Dubai: As India’s first woman External Affairs Minister (EAM) to hold full charge, Sushma Swaraj not only redefined the role of an EAM but also lent the office a sense of unparalleled empathy and efficiency.
A dynamic minister in Narendra Modi’s 2014 cabinet, Swaraj died on August 6 following a massive cardiac arrest. She was cremated with full state honours in India’s capital New Delhi yesterday.
The 67-year-old Swaraj, who had been ailing for some time since her kidney transplant in 2016, had declined a cabinet berth in the new government owing to her ill health. Indian expatriates from around the world, who received the news with shock, recalled how they could tweet or email to her or to the Ministry of External Affairs presenting their problems and expect a swift and decisive action.
From rescuing nurses trapped in war zones and bringing relief to Indian children of adoptive parents abroad or blue-collar workers stuck in end-of-service disputes to repatriation of the mortal remains of Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) to their homeland, Swaraj’s response to the SOS calls she would get was quick and sincere. It was not just NRIs who sought her help. There were people of other nationalities too reaching out, whether it was people seeking quick visas on medical grounds or sailors stranded in international waters.
I had the honour of meeting her in my visits to India & will always remember her fondly. My deepest condolences to all of her loved ones.
It was a well-known fact that if any Indian faced any issue in a foreign land, he or she would first think of tweeting to Swaraj. If she couldn’t directly help, she took the time to explain to the individual and guide him/her to the right person.
‘Care and concern’
In Dubai, a spokesperson at the Indian Consulate said that over a period of five years in her tenure as EAM since 2014, Swaraj was instrumental in resolving hundreds of cases of Indian expatriates who wrote to her for help.
She was a leader of high esteem who was highly respected by everybody irrespective of party lines. She was a great parliamentarian and exceptionally talented minister.
“When people tweeted to her from the UAE, she would tweet back a line to the Consulate asking us to look into the case. We established contact with the individual. There were many labour, family disputes and hospital cases. We sorted out issues on a case-by-case basis assigning the appropriate department to look into the case. Our response time was quick and we directly communicated to her about the status of the case. In 2018 alone, nine hospital patients were helped back home. She reunited several families. The records are vast and what she did was ring in a new era of care and concern for all Indians residing abroad.”
Dubai-based couple Anurag and Praneeti Sharma are indebted to Swaraj’s quick response in getting clearance to travel abroad for studies.
Sharma, 29, who works as a mechanical engineer in Dubai told Gulf News: “My wife Praneeti (24) had applied for management studies to a New Zealand-based university. Her passport did not have my name mentioned in the spouse category and her application was stuck as she was not getting the Police Clearance Certificate (PCC).”
Praneeti, who is a graduate from India, was planning to complete the higher education in India but was using her pre-marriage passport.
Sharma said: “The MEA officials were suggesting she get a new passport made and she had to apply within a stipulated time period where we could not go for a new passport. I immediately wrote to the MEA and addressed the mail to Sushma Swaraj describing our problem in March end this year. She responded immediately promising to help us. Within four working days, we had the PCC in our hand and my wife was able to apply to the university.
"She is set to fly out next month once the New Zealand authorities clear her immigration papers. But from the Indian government’s end, we got immediate clearance once Sushma Swaraj intervened. I can say she was the best EAM India ever had.”
She was a good friend of Bangladesh. Bangladesh will recall her contributions in taking the relationship between the two countries to a new height.
Kannan V., whose nine-year-old daughter got her first passport during the visa amnesty in the UAE last year, said Swaraj was kind enough to help him when the matter was brought to her attention by social worker Nandi Nazar.
“The child’s birth was not registered as the parents were facing legal issues. When I sent an email regarding this to Sushma ji, she replied offering assistance, copying it to the Indian consulate. The Consul General also extended quick assistance which helped the child get birth certificate registered and passport issued,” said Nazar.
He said Swaraj also helped in facilitating the amnesty of a restaurant worker who had no documents to prove his nationality after his former employer allegedly took away his passport and he had no copy with him.
Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Awardee Girish Pant, who has been supporting Indian sailors stranded in UAE waters, recollected how Swaraj called for an immediate meeting with the Directorate General of Shipping after Gulf News broke a story about almost 100 Indian sailors stranded in Dubai waters in May 2017.
“After that report, her meeting with DG Shipping resulted in India tightening recruitment rules for seafarers. She also ensured that sailors’ recruitment has to be made through the eMigrate online portal for their protection.”
“She had also ordered to cancel the license of recruitment agents who cheated many workers after I brought the case to the attention of the authorities. To address various concerns of expats, she also formed many committees and nominated me as a member of the committee looking after Indians in distress,” Pant said.
Vikram Singh, chief engineer currently working for a Bahrain-based shipping company, cannot forget the dark three years when he was stranded at Ajman Airport aboard the Alco shipping company’s merchant vessel.
“About 35-40 sailors were stranded on that vessel. I had spent close to three years whereas each sailor had spent differing durations of time on the vessel. We were not paid any remuneration for that period and had to live on the ship, which was harboured at the Ajman Port. We depended on the kindness and generosity of the Port Authority people,” recalled Singh.
Singh, who has returned this year on a new job as chief engineer, said: “I cannot forget the fight when Sushma Swaraj took up our cause after she was informed about our status. She did not have the time to respond to individual tweets. But she fought for us. We got our salaries and she was able to get us the airfares to fly us home. I was so relieved to see my family and return to my motherland and today I am once again able to earn a livelihood and support my family.”
