A fulfilling and enriching journey
India and Jamaica, and the wider Caribbean share many commonalities from their colonial past, emerging as sovereign nations, vibrant democracies, and the deeply embedded Indian culture. There are numerous layers which provide a heady mix and flavour, not only to the potent spice mixes, but the fabric of the society itself. The love of good food, music, and cricket binds the two countries, and over the years, as members of the Commonwealth and Non-Aligned Movement, India and Jamaica have lent a voice on the global stage to pertinent issues facing the world and also inked numerous bilateral and multilateral pacts to strengthen their relationship.
M. Sevala Naik has been the high commissioner of India to Jamaica since 2016 and is completing his tour of duty this week. Before leaving for India, in an exclusive interview, he spoke of his tenure in Jamaica and the various nuances of the Jamaica-India relationship.
Amitabh Sharma (AS): You are about to end your tour of duty, how would you look back at your tenure in Jamaica?
M. Sevala Naik (SN): I would say it has been a very fulfilling and enriching experience for me and my family both at the professional and personal levels. Professionally, I have seen the Jamaica-India relationship evolve with increased people-to-people contacts, interactions at the government level, greater trade and investments, and heightened interests in the cultural aspects of each other. Personally, too, I have made friends for a lifetime, been to breathtaking destinations in the country, and enjoyed the great hospitality of the people here, for which Jamaica is known.
AS: What would be your advice to your successor to further strengthen the relationship between Jamaica and India?
SN: As my tour of duty ends in Jamaica, I would suggest my successor focus on maintaining and further strengthening the multiple ongoing aspects of our relationship, which include further cooperation and execution of projects under the International Solar Alliance; fulfilling the action points from the first-ever India-CARICOM Summit last year; enhancing people-to-people contacts; effectively utilising the Indian Technical & Economic Cooperation slots by recommending more Jamaicans to train in India; enhancing cooperation in the health and pharma sectors, IT, and ITES; providing a platform to Jamaican and Indian businesses to interact, etc. Another important aspect of cooperation could be in the field of disaster management in which India has launched the Coalition for Disaster-Resilient Infrastructure and could help the region in mitigating the adverse effects of hurricanes and earthquakes.
AS: What was your most challenging time as the high commissioner of India to Jamaica in the four years of your service here?
SN: Well, for any newcomer, the first year or so is the most challenging time as most of the things are required to be put in place according to one’s likes and dislikes. I can, therefore, safely say that my first year of stay in Jamaica as high commissioner was challenging, and I had to work harder than normal to bring the house in order. The initiation of most of the bilateral interactions and the establishment of rapport with government and private-sector representatives in Jamaica was also done in this first year. These relationships have now reached greater levels of trust and confidence in these four years and are an asset that will continue to benefit our bilateral relationship.
AS: What would you say was your most pleasant moment in Jamaica and why?
SN: During my four years in Jamaica, there have been several moments, both at the professional and the personal level, to cherish for a lifetime. The warmth and the welcoming nature of the people here has struck me and has made me evolve my attitude towards life in general. The time spent with friends, both within and outside the official circles, would stay with me forever. If you ask me to share specific interactions, the Diplomatic Week organised by the Jamaican Foreign Ministry every year is a great time for interaction with representatives of other missions and government officials. I have also looked forward to the annual dinners hosted by the honourable governor general for all the heads of missions and the annual gatherings by the Foreign Ministry. Watching the Indian cricket team play at the Sabina Park stadium was also one of the most memorable moments for me.
AS: What part of bilateral trade relations did you contribute to improving between Jamaica and India, and what has been your biggest achievement here?
SN: It is difficult to quantify a single aspect of achievement in bilateral trade as it is an ongoing process whereby trade promotional activities are undertaken from time to time. Both countries have recognised that a lot of potential exists in enhancing trade, commerce, and investment. Though there are some inhibiting factors like distance and connectivity, but the bilateral trade of US$60 million has grown in recent years, especially in the field of pharmaceuticals, where India is a global powerhouse. As difficult as these COVID-19 times are for trade and investment, these also provide us an opportunity to diversify our economic and commercial relationship into newer areas and expand it to higher levels. In fact, since the COVID-19 crisis, the number of trade queries by businesses from India and Jamaica for commercial contacts in the other country have exponentially grown, which indicates a positive trend.
AS: What about the Jamaican cuisine and the best place you would always want to return to?
SN: I have no hesitation in saying that of all the places I have been posted to, I have cherished Jamaican food the most. Some of the popular Jamaican cuisines like goat curry and daal-roti have similarities with the Indian food and have made me and my wife feel at home here. However, my personal favourites would be ackee and salt fish, jerk chicken, and rice with peas, and I would certainly miss their authentic taste in India. Jamaica also makes the best rum in the world, and I am carrying back some stock for friends and family in India.
Jamaica is known for its amazing natural beauty, with breathtaking beaches, rivers and greenery. Of all the travelling I have done in this country, I cherish my visit to the Blue Mountains and drinking Blue Mountain coffee at the iconic Strawberry Hill restaurant. It was an amazing experience that no one coming to Jamaica should miss. I have also enjoyed travelling from Kingston to St Elizabeth and Kingston to St Ann via Stony Hill through the immensely beautiful highways. Given a chance, I would like to return to this beautiful country again.
AS: How would you rate Jamaica-India relations, and any final word to all Jamaicans?
SN: The relationship between Jamaica and India has been built on historical and cultural likeness, membership of the Commonwealth, democratic ideals, and South-South cooperation. India was one of the few countries that had recognised Jamaica soon after its independence in 1962 and had established its diplomatic relations within six days of Jamaica’s independence.
A relation cannot be built in one day, and, therefore, my work during the last four years was in strengthening the existing relationship built on the foundations laid down by my predecessors. Bilateral visits are important aspects of any relationship. You will be surprised to know that the prime ministers of India and Jamaica have met multiple times in the last three years, which is in line with India’s increased focus towards the Caribbean region.
I am satisfied that during my tenure here, the Jamaican foreign minister visited India, and Indian ministers also visited Jamaica. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the planned visit of the Jamaican prime minister to India had to be postponed, but I am sure that it will happen soon. These interactions have increased the understanding between the two countries and have opened up new vistas of cooperation. I see that our relationship is poised to grow from strength to strength in the coming time, particularly with Jamaica soon formally inaugurating its high commission in Delhi.
There has also been an increase in the arrival of Indians in Jamaica, mostly for tourism, business, and jobs in the medical and IT sectors. These people have nothing but warmth for Jamaica and are overflowing with stories of hospitality and love shown by the country towards them. The number of Jamaicans visiting India has also increased recently. The last few years have also provided opportunities for cooperation in new areas such as solar energy, disaster management, and capacity-building programmes. With these developments, I can safely say our bilateral relationship is poised for the next level.
Lastly, I would thank the Jamaican people for taking care of us and thinking of us as their own all these years. Jamaicans have excelled in art and literature, music, and sports and have carved out a special niche for themselves in the world. With its democratic ideals and stress on multilateralism, environmentalism, and global cooperation, Jamaica is an important voice on the global platform and is a role model for a lot of countries. I would only tell the Jamaicans that I am carrying your love back with me and whenever you visit India, you would realise that you have a home there, too. Lata. Walk gud.