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Ami Bera and Raj Shah create history, again

Last updated on: June 23, 2013 01:09 IST

In a year of countless accomplishments, India Abroad for the first time chooses two icons as the India Abroad Person of the Year. Monali Sarkar reports from New York

With two Indian-American governors, and an Indian-American Congressman in the House of Representatives now, the year 2002 -- when Swati Dandekar made history by getting elected to the Iowa House of Representatives -- seems like a distant achievement.

But for those who recall that time, it was a turning point in the community’s discourse in the United States of America. 

It drove home like nothing else could that Indian Americans had indeed made a vibrant space for themselves in their adopted home.

It was a turning point that India Abroad -- as the oldest Indian-American newspaper that had then been reaching out to the largest part of the community for over three decades -- acknowledged by honouring Dandekar as the inaugural India Abroad Person of the Year.

Within a year, the community would make enormous leaps, and India Abroad, ever the community’s voice, would go on to institutionalise the India Abroad Person of the Year as an annual award.

Friday night, at The Pierre, the Taj-owned hotel in New York City, the awards celebrated a decade of extraordinary achievements.

At this milestone and in a year of countless accomplishments, India Abroad for the first time chose two icons as the India Abroad Person of the Year.

US Congressman Dr Amerish ‘Ami’ Bera , only the third Indian American to be elected to the United States Congress, was honoured as the India Abroad Person of the Year for Political Achievement 2012.

USAID Administrator Dr Rajiv ‘Raj’ Shah, the highest-ranking Indian American in the Obama administration, was honoured as the India Abroad Person of the Year for Public Service 2012.

Dr Bera, who has impressed many in his first few months in office, told India Abroad earlier, “I ran as an Indian American -- as a son of parents who immigrated here from India -- and it’s the values that our parents raised us with, the values of a strong sense of family values of working hard, values of making sure, you’ve built a solid foundation of education, values of sacrificing for the next generation to make sure your children are better off than you did."

"These are not just Indian-American values, those are historical American values as well this country has always built on," Dr Bera, who was trained as a physician, added.

“Raised with the traditional Indian-American and American values of always building for the next generation, making sure that we raise our children and grand-children with more opportunities than we had, and it’s exciting when I am speaking to that next generation and you can see that excitement in their eyes, that ‘Hey, if he can go to Congress, maybe, I can.’ And, if in some ways, we can inspire the next generation to run for office, we would have accomplished a lot," the Congressman said.

Dr Shah, who was also trained as a physician, made just as big a mark by turning USAID on its head.

He hit the ground running with the massive earthquake in Haiti in 2010, and has kept up the gruelling pace since then, breathing new life into the organisation.

“I am just thrilled to see the huge progress that this community has made with leaders in politics, in media, in community service, in so many other walks of life," Dr Shah said.

"I think that is appropriate because it’s a community that has a lot of knowledge, some financial success, the ability to give back and a strong ethic of responsibility that plays out in so many different examples around our country.”

Inspired to a life of public service after visiting slums in Mumbai as a child, he emerged, in the words of then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, as the ‘transformational leader’ that USAID had been waiting for.

He once prompted President Barack Obama to declare, ‘Every time I meet him (Shah), I realise that I was an underachiever in my 30s.’

Dr Bera and Dr Shah capped a celebration that saw 13 awards being presented in an unprecedented eight categories.  

The award ceremony -- hosted by Columbia University's first Chief Digital Officer Sree Sreenivasan, who will soon take over as the Metropolitan Museum of Art's first CDO, for the ninth time in 10 years -- began with a unique spin.

The other big Sri Srinivasan of the community -- the former principal deputy solicitor general who has now become the first circuit court judge of South Asian descent in history -- surprised and charmed the crowd by opening the show as his namesake.

India Abroad Publisher and Rediff.com Founder, Chairman and CEO Ajit Balakrishnan then welcomed the guests, noting the remarkable coming of age of the Indian-American community.

“On this 10th anniversary as we felicitate Indian-American achievement, I want to make a special mention of the people who are the reasons behind such great successes -- and without whom so much of this glory would not be what it is. These people are the parents, men and women who came to settle down here, built lives in a new country against great odds, making way for their children to achieve great things.

“As we honour our award winners tonight, we honour also all those parents who have been the wind behind the wings. Many such parents are here in this room tonight.”

The awardees were a fascinating mix of the pioneers and generation next.

Dr Romesh Wadhwani’s self-made empire and heart-warming largesse, Dr Natwar Gandhi’s trail-blazing ways, Dr Sambhu N Banik’s unparalleled activism encompassed all facets -- economical, governmental, social, academic and cultural -- of the budding immigrant experience they were a part of.

For seeing the community into a new era, and still leading the way, they were honoured for a lifetime of selfless contributions.

