Shredding the blacklist of Sikhs who had sought asylum abroad was the first and repatriating Indians stranded due to the lockdown for the novel coronavirus is the current challenge, Sanjay Panda, outgoing consul-general of India in San Francisco, told indica in an interview.
Panda, who served in San Francisco for 17 months, has been appointed India’s ambassador to Turkey. He was supposed to join in March, but could not as international flights stopped because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr TV Nagendra Prasad, Panda’s successor in San Francisco, is set to join by next week.
“I feel that it has been a short but highly substantive [stint],” consul-general Panda said. “When you are in diplomacy you move as required… it is as per requirement,” he said referring to his appointment to Turkey as ambassador, a post that has been vacant since January.
As many as 40,000 people had applied from the US for tickets to the flights under the Vande Bharat Mission of Air India to repatriate Indians stranded around the globe, the consul-general said.
The San Francisco consulate has 45 employees people and everybody was working 18 hours a day helping the Indian diaspora during the pandemic, he said.
Panda joined the job in San Francisco, one of the largest Indian consulates in the world with 1.45 million Indian diaspora members spread over 11 US states and the federal territories of Guam, Hawaii and Alaska, in November 2018.
“Immediately, after a few days of my arrival, we brought a change. We gave visas to the asylees who have become [US] citizens,” Panda said.
The Indian government in September 2019 removed from its blacklist names of 312 Sikh foreign nationals, Indian quasi-official news agency PTI had quoted unnamed officials in India’s home ministry as saying. There has been little on-record acknowledgment of such a list, which included those who purportedly sought asylum out of India because they were being hunted in relation with the Sikh separatist movement in India.
“They say something bad about the country, and we know why they are saying so,” consul-general Panda said, adding that most on the list had actually fled looking for greener pastures. “The San Francisco consulate, whatever we have maintained the local blacklists, I thought that was not correct, so we shredded the blacklists,” Panda said. “Because you came as an asylee and asylum was granted and still we do not give visa… They are looking for an economic reason and that is why they have come here. You cannot hold that [against them].”
Another major decision, he said, was starting issuing passports to those who have been granted asylum in the US but not yet granted citizenship, which takes eight to 10 years.
“So what would they do if there is a family emergency back home?” consul-general Panda pointed out. “The government of India took the decision and said yes, they can be issued a passport… that was a major decision. The spark was started from San Francisco and then taken as a global application. I am very proud of it.”
He said only a small, vocal group continued to malign India.
On June 6, there was a protest outside the San Francisco consulate.
“They protest every year. If they don’t do this, they don’t get the funding,” Panda said. “The point is these are the fringe elements. They don’t know what they are doing. They have moved to the dark side, so somebody should show them the way.”
He said the pandemic is a major learning experience for all countries. “I think it has brought the US and India closer together,” he said.
However, he said he also believed that the world over, how business and international relations have to be conducted needs to be redefined. “Not much has been invested in health care [the world over] and this has been a big experience,” he said.
Panda joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1991. He has served at the Indian missions in Brussels, Amman, Paris, and Kuala Lumpur, and was the deputy chief of mission in Tokyo before moving to Seychelles on his assignment as the head of mission. His previous assignment at headquarters was as joint secretary (East Asia)-II at the ministry of external affairs. He has also served as under secretary/deputy secretary for Nepal at the foreign ministry during 1998-2000, and as director (China) during 2008-2009.