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A community honours one of its own

December 15, 2003 10:11 IST
Last Updated: December 15, 2003 10:45 IST

Drama, suspense, emotion. The three ingredients of a great story came together December 12 at India Abroad Person of the Year 2003 award ceremony held at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York on Friday.

The identity of the winner, Sonal Shah, founder of the non-profit organisation Indicorps, had been kept secret until the last minute. When India Abroad Person of the Year 2002 Swati Dandekar, in her capacity of chairman of the jury for this year's awards, announced the winner's name, it was greeted with pleasant surprise.

"When I saw Bobby Jindal in the crowd, I thought it was going to be him," said Dr Sudhir Parikh, president of the Indian American Forum for Political Education.

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Images: India Abroad Person of the Year

Sonal Shah is India Abroad Person of the Year

The second surprise, which quite took the audience's breath away, was the appearance of Hillary Clinton, junior senator from New York who breezed in, in a blue suit, to felicitate the winner and complimented the Indian American community for throwing up role models and leaders like Sonal Shah.

"Her energy is an example to all of us of how to give back and create experiences for Indian American youth," Senator Clinton said. "It helps to create common goals for the future and leaders for tomorrow."

"I think it is very important that more Indian Americans become involved in serving the government and doing so on behalf of the values of progress and prosperity."

She complimented Shah, dressed in a gorgeous golden Gujarati sari, for her work in sending Indian American youth to India for an intensive leadership programme wherein the young people lived and worked with various disadvantaged communities, and called for more leaders such as Shah. 

Shah founded Indicorps in 2001 with her brother Anand and sister Roopal. The three sublings pooled their savings together to provide a platform that would allow Indian American youth to reconnect with their heritage as well as tap into their leadership potential.

The event was attended by the cream of the Indian American community, from businesspersons to political leaders to artists and writers. Accompanying India's Minister of State for External Affairs Digvijay Singh was the top rung of India's diplomatic corps -- Ambassador Lalit Mansingh, India's Permanent Representative to the United Nations Vijay K Nambiar, and New York's Consul General Pramathesh Rath. Sonal Shah with Hillary Clinton. Photo: Paresh Gandhi

Besides Dandekar, other Indian Americans in administrative positions were also present: New Jersey Ratepayer Advocate Seema Singh and New York City Commissioner for Immigrant Affairs Sayu Bhojwani, who read out a citation from Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The India Abroad Person of the Year award was instituted in 2002. In the inaugural year it was won by Dandekar for her role in galvanising the Indian American community as well as for her historic win in the state senate race. India Abroad did not have a formal ceremony last year to present Dandekar with her Award. Hence rising star in the Republican Party, Piyush 'Bobby' Jindal, who recently lost a close race for the post of Louisiana governor, did the honors a year later, on the same night that Sonal Shah became India Abroad Person of the Year 2003

"I tell people if Swati Dandekar can do it, so can you," said the Iowa state Senator, almost overcome with emotion during her acceptance speech. "If someone had told me 31 years ago that I would one day be a legislator after being a homemaker for 25 years, I would have told them 'You're kidding'!"

Dandekar, who chaired this year's nine-member jury, walked the audience through the entire selection process that handed Shah the prestigious award.

"We discussed each of the final 12 nominees, shortlisted from among 186 nominations, in great detail, the only criteria laid before us being that the person be an Indian American, be judged on accomplishments in this year and that the Award not be given posthumously," she said. "It was a very tough choice, and the three finalists were outstanding, each one worthy of the Award."

Earlier in the evening, Ambassador Mansingh described India Abroad as a unique institution that has been chronicling the community for over 30 years now. "India Abroad is remarkable not just for its reporting but for its breadth, depth and analysis and my week in Washington is not complete without reading it," he said.

"A journal is all about provoking thought and debate and that is what India Abroad does. It is a giant among publications and I thank it for bringing us all together today."

He also called for more political participation from the community, citing Dandekar and Jindal as role models. "The community should support Indian American candidates irrespective of political differences.".

Shah in her acceptance was restrained, crediting her siblings, who co-founded Indicorps as much as the youngsters who have been in the programme. "We envisioned Indicorps as creating a new type of leaders that don't follow a path but blaze a trail for others to follow," Shah said.

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