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Judge Sri Srinivasan, best of America and India

June 21, 2014 11:01 IST

The first Indian-origin federal judge in the United States is India Abroad Person of the Year 2013

President Barack Obama calls him one of his “favourite people.”

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the legendary first female Supreme Court Justice in the US, says America is “lucky as a nation to have him now serving as a federal judge.”

Former US Solicitor General Walter Dellinger believes he is “one of the most gifted lawyers of his generation.”

And India Abroad considers him the best of America and India.

For India Abroad the choice of Judge Srikanth Srinivasan as the India Abroad Person of the Year 2013 -- much like his confirmation as a federal judge in the US Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia, America’s second highest court -- was unanimous.            

Judge Sri catapulted into greatness when, as an Assistant to the Solicitor General, he became the first Indian American to argue before the US Supreme Court in November 2002. He went on to serve as Principal Deputy Solicitor General before becoming the first South Asian American to be nominated as a federal judge in the DC Court of Appeals. He was not only confirmed 97-0 by the US Senate in May 2013, the first confirmation to this court in seven years, but also instantly earned the buzz of a ‘Supreme Court nominee-in-waiting.’

He formally accepted India Abroad’s highest honour Friday evening when the India Abroad Person of the Year Awards returned to The Pierre in New York City, the iconic US flagship of the Taj Hotels, for the fourth consecutive year.

Looking his usual dapper self -- his love for suits, ties and shoes is well known, only second to his love for family and basketball -- Judge Sri charmed the audience as effortlessly as he did last year. The then newly minted judge, humour and humility unmarked by his recent achievement, had opened that awards ceremony posing as his namesake host of the evening, Sree Sreenivasan, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s first chief digital officer.

That humour and humility were just as evident this year when in the presence of his children Maya and Vikram, sister Srinija, and mother Saroja he received the award from Preet Bharara, US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and US Congressman Ami Bera.

The 11th edition of the India Abroad Person of the Year awards, hosted by Sree Sreenivasan for the 10th time, once again saw stars from the community come together to celebrate its brightest achievers across generations.

As a community, Indian Americans have been most widely applauded for their tremendous contributions to science and technology, and in the winners of the India Abroad Award for Lifetime Achievement 2013, Arogyaswami J Paulraj, and the India Abroad Face of the Future Award 2013, Manu Prakash, it was evident why it continued to remain so decade after decade.

India-born and educated Paulraj transformed the Indian Navy's sonar system before coming to Stanford at age 48 and revolutionizing wireless technology; his technology is at the heart of current high speed WiFi and 4G mobile systems.

Serendipitously Prakash -- again India-born and educated although nearly 40 years Paulraj's junior -- also headed to Stanford University and became the force behind revolutionary innovations. He recently hit the headlines internationally for the Foldscope, a 50 cent microscope that has a resolution equivalent to many in laboratory and can fit in a child’s pocket; a $5 chemistry set; and an insect vector that can revolutionize the way data about mosquitoes is collected.

With rising stars like Arvind Mahankali and Sathwik Karnik, winners of the India Abroad Special Award for Achievement 2013, in the community, this legacy seemed to be in good hands.

Arvind, who was honoured for his win at the Scripps National Spelling Bee 2013, is deeply interested in physics math and their relation to biology -- the nature of black holes, how gravity affects biological organisms, particularly the growth of plants or on human muscle and bone growth, among others -- and is considering MIT, Stanford or Caltech as options after he finishes at Stuyvesant, a select high school in New York for the academically brilliant.

Sathwik, the winner of the National Geographic Bee 2013, is still in middle school and has already demonstrated some major strengths in science, mathematics and music.

The evening also recognized the contributions of those who had dedicated their lives to building acceptance, tolerance and spaces of belonging, so that the community could play to its myriad strengths and flourish.

Kumar Prabhakar Barve, who was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in 1990 becoming the first Indian American to be elected to a state legislature, was awarded the India Abroad Award for Lifetime Service to the Community 2013.

Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, in an exclusive message prepared for the evening, said, "As our first Indian American state legislator and the longest serving, Kumar is a paradigm of public service. Over the last two decades, Kumar has dedicated his life to making Maryland a better place to live, work and play, all while mentoring the rising generations of new leaders coming up through the legislature here in Annapolis."

Barve, who attended the event with his wife Maureen Quinn, a Maryland judge, told India Abroad, "I strongly believe that there has to be a South Asia in every state legislature in America that has a South Asian population. There has to be 10 or 15 members in Congress or two or three US Senators because you need people at the table... It is a feature of American civilization that decisions are made in legislative bodies... You either are a member of it and you have a say or you are not a member of it and you have no say -- it’s as simple as that."

This importance of a voice that can be heard above the clamour in the political discourse was also keenly felt and acted on by Mallika Dutt and Deepa Iyer, winners of the India Abroad Gopal Raju Award for community Service 2013, and Anuradha Bhagwati, winner of the India Abroad Publisher’s Special Award for Excellence 2013.