Dr Wadhwani, the self-made billionaire founder of the Symphony Technology Group who is donating 80 percent of his wealth to charitable causes via his Wadhwani Foundation and The Giving Pledge; and Dr Gandhi, who brought the District of Columbia back from the brink of financial ruin as its chief financial officer, were awarded the India Abroad Lifetime Achievement Award 2012.

Dr Banik, who still suffers because he put the mental health of the victims of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy before his safety and the community’s go-to person for all events, political, social or cultural, was accorded the India Abroad Award for Lifetime Service to the Community 2012.

While Dr Wadhwani, Dr Gandhi and Dr Banik were forging new roads in the US, there was another pioneer who was doing the same, but in the country they had left behind.

Marshall Bouton first went to India as a 22 year old, not knowing that it would be the beginning of two life-long love affairs -- one with his wife Barbara, who had grown up there, and one with the country itself.

In the years that followed -- through being special assistant to the US ambassador to India, helming the Asia Society and then the Chicago Council on Global Affairs -- Dr Bouton emerged as one of India’s steadiest and most vocal supporters in US policy circles. 

He also emerged as a worthy successor of Susanne and Lloyd Rudolph -- Susanne was his professor at Harvard -- and winners of last year’s India Abroad Friend of India Award.

Dr Bouton was honoured in the same category for rooting for India, regardless of the climate in Washington, DC.

Sharing the roster with them were the torch bearers of this legacy.

Valarie Kaur, whose grandfather first arrived in the United States 100 years ago this year, was the winner of the India Abroad Gopal Raju Award for Community Service 2012.

As a Sikh girl in the US, she had grown up with questions of identity and learned how to address most of them. But then 9/11 happened. From the other, the community suddenly became the enemy for the ignorant, igniting in Valarie the determination to change this.

In 2012, with the shootout at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, her work as filmmaker and interfaith activist came full circle.

“The last year has been an unprecedented moment in the history of the Sikh-American community,” she told India Abroad before the event. “In the wake of Oak Creek, I experienced sadness and grief that felt similar to the aftermath of 9/11, when Balbir Singh Sodhi became the first of too many murdered in hate. But this time, 11 years later, something remarkable happened: The nation’s cameras turned to our community."

"For the first time in 100 years of history, we stood at the centre of the nation’s attention.”

Valarie became the face and voice of a rising generation of Sikh Americans who stepped up to tell the community’s stories to a nation that needed to hear them.

In the strength of her conviction and the ability to herald change, she had much in common with the winner of the India Publisher’s Special Award for Excellence 2012, Amrit Singh.

The senior legal officer for National Security and Counterterrorism, Open Society Justice Initiative, has emerged as the voice of the silenced with her groundbreaking work in the field of human rights law

Her report, Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Torture and Extraordinary Rendition, published by the Open Society Justice Initiative, received widespread attention in the international media for its close look at the global torture network. 

It shook the world with the disclosure of the names of 54 countries that were party to this, and it spoke to the impact of her work that the fact that she is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's youngest child became only a footnote.

As a newspaper, India Abroad, which Rediff.com has owned since April 2001, speaks to Indian Americans across generations; the India Abroad Person of the Year Awards do likewise.

The winner of the India Abroad Face of the Future Award 2012 was economist extraordinaire Raj Chetty, who is just 33.

In 2012, the Harvard professor, whose findings had been quoted by President Barack Obama, received a MacArthur ‘Genius’ Fellowship for ‘illuminating the key policy issues of our time.’ 

He then became the youngest-ever recipient of the John Bates Clark Medal since 1947.

Called the Baby Nobel, the medal is given by the American Economic Association to the best American economist underage 40. Many previous winners of the Clark Medal have gone on to win the Nobel Prize.

India Abroad also honoured Deepika Kurup, Nithin Tumma, Rahul Nagvekar and Snigdha Nandipati, all of whom became the community’s rising young stars in 2012 with their wins.

While Deepika was adjudged America’s Top Young Scientist for her cost-effective water purification system and made it to the White House Science Fair, Nithin won the Intel Science Talent Search for unlocking potential pathways to breast cancer treatment. 

Rahul scooped up a National Geographic Bee win and Snigdha became the fifth consecutive Indian American Spelling Bee champ.

The winners of the India Abroad Special Award for Achievement 2012, they proved that the desi domination would remain in safe hands.

Image: From left, US Attorney Preet Bharara, winner of the India Abroad Person of the Year 2011; US Congressman Ami Bera, winner of the India Abroad Person of the Year for Political Achievement 2012; USAID Administrator Raj Shah, winner of the India Abroad Person of the Year for Public Service 2012; and Judge Sri Srinvasan, the first circuit court judge of South Asian descent at the India Abroad Person of the Year Awards at The Pierre in New York on Friday night | Photograph: Paresh Gandhi/Rediff.com

Monali Sarkar in New York City