Tag Archives: anjana nagarajan butaney

Tailing Pond: The Story of Jadugora

Outside the village of Jadugora, a few miles from the town of Jamshedpur in India, kids kick a ball around in the fields. Their friends watch from the sidelines cheering them on – but they don’t join in.

If you take a closer look, you’ll see Munna. He’s 8 – he can barely walk. His legs and feet are misshapen, twisted, and giving away beneath him. The boys next to him cannot stand at all; their limbs lie crumpled beneath their bodies, contorted by a mysterious disease.

They are the unlucky ones. What happened to them?

The answer to that is the subject of a powerful documentary made by Saurav Vishnu, a native of Jamshedpur, who wanted to tell the world what happened to the children of Jadugora.

It’s called Tailing Pond.  Saurav Vishnu joined DesiCollective to tell us about his film and share his experience making it. 

Click below to listen to a podcast of the interview.

So what happened to the people of Jadugora? 

The story goes back to 1951, when the Government of India discovered uranium reserves in Jadugora. Uranium is used to make nuclear weapons. It was a fortunate find for India – a country trying to assert itself as a global power by developing its very own nuclear weapons program after independence.  

Jadugora, in Eastern India, in a state now known as Jharkand, is the ancient home of tribal people who’ve lived off the land for centuries. But after it was built in 1967, the mining plant owned by the Uranium Corporation of India (UCIL), took a devastating toll on the health and lives of the villagers in Jadugora.  

Saurav Vishnu

In Tailing Pond, Saurav investigates the horrifying effects of uranium poisoning and the refusal of a government to acknowledge its role in this manmade plague.

Tailing Pond refers to the pools that store uranium waste.

As slurry from the ponds began to seep and contaminate the soil and groundwater, exposure to this highly toxic radioactive waste began to destroy the lives of families living by the uranium plant. Thousands of children in the villages began to fall ill and die. Women had painful pregnancies that resulted in stillbirths, babies were born with birth defects, and children who survived began to develop skeletal deformations and illnesses that were fatal. 

Saurav told us that it took 5 years and over 160 hours of footage to make Tailing Pond. But it was not an easy experience for him to edit the footage knowing that the children he had filmed were no longer alive.

A clip in the film shows the company chairman claiming that the deformed children were not native to Jadugora but imported from somewhere else. In the last 30 years the government has refused to acknowledge its responsibility to the villagers saying that uranium is safe to handle and radiation exposure does not affect anyone’s health.

Saurav managed to rope in American actress Cynthia Nixon, who is known for her stellar performance in numerous Hollywood films including ‘Sex and the City,’ to provide the voiceover for Tailing Pond. 

The documentary has been screened at numerous Indian and international film festivals and won best film at both the New York Indian Film Festival, and the Jaipur International Film Festival. Due to the help of ShortsTV, it’s now officially in consideration for the 93rd Academy Awards in the Documentary – Short category.

The villagers of Jadugora paid an awful price for the success of India’s nuclear program. Tailing Pond is their story.

The word Jadugora in Hindi means enchanted land. But the magic spell is broken. The villagers have suffered for generations. The Indian government knew and did nothing. They could have prevented this human catastrophe. It’s time for the Indian government to show accountability for the human toll in Jadugora.

If you would like to know more go to  www.tailingpond.com or donate at www.jadugora.com

Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents and a Producer at DesiCollective

Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney is a Producer at DesiCollective. A Bay Area resident with experience in educational non-profits, community building, networking, and content development, Anjana was Community Director for an online platform. She is interested in how to strengthen communities by building connections to politics, science & technology, gender equality and public education.

South Asians Running For Office – Raaheela Ahmed

Four Reasons Why!

That’s what pushed Raaheela Ahmed to run for office and win – TWICE!

Raaheela Ahmed was a freshman at UMD when her dad, Shukoor Ahmed, kept insisting she had four good reasons to run for a seat on the Prince George’s County School Board in Maryland.

“You’re passionate about education, our community needs you in this role, you’re qualified, and I will support you!”

So Raaheela decided to go for it.

She has just won a second term – this time getting 57.26% of the vote. And Raaheela is only in her mid twenties!

It’s been a family affair for the Ahmeds – and this is no ordinary family.  Raaheela belongs to one that takes persistence to new heights. Ever since her dad first went on the campaign trail many years ago, cousins and family members would have sleepovers to assemble campaign materials. Even today, says Raaheela, her grandparents are ‘out there’ campaigning for her.