K V Shamsudheen, chairman, Pravasi Bandhu Welfare Trust, said: “I had been demanding for Aadhaar for NRIs. When we met her last, the minister had assured that Aadhaar will be given to Non-Resident Indians very soon. The new government has now implemented her promise. It was fortunate that she could witness her wish being fulfilled in her lifetime.”
As a member of the community, a powerful orator and appreciator of art and culture, Swaraj always encouraged youngsters to excel in these fields.
Sariga Mathews, deputy manager humran resources at the Prime Hospital, Dubai, recalls her student days at the Saint Anthony Senior Secondary School in Hauz Khas, Delhi in 1998. “I won an award for singing and Sushma Swaraj, the then Chief Minister of Delhi, was the chief guest at the event. She lovingly patted me on the head while giving me the certificate and appreciated my music. I cannot forget her kind words of encouragement that made such a deep impact on me. I am heartbroken at her untimely demise. She was such an inspiration to all women,” said Mathew.
Condolences and rich tributes for Swaraj have been pouring in from Indian expats in the UAE cutting across party lines and social status. Several Indians paid tributes to Swaraj on social media as well.
M.A. Yusuffali, chairman of Lulu Group said in a media statement: “I am deeply saddened to hear the demise of Smt. Sushama Swaraj, former Minister of External Affairs, whom I call Sushamaji. She used to call me Yusuffbhai and was always treating me like a younger brother.”
“I have served in the Board of Trustees of India Development Foundation along with her when she was the Chairperson. I used to meet and attend her community functions and some official meetings whenever she came to the Gulf. She was taking great interest in the welfare of Non-Resident Indians and especially the Gulf NRIs. This is a huge loss to our country and I sincerely pray Almighty grant peace to the noble departed soul.”
Bhupendra Kumar, national convener of Indian People’s Forum in UAE, stated: “We are joining Indians across the world in grieving the demise of a remarkable leader who devoted her entire life to public service and bettering lives of the poor.”
“Sushmaji was one of her kind, who was a source of inspiration for crores of people. She would always be remembered as the originator and sustainer of Twitter Diplomacy of India. The Indians abroad owe a lot to her priceless service which brought in through various means. We all will miss her always.”
Social worker Nandi Nazar said: “Sushmaji never turned down any of our requests for her involvement in solving issues related to our fellow expatriates living in the Gulf region and thus we termed her as ‘ever positive sister’. We didn’t see a mere political figure in Sushma Swaraj. She was always a true leader in all the aspects, which have given her respects from all the walks of life.”
“Whether it was a collective need or a single person’s individual requirements, Sushmaji was there as a refuge for all of us. Indian diaspora has seen many ministers handling Foreign Affairs Ministry. But the imprints Sushamaji left behind were unique and heart touching.”
Condolence books at the missions
The Indian missions in the UAE have opened condolence books to enable expats here to pay their respects to Sushma Swaraj, the former Indian Minister for External Affairs, who passed away in New Delhi on Tuesday night.
The Indian Consulate in Dubai on Tuesday afternoon tweeted: “@cgidubai deeply mourns sudden demise of our beloved Mrs Sushma Swaraj @sushmaswaraj in Delhi on Aug 6, 2019. A Condolence Book has been opened in the Consulate in her memory. The book will remain open today (Aug 7) up to 3.30 pm and tomorrow (10 am to 3.00 pm).”
The Indian Embassy in Abu Dhabi told Gulf News that the mission will keep a condolence book open till 5pm on Wednesday and from 10am to 4pm on Thursday and Friday.
Earlier on Tuesday night, the Indian Ambassador to the UAE Navdeep Singh Suri tweeted that he was devastated to learn about the untimely demise of Swaraj.
“She brought a rare empathy and a personal, human touch to the world of diplomacy and there is just so much that we learned from her. A truly inspirational leader.”
“Remembering our 2am session with #SushmaSwaraj in Abu Dhabi on March 1. She was to speak the next morning as Guest of Honour at OIC Foreign Ministers’ Conference. Arrived after midnight, plunged straight into work, got a bit of rest and delivered a truly memorable address,” the envoy recalled on Twitter.
Speaking to Gulf News over the phone on Wednesday, Consul General of India in Dubai Vipul, who is currently in New Delhi on vacation, said: “Very sad and shocking news… A great loss for the country and for me personally as I have had the opportunity to work very closely with her for many years. As a joint secretary at the External Affairs Minister’s office I also accompanied her in all her foreign visits between 2014 and 2017 before taking charge in Dubai.”
He said he received several messages from Indian expats, fondly remembering her and paying tributes to her.
“They are remembering her fondly because of the way she took care of the Indian expats in the last five years. She was the one who gave an assurance that the government will take care of each and every Indian abroad. There was a paradigm shift in the ministry after she took charge. She was a very warm person who took personal care of people who were working with her.”
Vipul said when he last visited Swaraj two weeks ago, she seemed healthy. “In fact, she also advised me to sort out the health issues of my parents before I fly back to Dubai.”
Vipul said he visited Swaraj’s house at 2am in New Delhi to pay his respects to her. He was also scheduled to attend her funeral later in the day.