"While diplomats struggled with a myriad of political challenges between the eagle and the peacock, Project Indians worked at the personal level," writes Arun Bhatia.
Project India (How College Students Won Friends for America 1952-1969) by Judith Kerr Graven documents the story of a people-to-people initiative in the acrimonious decade of the ‘50s when a Harlem preacher told a group of undergraduates at University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) that Indians have an unfavourable impression of America and communism is spreading through Asia.
At UCLA, there developed a bold new idea – a youth ambassador programme to send a cross section of ‘average’ Americans to India. In 1952, a dynamic ‘little white haired lady’ Dr. Adaline Guenther initiated ‘Project India’, to send UCLA students to Indian cities as ambassadors.
They befriended Indian students, and lived in their college hostels. In the book, J. Lewis, one such ‘average American student’ who had been selected, is quoted:
“In the ‘50s, U.S.-India relations were at a low ebb. A cross section of UCLA students went from 1952-69 to Indian cities as ambassadors. We met Prime ministers, presidents, befriended Indian students, lived in their college hostels, and provided a million Indians with a new perspective about Americans. In doing so, we learned about our own culture and about ourselves. We proved that youth have a role to play in international diplomacy.”
This reviewer was a freshman at UCLA when the idea was conceived. Dr. Gunther obtained funds from 1952-1969 for implementing Project India. It was the key concept for the later development of Peace Corps. I am quoted at the back of the book:
”As an Indian studying at UCLA in the early ‘fifties, I helped select team members, watched them interact with Indian students in Bombay, then saw them share their experiences back in Los Angeles. Project India was an effective tool for bringing the U.S. and India closer together.”
During those 18 years (1952-1969), while diplomats struggled with a myriad of political challenges between the eagle and the peacock, Project Indians worked at the personal level.
The book is very readable, full of anecdotes and plenty of pictures. The year wise narrative brings up our own history as the American students met Jawaharlal Nehru, President Rajendra Prasad, vice president Radhakrishnan and later dignitaries, while they stayed with students at hostels, and with maharajas. Nehru had met each Project India team till his death 10 years later.
Indians were intrigued at the variety of ethnicity of the American visitors. On page 174, last para:
"(there were in the Project India team) descendants of Germans, Britons, Poles, Chinese, Swedes, and – Indians. Yes, they all had the unmistakable Yankee traits of the true Kentuckian. The leader of the delegation, Mr. Ernest Lightner, has African blood coursing in his veins. ‘My great grandmother was brought a slave’."
The genteel and petite Pat McBroom was rather confused. 'Well my mother was born of Swede-Scots parents while my father has Irish-French ancestry. I do not know what I should call myself – I guess just plain American.' Naidu Permaul (also a Project Indian)’s grandparents migrated to the west indies over a century ago, and his grandparents lived in Los Angeles. Both his parents worked in the city government in Los Angeles. Naidu looked like a south Indian, talked like an American, and could not tolerate hot food (like an American).