I spoke with Ambassador Anupam Ray, consul general of India in Houston, Texas. The Houston Consulate represents the government of India in the states of Texas, Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, and Nebraska. Ambassador Ray has served in the Indian Foreign Service for 24 years, having served in the United States for four years (including time with the United Nations in New York, Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce in Lexington, Kentucky). He has served in Houston for the last year.
This is an edited transcript of our conversation, which touched upon the role of Indian diplomats in the United States, and the growing commercial, social, and diplomatic relationships between India and the United States.
What does the Indian consular presence look like in the United States? What factors go into determining the location of a consulate?
India has an embassy [in Washington DC] and five consulates: Houston, Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta, and New York. And we’re opening a sixth one in Seattle. We locate Consulates wherever there is economic growth; wherever there is intensity of bilateral interaction; the Indian population is just one of the factors. Trade, industry, the volume of interaction between nations has grown so much. This is redefining the nature of diplomatic offices. I often ask myself whether given the volume of interaction with Texas, should we look at the option of multiple offices in this area. It is unusual to have offices within a few hours of one another, but such is the concentration of interest there that it might be interesting to look at this option.
How do commerce and industry factor into this relationship?
So we are today the fastest growing economy in the world. Our bilateral economic relationship with the United States is growing exponentially. It is growing so rapidly, in so many different ways, and in so many different sectors that I think that many of the ways of defining the depth of the relationship between two countries are obsolete.
Many of us tend to focus on technology as the driver of India-U.S. economic ties. This is only a part of the picture. Tech is actually not counted in imports or exports; tech and software in our system of accounting are calculated in something called invisibles.
An example of how traditional models fail to capture the dynamism of current economic interaction is in measuring the impact of the tech industry on India-U.S. relations. I think the biggest impact of the tech industry has been that Indians and Americans are jointly generating intellectual property. This is also true of anything in knowledge-based industries; health care, life sciences. Indians generate a lot of intellectual property, and much of this is being generated jointly with the United States.
We are moving from a manufacturing economy to a service-based economy and a knowledge economy. The collaboration in services is also growing dramatically, whether in banking, insurance, health care, movement of people; this is enormous.
The U.S. and India have had intellectual property disputes in the past; how much of your job is about negotiating between these two systems?
I deal a lot with the IP industry; a lot of American and international industries (health care, financial, energy) want to do research in India, leverage Indian capabilities. This helps generate IP in India; it’s one of the comparative advantages we have. I haven’t seen many disputes on this recently, maybe because India is WTO compliant. Indians themselves are generating enormous amounts of IP, so we have an interest in IP protection. We have issues, but we address those issues multilaterally.
I think the community here generally feels very good about the United States. Diplomacy, the way we practice it, is about 500 years old. But massive movements of population like we see today are fairly recent; you can just move more, and the world is more welcoming in many ways. So that creates a fresh set of issues that we deal with. Traditionally, consular diplomacy dealt with small, transient populations of businessmen. We now deal with migrant populations, people moving back and forth. We don’t have any guidebooks, so we have to feel our way as we go through.
But it’s an extremely successful community; law abiding, highly educated. They understand that the U.S. is a welcoming country, welcoming of ability wherever it comes from. And so when we have incidents like we saw in Kansas… my take on it is that as the Indian population grows, it’s a statistical reality that crime, accidents involving Indians will rise. And when something like Kansas happens, you have to take into account the broader picture. And I think the community in the United States understood this. What they did was very striking; this young man Ian Grillot took a bullet trying to save the Indians. The Indian community in Houston in three days raised $100,000 and bought him a house. They focused on the good part of the narrative, which is that an American was willing to take a bullet for an Indian. You can look at it as an American who wanted to kill an Indian, or as an American who wanted to save an Indian, and I think most of the community looked at it as the latter.
You’re based in Houston, and you worked extensively with the Indian community following the flooding that came with Hurricane Harvey. What did that entail?
The Indian government today is very committed to providing services to its population; this is a directive from the very top from our prime minister and from our external affairs minister. So our leadership expects the government, including people like me, to be at the service of the people. As you know, when there’s a natural disaster, the demands on us increase. It was a very tough time for us, but we did some things that were widely appreciated.
In spite of us being personally affected, we kept the consulate running; we worked as a clearing house for information about people who needed rescuing; we mobilized the Indian community to develop its own rescue operations; we monitored the well-being of Indians who had been affected. India is a humanitarian player in our neighborhood, and we have huge capacities that we are normally very quick to deploy. We didn’t have those capacities here, obviously, but we have the experience and knowledge for how to deal with an emergency and look after a population. The Indian community rescued hundreds of people, fed tens of thousands, and raised over a million dollars. This was one of the great joys of my job; watching as the community rose above its own misery and gave back to the city and the region.
How do you conceptualize the Indian community in the United States? Is it limited to the commercial and migrant groups we’ve discussed, or does it also include the broader Indian diaspora?
We maintain contacts with them all. The fact that you’re an Indian never goes away, no matter how far you go back. Being Indian is much more than a national identity; it’s like a way of life or a philosophy of living. People who left Indian hundreds of years ago, fortunately for us, still consider themselves Indian, to have a link with India. One of the more pleasant parts of my job is to continue to interact with that community. They’re a huge source of goodwill for us.
Do you find that political divides in India are reflected in the community of Indians in the United States?
It’s a great question, and it goes to the heart of the Indian experience in the United States. I think one of the reasons the U.S. is moving closer to India is that we are both democracies. And in some very basic, fundamental way we understand the American way of life; opportunity for all, need to respect the other point of view, non-authoritarian structure of government. When Indian students come here we don’t just want them to learn technology, we want them to learn the American way of life, too; democracy, human rights, respect for minorities, how to live in an open society.
So in that respect we are a bit unique among the many communities here; and I think that’s why our community does so well politically here; we feel at home in the environment.
Finally, how do you feel about Texas? A lot of Americans think of Texas almost as a foreign country.
Indians have done very well in Texas; lawmakers are approachable and sensitive to our concerns. I haven’t seen any downside to the Indian presence here. It’s a thriving community; many temples, centers, places of worship. I feel a sense of well-being about being in Texas.