New York based Indo-Caribbean diaspora remembers Atal Beharri Vajpayee-ji very fondly because he conferred a lot of cultural, economic and educational benefits onto them, and he interacted with them like no other Indian leader did. And not unexpectedly, Indo-Caribbean people paid glowing tributes to Vajpayee-ji upon his passing last Thursday.
Indo-Caribbeans remember Shri Vajpayee-ji as the leader who showed compassion for people, promoted democracy, displayed pride in Indian values, and formally institutionalized the relationship of the diaspora with India. Indo-Caribbeans note his mission of promoting human values influenced his outreach to nations as well as the diaspora that experienced ill-treatment in their countries of domicile. Vajpayee’s love for the diaspora and humility towards humanity set him apart from his predecessors. And he achieved recognition and commendation for economic reforms in India that would turn India into a global economic power house that has seen dozens of world leaders visiting and re-visiting India for trade and exchange of technology.
I, and other Indo-Caribbeans, had the rare honor of meeting Vajpayee-ji several times in New York (Manhattan and Queens), New Jersey, and Delhi from as far back as 1977 when he was Foreign Minister, when he accompanied then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao around 1990 to the UN, when he served as leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha and leader of BJP during the 1990s, and subsequently when he became Prime Minister (1998 to 2004, a position he held on three occasions). In 1991, at a rally in front of the UN, Vajpayee came out of the General Assembly session and addressed the gathering that included several Indo-Caribbeans thanking them for supporting India against Pakistan sponsored terrorism in India. Several Guyanese also attended a meeting at the Waldorf Astoria where Vajpayee applauded the contributions of the diaspora to their home countries and to India.
Vajpayee-ji or Atal-ji as he was fondly called, had a special affinity for the Indian diaspora, and he met members of the Indo-Guyanese (Indo-Caribbean) community with great fondness and warmth whenever he visited New York. Vajpayee’s first encounter with Indo-Guyanese and Trinis was at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan in September 1977 and again in September 1978 (at the Hilton) when he addressed the Indian diaspora. He came as India’s representative (Foreign Minister) on behalf of then Prime Minister Sanjeeva Reddy to speak at the UN and used the occasion to meet members of the diaspora at an open session. Hundreds, including myself, turned out for the public meeting where Vajpayee spoke in Hindi. He also addressed the UN in Hindi, the first time for a speech in Hindi at the organization. He gave rousing, phenomenal speeches laced with witticism – drawing loud applauses. He was described as perhaps the best orator of India.
Every time Vajpayee came to NY, he interacted with Indo-Caribbean community leaders, and he was deeply impressed with the cultural retention of the community and its nationalism towards Mother India. In the early and mid 1990s, held meetings with overseas Indian communities in Manhattan (at restaurants), Queens (Gujarati Samaj), Staten Island (home of Dr. Mukund Modi), and Edison, New Jersey – temples and catering halls). At a few meetings, Vajpayee heard suggestions from Indo-Guyanese (Dharamdatt Durjan Sukhai of Demerara, Ramesh Kalicharran of Essequibo; this writer of Berbice; Patanjali Rambrich, and Andrew Satyanand) for a global forum of people of Indian descent and honoring overseas Indians who made outstanding contributions to the diaspora. Dharamdatt even proposed the idea of a Kowsilla Bravery Award (named after that courageous Leonara freedom fighter) for those who courageously champion the interests of the Indian diaspora. There were also interactions at shakas in New Jersey. At one interaction at Salaam Bombay restaurant in Manhattan in 1997, Dharamdatt honored Vajpayee with a Chowkee for his life reminding him he was as a bachelor – Vajpayee and the attendees burst into laughter. Vajpayee publicly promised that should his party, the BJP, ever formed the government at the center and if he were to become its Prime Minister, he would take measures to implement the suggestion of a global forum of the Indian diaspora. Similar conversations were held in 1998 with LK Advani who was Vajpayee’s deputy and closest confidante when he visited NY and interacted with Indo-Caribbeans. The BJP would eventually come to power (1998) with Vajpayee as PM and Advani as DPM. In 2000, Vajpayee appointed a “High Level Committee” to meet with community leaders and media personnel of the Indian Diaspora to, among other things: assess the status of Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs – Indo-Caribbeans, Indo-Fijians, etc.) and Non-Resident Indians (NRIs or those born in India but residing abroad) and find out what they expect from India. The committee was also charged with developing a policy framework to forge a mutually beneficial relationship between the diaspora and India.
