Strong people-to-people ties between the United States and India date back over 200 years, to the earliest days of the United States and well before India’s independence.
First Lady Melania Trump (2020) and First Lady Michelle Obama (2010) spend time with Indian youth in New Delhi and Mumbai, respectively. Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks (left). Official White House Photo by Pete Souza (right).
Despite being on opposite ends of the Indo-Pacific region, the United States and India are bound together by a growing web of personal connections and mutual affinities. There are few other bilateral relationships in the world where people-to-people ties are as strong and as positive. These ties offer a variety of direct benefits for our countries, including increased trade and investment, exchanges of best practices in diverse fields, sharing of cultures and religions, and opportunities for study and research.
A Long and Diverse History of People-to-People Ties
Strong people-to-people ties between the United States and India date back over 200 years, to the earliest days of the United States and well before India’s independence. Early interactions between Americans and Indians were driven by trade, starting with Captain Thomas Bell’s visit to Puducherry and Chennai in December 1784 aboard his aptly-named ship, the United States. Captain Bell, whose ship brought tobacco, Virginia ginseng, and assorted hardware, was given a friendly reception by the Nawab of Arcot, in modern-day Tamil Nadu. In fact, the visit went so well that one of the ship’s crew, William Moore, decided to stay in India and manage a warehouse in Puducherry.
In the 19th century, Americans mostly traveled to India for business, but also for religious, academic, and medical purposes. Later in the century, Indians began traveling to the United States for higher education, for economic opportunity, and to sell traditional Indian medicines, among other reasons. Swami Vivekananda’s speech on Hinduism at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 helped people in the United States, and the world, learn about India. He spent over two years traveling around the United States on two separate trips, traveling from coast to coast, setting up Vedanta philosophy centers, and introducing Americans to yoga.
The first significant wave of Indian immigrants to the United States occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many traveled from Punjab to California to work in agriculture. Other immigrants included Bengali Muslim business people who arrived in cities such as New York and New Orleans. Many Indians broke social barriers and contributed to civil rights gains in America. Bhagat Singh Thind, who came to California in 1913 to study at the University of California, Berkeley, was one such trailblazer. He joined the U.S. Army during World War I and won permission to wear his turban during service. He earned a Ph.D. and became a lecturer on metaphysics and religions.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Americans came to India for a growing range of reasons, including to seek business opportunities, to serve as missionaries, to explore India’s culture and religions, and to work on health and other issues. Many Indians met an American for the first time during World War II, when approximately 400,000 U.S. soldiers served in Kolkata and India’s northeast.
As India gained independence and the United States relaxed its immigration laws, people-to-people ties multiplied. Indians immigrated to the United States in larger numbers, encouraged by educational and professional opportunities as well as family ties. Indian Americans steadily became more prominent in medicine, science, business, and public service. Dalip Singh Saund of California became the first Indian American elected to the U.S. Congress in 1956. At the same time, more Americans traveled to India, drawn by business, tourism, and family connections.
The U.S. and Indian governments encouraged these people-to-people ties. In 1950, they introduced a U.S.-India binational agreement on educational exchange. This agreement, signed by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and U.S. Ambassador Loy Henderson, established the Fulbright Program in India. Private U.S. universities and non-profits, such as the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, helped create academic institutions in India and support cooperation with other American counterparts. People-to-people ties gathered further pace in the 1990s and 2000s, as India’s economy opened and globalization facilitated travel and communication.
A Recent Expansion of People-To-People Ties, Including through Travel
In the last few years, people-to-people ties have advanced in a number of areas. The growth in tourism and travel between the United States and India, for example, has brought more of our people into direct contact than ever. In 2019, 1.5 million Indian visitors traveled to the United States, contributing $14 billion to the U.S. economy. Meanwhile, Americans are now the second largest group of foreign citizens visiting India (following only Bangladesh), with 1.46 million visitors entering India in 2019. They come for a wide range of purposes, including visiting family, tourism, academic research, yoga retreats, and medical treatment. Both governments have sought to facilitate this travel, opening new Consulates and adding staff.
Today, the United States operates Consulates in Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, and Mumbai, in addition to the Embassy in New Delhi. In the last 10 years, the Embassy and Consulates have issued over 250,000 immigrant visas, and more than seven million non-immigrant visas, including nearly 500,000 non-immigrant student visas. In the last seven years, the U.S. Mission to India has hired additional personnel and improved visa processing to support the 45 percent increase in visa applications from Indians. India has Consulates in Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, New York, and San Francisco, in addition to the Embassy in Washington, D.C.
