-making. From South Africa, it was a natural connection to come to India, given similar threads in the two countries’ democratic movements. The early anti-apartheid movement was influenced by India’s own independence struggle, for example; and of course, Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance took root during his time in South Africa.
How did your Fulbright experience in India influence you as an attorney in the United States?
My interest in going to law school was always to promote social justice, advocate for those who might be marginalized in society, and support them in their fight for their rights. This focus was closely aligned to my Fulbright research on empowering women to participate in public decision-making. I was inspired during my Fulbright year talking to villagers about the power in their own hands to make change—India has a rich history of this and I remember connecting to people through references to giants such as Mahatma Gandhi and his vision for village-level self-government. I saw the same inspiration in clients I later represented who spoke truth to power or exercised their right to vote. In both cases, a combination of top-down law and policy and bottom-up empowerment efforts drove change.
What were your thoughts when you got to know that your first tour with the U.S. Department of State will be in India?
I was thrilled, although it wasn’t a total surprise because I had placed India very high in my list of preferences. I thought it would be very meaningful to come back and start my Foreign Service career here.
Back in 1998-99, I heard it said that Fulbrighters straight out of college, as I was, would be the future diplomats of the bunch. I didn’t give it much thought until many years later, when I was considering the Foreign Service, and then it felt like things were coming full circle. I was conscious even during the Fulbright of how people-to-people connections built through the program can deepen mutual understanding between the two countries. So to come back in an official role to further that relationship was very meaningful.
What is the most exciting thing about working as a U.S. diplomat in India?
Serving as a U.S. diplomat in India has been an absolute privilege. I’ve had access to places and experiences that have afforded me unique insight into culture as well as the bilateral relationship. But when I think about my time in India, without a doubt the greatest privilege has been connecting to and learning from incredible people—whether those I interact with on a daily basis or those I have met in an official capacity.
I think, for example, of the Tibetan government-in-exile official who greeted me warmly and described herself as “Bharat ki beti” (a daughter of India). Or the social entrepreneur working on transforming municipal solid waste into energy. Or the interns at a disability-rights organization who showed me what it means to look out for one another. Or my local staff colleagues at the Embassy who have repeatedly answered the call to promote diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility—and have brought so much heart and talent to the effort. The moments where I have felt the most connected, delighted, or moved have been those moments of connection with people. That has made this tour truly extraordinary.