PM Modi’s Day 1 in US: Tribute to Kalpana Chawla, cultural diplomacy


Modi-Arlington National

WASHINGTON: India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi began his fourth visit to the US with a spot of soft diplomacy in Washington DC on June 6.

Kicking off his much-publicized visit to the US for his last full-spectrum meeting with US President Barack Obama, Mr Modi laid a wreath at the Tomb of Unknown Soldiers and paid homage to Indian-American astronaut Kalpana Chawla at Arlington National Cemetery.

“Honouring sacrifice, saluting valour. Formal engagements begin with a solemn ceremony,” External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup tweeted. “In homage to heroism and indomitable courage,” Mr Swarup added.  Mr Modi also had a brief interaction with the husband and family members of the iconic astronaut, senior officials from NASA, Indian-American astronaut Sunita Williams and her father at Space Shuttle Columbia Memorial.

Mr Modi was accompanied by US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, India’s Ambassador to US Arun K Singh, Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar, US Ambassador to India Richard Verma and Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Nisha Desai Biswal.

“All of us are very honoured that he took time to come and acknowledge the shuttle catastrophe and the deep cooperation that we have with India in the space world,” Ms Williams said. “Personally it is commemorating my friend (Kalpana Chawla),” she added.

Return of stolen artifacts

Cultural diplomacy zoomed to the fore as the US  returned over 200 cultural artifacts estimated at US $100 million to India at a ceremony attended by Mr Modi at the Blair House.

“For some, these artifacts may be measured in monetary terms but for us this is beyond that. It’s a part of our culture and heritage,” Mr Modi said. Some of the items returned included religious statues, bronzes and terra cotta pieces. There were some artifacts dating back 2,000 years that were looted from some of India’s most treasured religious sites.

“My gratitude to the US Govt for the sensitivity shown to India’s heritage. This will evoke great respect among the people of India,” Mr Modi said. “I am grateful to President Obama for returning to us these treasures which join us to our past,” he added.

What’s ahead…

The world will be watching closely the last bilateral summit meeting between the leaders of the world’s largest democracies. A deal on Westinghouse setting up six nuclear reactors in India and mapping the next phase in the burgeoning India-US defence partnership are expected to be among major outcomes of Mr Modi’s US visit.