The People’s Diplomat

The soft-spoken Consul General of India Mr Raj Kumar, who’s love for the Indian community since 2019 has made him a household name in Melbourne.

As Melbourne is in lockdown again everything seems to be spiralling down but there is always something unique about society, it’s the resilience that shapes people. One such person is the Consul General of India in Melbourne, Mr Raj Kumar.

We get up close and personal through zoom, Mr Sethi, editor-in-chief of G’day India and The Indian Weekly and I speak about some of his highlights in 2 years as a Consul General of Melbourne and Tasmania.

As Mr Sethi thanks him for the opportunity to speak to us on such short notice, the soft-spoken Consul General smilingly acknowledges that it has always been his pleasure to talk to G’day India.

On asking him about his reaction to the announcement of the sixth lockdown in Victoria? He quotes “I was surprised, as you know that this year, we are going to celebrate 75th year of Independence Day and we were in full swing, making arrangements, people have received invitations, you have also received. At the same time, suddenly you get to know there’s a lockdown. So, it was a shock.”

On asking what were the extreme challenges that the consulate faced? Mr Raj Kumar quotes the “The Challenges before us, basically, its unpredictability.” COVID has changed the way we look at life and function, however, inside the Consul General’s office, they were never closed during the lockdown, particularly diplomatic work comes under essential services, and some employees would be working alternate days. Being the voice of the Indian diaspora in Melbourne he is also a leader to his staff, and it is a difficult task asking to keep the morale high. Being a people’s person, he was sad as he couldn’t assist people. The happiness that he gets helping people is unexplainable in words. Mr Raj Kumar quotes “The parents of the Indian diaspora people they came here for two weeks, and they got stuck here for six months, not having their medicines, family emergencies, they wanted to go back to India but there were no options.”  It was a nerve-wracking situation. He points out that few words of empathy were enough to motivate their spirits.

Mr Raj Kumar stated that earlier pandemics, was restricted to a place or a country but now during this pandemic the whole world is in its grip, including Australia. However, in March 2020, India started ‘Vande Bharat Mission’ flight, but the flights stopped sometime and again resumed in June 2020, opening up registration for repatriating people from here to India. At first, 15,000-people registered who wanted to go to India.

In the first phase, there were only 12 flights from here making it very difficult to choose from those 15,000 as to who they should accommodate? What sort of criteria and on what basis? There were the elderly, pregnant woman and the death that had taken place in India. Making the Consul General’s work difficult to select the percentages as the flight could only accommodate 230 people out of 15,000. It was a big task. “We were understaffed; and were acting as travel agents.”

Reflecting on the current situation of COVID in 2021, Mr Raj Kumar talks about the charter flights resuming after being closed for few months because of not getting approval from the Australian Government, but as for now Qantas is the only flight coming from India; all being organised by the Australian High Commission in New Delhi.  “I believe that at a point of time I was told that there were 15,000 people stuck in India, Australians, as well as other visa holders, were among those impacted to come to Australia.

Mr Kumar says in India the second phase was tough to handle with high death rate making headlines all around the world, and no one was prepared. There was a lot of adverse press about it; then again if we compare with other countries, especially with the west, the so-called developed countries, India did very well. In fact, the government of Australia have appreciated the kind of measures taken by the government of India to contain to resolve this issue, fighting the pandemic. “Now I think around 40,000 to 50,000, new cases are coming every day in India. At the peak, the numbers were close to 300,000.”

As India is somewhat getting back to normal, whereas In Australia, especially in Melbourne we go under lockdown with 10 or 15 cases, Mr Raj Kumar feels that it is a difficult decision for the government of Australia. The average vaccination in India is about 5 million doses each day, on an average, every day for a billion people.

Being posted in Africa and Afghanistan before coming to Melbourne Mr Raj Kumar reflects his life on the beautiful landscape of Afghanistan and its people. ‘In Afghanistan, it was difficult to go out due to security protocol but in Melbourne it was difficult to say no to invitations because of the thriving engagement of the Indian people of Melbourne’.  He misses the warmth of the Indian people of Melbourne, especially the celebrations.

On asking what is his message to the Indian diaspora in Victoria and Tasmania? “So, to all the readers, it will be an absolute honour and we will be delighted to do anything where we can assist. We are here. It is like a ‘maika’ (parent’s home) for all the Indian diaspora, they can get the same feeling as a girl when she goes to her maika, that kind of feeling of happiness.” The doors of the consulate are open 24/7. In any given circumstances people don’t need appointment to come to their consulate, if they are missing India or if they just want to communicate in Hindi or the feeling of hopelessness and despair seem to overcome them, they can simply call and Mr Raj Kumar promises to help them with any language they need assistance in; be it Hindi, Malayalam, Punjabi or Tamil.

For India, it’s a special year of celebrations. In celebration of the 75th year of India’s Independence Day is to unite and register for the global ‘pravasi’, launched by the government of India, Ministry of Culture, to interact with the Indian diaspora. Inaugurated by the Prime Minister from Sabarmati on March 12th 2021- celebrating until 15th August 2023. The theme for Independence Day is ‘Azadi Ka Amritmahotsav.’ He encourages all members of Indian community and requests them to participate in ‘Azadi Ka Amritmahotsav,’ and register themselves to contribute a rendering of the national anthem on the government of India website and on participation, one will get a certificate from the ministry of culture- Indian Government. It is a beautiful programme in uniting people of India from across the globe. “So, I encourage all Indians, as well as the members of the Indian diaspora to spread this all over Australia.”

As we conclude our interview, extending our sincere gratitude to Mr Raj Kumar for making time for this interview and sharing his incredible insight about his life, especially during this pandemic. Furthermore, we extend our appreciation to him for being there for the Indian community in Melbourne. We are honoured as he could grace us with his presence.

His kind words congratulating G’day India for providing a cultural readership to the Indian community. “You are providing [the readers] Indian culture and Indian history. I have seen your newspapers which we receive on regular basis. It is such a good thing you are doing.” We were not only sincerely touched but it’s quite humbling to be appreciated.   As he continues to do such an outstanding work for keeping the Indian diaspora together I cannot think of not quoting Swami Vivekananda “Take risks in your life, if you win, you can lead.”

By Nandita Chakraborty