Her dad brought members of the community to the polls, introducing many them to the democratic process. Raaheela’s own 2016 run brought many more young people out to support her race. Running for office has had a ‘cascading effect’  says Raaheela. It’s galvanized other young people to run for office in 2018 and 2020, including her own sister.

As a woman of color, “You have to believe in yourself, ” Raaheela says. This remarkable young woman tells DesiCollective the story of her immigrant family’s runs for local office and never giving up, even after losing some of them.  In her second term, she has plans to help the students in her county during the pandemic and beyond.

This story is the seventh in our series on conversation with candidates – SHORT TAKES for India Currents – where contenders for political office share their aspirations and plans with our community!

If you live in Prince George’s County in Maryland or anywhere else, take a look! You will be inspired to run yourself.

SHORT TAKES/DesiCollective: South Asians are Running for Political Office

Short Takes: Belal Aftab in Saratoga

Short Takes : Harbir Bhatia in Santa Clara

Short Takes: Sri Muppidi in Dublin

Short Takes: Kuljeet Kalkat in Los Altos

Short Takes: Ajit Varma in Palo Alto

Short Takes: Sumiti Mehta in Natomas

Why The Senior Vote Matters!

Senior citizens have always been a very reliable voting bloc in the United States.  We assume that this is because they have the time to go vote.  While that might be somewhat true, the fact is that retired people are most vulnerable to any policy changes made by the government.  When Social Security constitutes a sizable part of your income and Medicare is your only option for health care, voting is much more than just your civic duty – it becomes the most important thing you must do to maintain your quality of life.

Just like all older voters, older Asian Voters are more likely to be registered and to vote. They reliably show up to the polls to vote in larger numbers than their younger brethren.  Infact, in presidential elections, voter turnout is even higher for foreign born Asians than those that are U.S. born.

According to the National Survey of Older Voters During COVID-19: Asian Americans, conducted by the Harris Poll on behalf of AARP, although 86% are “very likely” to vote in 2020, the majority of Asian American voters 50+ are not being engaged or contacted by either party affiliation (61%) or community organizations (74%), according to (AAVS).

This data is so puzzling but what does this mean and how does this impact this large voting bloc?  It means that this group is invisible.

When you think of a Asian American voter, your mind immediately conjures up a 30 something year old, highly educated person with a good paycheck; painting a picture of a young, educated, middle class person.  This image belies the fact that many of these voters are senior citizens or at least 50+ and this is the demographic that AARP  (American Association of Retired Persons) is interested in.

Turning 50 is life changing in many ways, but the significance of that particular number becomes even more acute when you receive your welcome package from AARP.  I am not old and I am certainly not retiring anytime soon you think and you are right.  But AARP is not just for old, retired people.

AARP is working to have your (50+)  voice heard on the issues that matter to this demographic.  Protecting social security and medicare, lowering prices of prescription drugs, and ensuring your right to vote safely among many other issues. While these might not be issues that are top of mind for you at 50, you know it will be very soon.

Speakers at the Oct 21 AARP briefing released new findings from recent national surveys exploring the key priorities and concerns of Asian American voters aged 50 and older. Results from the 2020 Asian American Voter Survey (AAVS), conducted by AAPI Data on behalf of AARP, APIAVote and Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC, show that 93% of Asian Americans 50-plus view health care as important heading into the election, making it the top most important issue. Jobs and the economy follow as the second most important issue, with 89% of respondents citing them either as “extremely” or “very” important.

With over 50k+ nursing home deaths and the disproportionate vulnerability of our elders to the current pandemic, these survey results are not surprising. COVID-19 has underscored the importance of healthcare as a voter issue and has caused a sense of insecurity related to the economy, health, freedom from discrimination, elections and voting.

Additional findings from the survey on 50+ AAPI (Asian American & Pacific Islander)  – which is the category under which South Asians voters are aggregated include:

  • Plurality of older Asian voters identify as Democrat but the majority describe themselves as moderate.  They are more united around ideology than around a party affiliation.

  • Older asian voters value opportunity and freedom.  They also value entrepreneurial spirit, respecting people with different ideologies and have a greater willingness to accept refugees.

  • Majorities of older Asian American voters support action for equality and equity and agree that there is racial and ethnic discrimination in this country.

  • 50+ Asian voters have become more progressive since the 2016 elections.

  • Over 75% of the older Asian voters get their election information from traditional media and about 42% from talking to their family.

If the 50+ Asian voter is so engaged and likely to vote, why are they not on the radar for either party? 