Professional travel between the United States and India is significant. This includes business people traveling to corporate offices for meetings and negotiations, scientists and doctors traveling for conferences, athletes and artists traveling for competitions and performances, and ship crews bringing cargo or cruise ships to port. Beyond the dollars and rupees spent on airlines and hotels, these visits contribute to the exchange of ideas between our countries, spurring innovation, expanding knowledge, and enriching our lives. Increasingly, U.S. and Indian universities are working together to conduct joint research. These collaborations, among other achievements, have contributed to lowering medical costs in America and improved the monitoring of air and water pollution in India.
The Indian-American Diaspora: Bringing Two Cultures Together
The vibrant heart of U.S.-India people-to-people ties is the Indian-American diaspora, which provides a living bridge across the Indo-Pacific region. Hailing from all parts of India and spread out across the United States, the members of this diaspora are ambassadors for both countries. Drawing on their deep talents and energy, they share ideas, culture, know-how, financing, and personal warmth. This is the beauty of the overall U.S.-India partnership – it is people-centric, not government-directed.
The recent growth in the size and achievements of the Indian-American diaspora has had a profound impact on the bilateral relationship. Between 2010 and 2020, the number of Indians and Indian Americans in the United States has grown about 40 percent to an estimated four million people. Indian Americans have demonstrated a remarkable ability to thrive and succeed in almost every sector of American life, from academia to medicine, law to business, and arts to public service.
As a group, Indian Americans are often measured as the most educated, literate, and high-earning in the United States. In fact, 33 percent of all immigrant-founded startups in the United States have Indian founders, a number that far exceeds that of any other immigrant group. Many successful Indian Americans have returned to India to start companies and invest in Indian startups, creating jobs and spreading knowledge. They have also initiated research partnerships and student exchange programs with Indian universities.
Indian Americans have demonstrated a remarkable propensity to organize collectively and contribute within U.S. civil society, building on an American tradition of citizen participation in local government, and Indian traditions such as village councils, or panchayat, and movements such as Arya Samaj. Indian Americans have created state-based groups such as the North American Punjabi Association, professional associations such as the Asian American Hotel Owners Association, and political groups such as the United States India Political Action Committee.
Indian Americans have sent substantial flows of material assistance to India, reflecting the values of hard work and charity in both countries. Much of this is remittances from individuals. But there are other sources as well, such as venture capital funds to seed Indian startups, and resources to support charitable groups such as the American India Foundation. In 2017, remittances from the United States to India totaled over $11.7 billion.
Growing Educational Ties
Educational links between the United States and India have seen notable growth in recent years, including enrollments in higher education, joint scholarships, institutional cooperation, and government dialogues on education. These links have strengthened our economies, contributed knowledge to a diverse range of fields, improved our understanding of each other, and enriched our societies.
Indian participation in U.S. higher education has been especially powerful. Many Americans meet Indian citizens for the first time on a U.S. college campus, and many Indians learn about America through WhatsApp calls with relatives studying at U.S. universities. The United States attracts the greatest number of Indians studying abroad, and Indians form the second largest group of foreign students at U.S. universities.
Since 2010, the number of Indian students in the United States has roughly doubled. In academic year 2018-19, the number rose to over 200,000 for the first time ever. Now, over one in five international students in the United States comes from India. In addition, an increasing number of American students are enrolling in Indian universities to study language, history, culture, public health, and economics, among other subjects.
Cooperation in higher education extends beyond student enrollments. Institutional cooperation and official dialogues on education form an important part of the U.S.-India partnership. An increasing number of Indians are teaching at or leading American universities, such as Dr. Pradeep Khosla, the Chancellor of the University of California, San Diego, and Dr. Nitin Nohria, Dean of the Harvard Business School. Indian companies, foundations, and government agencies also support teaching and research opportunities at American universities.
The same is happening in India. Many Americans are serving as professors or administrators at private Indian universities, such as Dr. Sunder Ramaswamy, the Vice Chancellor of Krea University, and Dr. Vanita Shastri, Dean of Global Education and Strategic Programs at Ashoka University. Several India or South Asia Studies programs have been established in the United States, as well as American Studies programs in India. Many U.S. and Indian universities have set up direct partnerships or consortia to exchange faculty, students, curricula, and best practices.