Dutt is the co-founder of Sakhi for South Asian women and founder, president, and chief executive officer of Breakthrough, an international human rights organization that aims to make violence against women and girls unacceptable. As a college student, as an intern, as a budding lawyer, she has been at the forefront of the human rights movement and continues to do so. With Breakthrough she has succeeded in bringing human rights activism out of academic circles into drawing room conversations.

Iyer, who stepped down last year after serving as executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together for over a decade, galvanised the pioneering civil rights organization and the community’s voice by taking the South Asian voice in the United States to Washington, DC. Under her the organization stood at the forefront of the community’s fight in the face of the post-9/11 backlash of hate crimes, racial profiling, civil rights infractions and threats to civil liberties. Even more importantly she effectively conveyed the message that is facing xenophobia and racism African Americans, Arab Americans, Mexicans, South Asians and others don't stand in isolation, they shouldn't.

Bhagwati is a former Marine who took on the world’s most powerful military through her Service Women's Action Network to end sexual harassment in the military.

US Representative Niki Tsongas, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee and the Military Personnel Subcommittee, said in a citation prepared for India Abroad. "Her efforts have helped lead significant reform on behalf of the men, women and families impacted by these terrible crimes."

In a special video citation, US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who has also stood by Bhagwati, said, "She (Anu) has taken on the issue of sexual assault in the US military and has taken it directly to the chain of command... She knows that until there is transparency and accountability justice can’t be done and she believes that these men and women who serve in our military deserve justice."

Bhagwati received her award -- as her source of courage, her mother Professor Padma Desai looked on -- from India Abroad Publisher and Rediff.com Founder, Chairman and CEO Ajit Balakrishnan.

Balakrishnan, in welcoming the guests earlier in the evening, had said, "From a Nobel Prizewinner, to an astronaut who recorded her acceptance speech from space; Governors, McArthur Geniuses, Pulitzer winners, a Booker Prize winner, music maestros, and a clutch of phenomenally talented kids -- in the last decade, we have seen a host of super achievers that have made us all proud.

"India Abroad has been a chronicler of Indian American dream in this country for over four decades -- these Awards are a measure of the culmination of those dreams. Of how fired by the immigrant experience and by the example set by the generation before them, young men and women have gone onto achieve great things in this country."

As Indian Americans expand their footprint in America from science to art, politics, activism and more it is also important to recognize those who -- though not Indian by origin, but definitely Indian by soul -- contributed vastly to deepening the understanding of India outside the subcontinent. In recognition of their pivotal impact, the India Abroad Friend of India Award went to Sanskritist Sheldon Pollock and filmmaker James Ivory.

Pollock is the Arvind Raghunathan Professor of South Asian Studies at Columbia University. He made his first acquaintance with Sanskrit in the 1970s and dedicated his life to preserving the language. His newest initiatives are helming the Murty Classical Library of India, which is working on making great Indian literary works of the past accessible through translations; and the Ambedkar Sanskrit Fellowship Program at Columbia, which aims to establish an endowment to fund graduate studies in Sanskrit for students from historically disadvantaged communities.

He told India Abroad, "When I talk about the inheritors of these great achievements of Indian culture, great works of literature or systems of thought, I consider myself as much an inheritor as my Indian friends and colleagues. I wasn’t born in my karmabhoomi. It is not my janambhoomi, but it is my karmabhoomi."

As Rohan Murty, Infosys co-founder N R Narayana Murthy’s son who donated $5 million for the Murty Classical Library, said, "He is a phenomenal friend of India, a great ambassador for India, its culture, its language and its heritage."

Like Pollock, Ivory's association with India goes way back. It began nearly six decades ago when he made two documentaries about India and deepened with the six features he directed in India -- each an iconic representation of India of that period -- and his lifelong partnership with producer Ismail Merchant, the Merchant Ivory Productions.

Veteran New York-based film journalist and critic Aseem Chhabra said, "They were young with the desire to make a different kind of cinema in India. I arrived in New York in 1981 and still remember the massive reception for Heat And Dust. An hour before the screening a long line formed outside Manhattan’s Pars Theatre on 58th Street. I remember thinking how wonderful it was that a film about India, with Shashi Kapoor in the lead had been accepted so openly by New Yorkers... Ivory has made an immense contribution in examining this aspect of India and sharing it with viewers in the West."

Ivory's films since then may have been set outside India, but it is a place that he still dreams of: "I dream that I am in India."

Image: From left, Arogyaswami J Paulraj, Sathwik Karnik, Arvind Mahankali, Sheldon Pollock, Anuradha Bhagwati, Judge Sri Srinivasan, Deepa Iyer, James Ivory, Kumar Barve, Mallika Dutt, and Manu Prakash.

Photograph: Paresh Gandhi / Rediff.com