The Committee was chaired by the reputed scholar Dr. L.M. Singhvi, a Member of Parliament and a former High Commissioner of India to the UK where he had interacted with Indo-Caribbeans. The Singhvi committee traveled to several major cities including New York, London, Toronto and to far away Guyana, Trinidad and Surinam. In NYC, several Guyanese and Trinis met with the committee and offered suggestions for a bi-annual forum of global diaspora in a different country and honors for Indians who made significant contributions to India or to the diaspora. The Singhvi committee recommended an annual forum (PBD) in India to coincide with the date that Mahatma Gandhi returned to India from South Africa (January 9) and a rotating forum at a different region where Indians are settled. The Singhvi committee also recommended the Pravasi Samman Awards for overseas-based Indians who made distinguished contributions to or improved the image of India.
Vajpayee accepted the recommendations, and he proceeded to concretize relations with the diaspora through the PBD that would forge a link between overseas people of Indian origin and India for mutual benefits. The first PBD was held in 2003 with Sir Shridath Ramphal and V.S Naipaul as keynote speakers and honorees. Rohan Kanhai was also on the list of honorees, but he did not attend the PBD. Several Indo-Caribbean journalists were invited to the PBD on all expense paid trip to Delhi. President Bharrat Jagdeo was the keynote speaker and honoree at the second PBD. Other Guyanese, Surinamese, Jamaican, St. Lucian, St. Vincentian were honored at subsequent PBDs. I attended a dozen PBDs as a journalist or speaker.
Prime Minister Vajpayee, eve before and after the PBD, met with Indo-Caribbean community leaders in Manhattan at the Embassy for Overseas Indians that was presided over by Ambassador by Dr. Bhisma Agnihotri as well as in his hotel suite when he came to address the UN. Vajpayee smiled broadly when a few Guyanese and Surinamese spoke with Hindi with him. He stated that the overseas Indian communities were very dear to his heart and he wanted to deepen relations between the diaspora and India. At these interactions, several requests were made to Vajpayee – including establishing a PIO University in India, increasing financial aid and scholarships to the Caribbean countries, cultural troupes to the Caribbean and from the Caribbean to India, and a visit to meet with the Indian communities in region, among others. Indo-Caribbeans also attended rallies with Vajpayee in Staten Island and at the Jacob Javits Center in Manhattan when he was PM. Vajpayee honored all the requests except the university was not built although overseas based Indians have been granted permission to enroll at any university in India as though they are citizens of India. The spot where the university was to be built was converted into a Kendra – a house for overseas Indians – that was opened two years ago. And Vajpayee visited Jamaica but not Guyana or Trinidad because he was not invited by the political leaders in those places. He was welcome by PM Patterson to Jamaica.
The NY Indo-Caribbean community is most grateful to Atal-ji for all the benefits he conferred on the Caribbean and the Indian diaspora. They mourn his passing speaking glowingly of the late PM. They all agreed that Vajpayee was a visionary leader and a great statesman. They note that he led India with courage seeking to project India as a powerful nation that did not cower in fear of sanctions (1998) from western nations for its testing of nuclear weapons. They also note that he led India into the new millennium with matchless dignity. He governed India like no other leader before him – determination and grit and with integrity and honesty refusing to cave in to corruption or threats to bring down his government or to blackmail to win over support.
Vajpayee and his deputy PM, LK Advani, motivated and inspired a second tier generation of political leaders that would include then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi who would become the current PM.
The NY based Guyanese community would never forget Vajpayee-ji in the several encounters with him for their pleasantness and for the benefits that accrued to Guyana and the region from those interactions. And the community is very pleased that PM Modi is following in the footsteps of Vajpayee and would visit Guyana soon.
Vishnu Bisram (PhD)