Since 2012, students from the University of Iowa have traveled to India for three weeks every winter to collaborate with their peers at Indian universities and civil society organizations. In 2018, for example, participants from Iowa partnered with the Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee to conduct joint research projects on water sustainability. Students from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health travel to West Bengal and Karnataka to research global health topics, partnering with the Jan Seva School in Kolkata and the Division of Public Health at NITTE (Deemed to be University) in Mangaluru. While these interactions are important, there is room to expand cooperation in higher education, especially through the presence of American universities in India.
Exchange programs have played an important role in facilitating direct interactions between U.S. and Indian policymakers, scholars, students, and experts. Successful exchange programs are supported by both governments. Perhaps the most well-known is the Fulbright-Nehru program, now in its 70th year. The program has been funded jointly by our two governments since 2008, and supports the two-way travel of hundreds of scholars each year, providing opportunities for personal, academic, and professional growth. Alumni of the Fulbright-Nehru program are leaders in many walks of life, including agriculture, arts, business, education, environment, humanities and social sciences, public health, science, and technology.
The U.S. government supports several other annual exchanges, including the International Visitor Leadership Program, which brings hundreds of Indian leaders in a wide range of fields to the United States each year for short study tours. The Indian government has also expanded exchange programs for U.S citizens in recent years, including for elected officials, scholars, diplomats, and members of the diaspora. In addition, non-profit groups, such as the American India Foundation and Rotary International, sponsor exchange fellowships.
In the past five years, the U.S. Mission to India has increased the number of EducationUSA advising centers. Seven advising centers are located throughout India – in New Delhi, Hyderabad, Chennai, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Ahmedabad, and Mumbai, and in early 2021, a second EducationUSA Center is scheduled to open in Hyderabad. These centers provide Indians with accurate and comprehensive information about opportunities to study in the United States. The State Department recently launched the Partnership 2020 initiative with the University of Nebraska Omaha. This initiative expands collaboration with Indian universities, harnessing higher education to drive economic growth. One such collaboration is a project between Claflin University of South Carolina and Visva-Bharati University in West Bengal, supporting the management skills of women entrepreneurs running small enterprises.
The Bridge of Culture, Food, and Sports
An increased familiarity with each other’s culture, food, and sports has brought our countries even closer together. In the United States, the practice of yoga has grown significantly, with one in three Americans having tried it. Americans love Indian food, ranging from upscale restaurants such as Rasika in Washington, D.C. and Tamarind Tribeca in New York, to affordable chains such as the Bawarchi biryani eateries. Several Indian restaurants have opened branches in the United States, including Indian Accent. Indian-American chefs such as Padma Lakshmi and Floyd Cardoz have become national celebrities and have helped teach Americans about Indian food.
Americans are familiar with authors such as Arundhati Roy and Chetan Bhagat, and with films such as Dangal. Indian actors are also popular. Priyanka Chopra has established herself in Hollywood, and Indian Americans such as Mindy Kaling and Kal Penn have become household names. The Indian government sponsors programs to acquaint Americans with classical Indian art forms, such as Carnatic music and Kathak dance.
Sports such as cricket and kabaddi have grown in popularity in the United States. In 2016, the United States sent a team to the Kabaddi World Cup in Gujarat. In 2017, the U.S. National Basketball Association opened the NBA Academy India in the National Capital Region of Delhi to develop Indian talent and interest in the sport. The first series of NBA games in India took place in Mumbai in 2019, thanks in part to one of the team’s Indian-American owners.
The growth of streaming media has brought a broader selection of American TV and movies to millions of Indian households. Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, and Disney+ Hotstar provide new choices to consumers, as well as the ever-popular Hollywood blockbusters. U.S. social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and WhatsApp have helped Indians connect with each other, and with friends and family in the United States. The U.S. government has helped bring other aspects of American culture to India, such as bluegrass music, modern dance, beatboxing, hip hop music, and standup comedy.
The U.S. Embassy has contributed to the preservation of India’s cultural heritage through the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP). Through the AFCP, the U.S. Embassy has partnered with local organizations in conservation and restoration efforts at some of India’s most significant monuments, including the UNESCO World Heritage sites of the Sunderwala Burj and the Batashewala Mughal Tomb Complex in New Delhi, and the 18th century Balaji Ghat in Varanasi. The AFCP has also supported projects that document the folk music traditions of western Rajasthan and West Bengal, and the preservation of palm leaf manuscripts and rare books in Bengaluru. AFCP projects have increased in value since 2000, growing from $5,000 to $1.6 million across India.
The Languages That Unite Us
Familiarity with the English language has helped Indians improve their connections with the United States and the rest of the world. It allows American firms in Los Angeles to contract business processing work to Indian companies in Hyderabad, scientists to work together on vaccine research, the U.S. and Indian militaries to conduct joint exercises, and much more. Since 2015, the U.S. Embassy in India has increased by five-fold its support for English language programs in India, often organized in collaboration with Indian federal and state governments or educational institutions.
At the same time, Americans have become increasingly familiar with both Indian English and Indian languages such as Hindi and Tamil. Americans might be aware they are learning Indian language words such as asana through yoga or other words through food, such as dosa and raita. But they might not know the many words that have entered modern English from Indian languages, including guru, pajama, chit, juggernaut, pundit, and pariah.
The Religions That Give Meaning to the Lives of Many
The United States and India have grown closer through an awareness and practice of shared religions. We are both secular countries distinguished by the vibrant practice of multiple religions. As Americans were exposed to Indian culture through immigrants, they learned about India being the birthplace of major religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. They have also become aware that India has long been home to proud communities of Muslims, Christians, and Jews. As the number of Indian Americans has grown, so have the religious ties across the Indo-Pacific. Many religious organizations work in both countries, coordinating religious training, fundraising, and other aspects of religious life.
The Hindu group Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS), for example, has built beautiful temples in both countries in recent years, including an Akshardham temple in New Jersey in 2014. The Second World Hindu Conference, held in Chicago in September 2018, brought together thousands of Hindus from around the world. The United Sikh Movement organized its fifth conference for Sikh Student Associations in Berkeley, California, in November 2019. In 1904, the first Jain temple in the United States was designated in St. Louis, Missouri. Now, Jain centers can be found throughout the country, in California, New York, Arizona, Illinois, and Colorado. Many Catholic, Protestant, and non-denominational churches in India have links to American Christian groups. Religious pilgrimages to India are also popular among Americans.
Think Tanks, Media, and Civil Society Improve Lives
Cooperation between U.S. and Indian think tanks, media, and civil society groups has strengthened in recent years. Prominent American think tanks have established offices or connections in India, including Aspen, Brookings, and Carnegie. Many other U.S. think tanks have established South Asia programs or hired experts on India. Some think tanks, such as the U.S.-based Center for Naval Analyses and the India-based National Maritime Foundation, collaborate regularly on research and conferences. Indian think tanks have also begun to open offices in the United States, such as the Observer Research Foundation.
Partnerships between U.S. and Indian journalists and media groups have increased, reflecting the importance of an independent media in both countries. The Mint newspaper, for example, was set up in India by a former Wall Street Journal editor, Raju Narisetti. A broad array of non-governmental organizations operate in both countries. These include business groups such as the American Chamber of Commerce in India, the U.S.-India Business Council, the U.S.-India Strategic Partnership Forum, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, and the Confederation of Indian Industry, as well as charitable organizations such as Pratham and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
A Bilateral Relationship Backed by Strong Public Support
The result of these strong people-to-people ties is that public sentiment in the United States and India for the other country is very positive. Opinion polls show citizens of one country look favorably upon the other. Gallup polls on Americans’ views of India show a steady increase in favorability since 2000. In 2018, people in America placed India among their top eight “most-favored” foreign countries.
According to a Pew Research report published before President Donald J. Trump’s 2020 visit to India, approximately 75 percent of Indian adults held the U.S.-India relationship in high regard, stating that current relations overall, as well as economic ties, were good between the two nations. A 2019 Chicago Council on Foreign Relations survey found that 63 percent of Americans believed that the U.S. relationship with India strengthened U.S. national security, one of the highest results for any country. A survey of Indian national security elites conducted by Brookings India in 2019 found similar results – 75 percent of respondents stated that the United States was India’s most important global partner.
Looking to the Future
People-to-people ties have continued to grow over the past few years. These connections enrich both societies, provide a foundation for the U.S.-India Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership, and contribute to the world. They give us hope for the future, and confidence that this will be a defining partnership for the 21st century.