One piece of data that is striking is this :  85% of 50+ Asian American voters are foreign born. One reason for this opportunity gap is the need to reach out in different languages in order to communicate effectively with this community.

But the larger reason for this lack of engagement is education about the numbers and their impact.  “They don’t pay attention if there is no data,” says Daphne Kwok of AARP.  “But now we are proving that this cohort is an important part of the electorate.  For the political parties, it is so key that they start to hear from AAPI 50+” continues Kwok.  Our issues and concerns have to be raised and addressed.

“We have seen over the past election cycles, more and more AAPIs getting involved politically, voting, and hopefully our voice is starting to become louder.”  Kwok is also optimistic because it has also been proven in the last election that AAPIs have become the margin of victory in many races. Hopefully this is the incentive both parties see to reach out to this voting bloc that could make a difference for their candidate.

So let’s get out the Vote in our 50+ community.  Each state has different rules, different timelines, and different procedures.

Everything you need to know to vote safely is at aarp.org/election2020  and APIAvote.org.

Older voters are more likely to vote in person.  If there is a vulnerable senior citizen in your family, please take the proper precautions but help them make their vote count.

We can’t afford to let anyone’s vote go uncounted.

Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney is a Bay Area resident with experience in educational non-profits, community building, networking, and content development and was Community Director for an online platform. She is interested in how to strengthen communities by building connections to politics, science & technology, gender equality and public education.

image: BBH Singapore on Unsplash

South Asians Running for Office – Kuljeet Kalkat in Los Altos, CA

Kuljeet Kalkat is running for office in Los Altos. A 30 year Los Altos resident, Kuljeet is a former tech executive who is currently a realtor, and once owned a downtown business called Cranberry Scoop with his wife. Kuljeet also served as Chairman of the Los Altos Financial Commission. He tells DesiCollective he understands how his city works.

Kuljeet says he believes in collective responsibility and will promote a culture of dialogue in Los Altos.

This story is the fourth in our series on conversation with candidates – SHORT TAKES for India Currents – where first time contenders for political office share their aspirations and plans with our community!

If you live in Los Altos, take a look!

SHORT TAKES/DesiCollective: South Asians are Running for Political Office

Short Takes: Belal Aftab in Saratoga

Short Takes : Harbir Bhatia in Santa Clara

Short Takes: Sri Muppidi in Dublin

Short Takes: Ajit Varma in Palo Alto

Short Takes: Sumiti Mehta in Natomas

Indian-Americans Make An IMPACT

This is a heady time for Indian Americans.  Our immigration story and our growing financial and political power are in the headlines every day, especially with the addition of Senator Kamala Harris to the Democratic Party ticket for President. So what can we do to capitalize on this unique moment in history?  

Many of us want to do something but are not sure what.  This is where The Indian American IMPACT Fund comes in. It’s a bold new initiative whose mission is “to help talented and patriotic Indian Americans who reflect our community’s values run, win, and lead.”  Their goal is to build a pipeline for leadership and to provide a voice for the Indian American community in public affairs. 

IMPACT will be raising $10 million to support candidates they endorse for this election cycle.

Just this week, the IMPACT Fund released their first round of endorsements for the 2020 General Election.  Twenty four candidates have been selected from the  70 Indian Americans running for office up and down the ballot across the country.  IMPACT will put their weight behind these candidates through contributions, volunteering and help with grass roots organization. 

“We are going to do all these things to help elect these 24 candidates and really build an inclusive democracy.” says Neil Makhija, the new Executive Director of the organization. “When you have Donald Trump campaigning on building walls, that is the antithesis of our values and we don’t think about partisan lines.  We value global partnerships to solve issues like climate change, we believe in facts, believe in science.”   

The IMPACT Fund goes through an arduous process to assess the candidates and analyze the competitiveness of the races and where IMPACT can make the most difference.    

What is incredible is that in 2012, there was only one Indian American member of Congress – Ami Bera of California.  But by 2016, that number increased five fold. Joining Bera in Congress were Ro Khanna from California, Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois and Pramila Jayapal from Washington as well Kamala Harris in the Senate. IMPACT supports candidates for public office from Congress to state capitols, school boards and city councils, as well as public leaders like Ravi Sandill who became the first ever District Court Judge in Texas of South Asian descent and who is up for relection in the Texas 127th District Court. in November. The increasing numbers of candidates from the Indian American community running for local and state offices reflect our greater engagement in politics and public affairs.

One of the key endorsements this election cycle is Dr. Hiral Tipirneni, an ER physician who is running for Congress in Arizona in a district that has now become competitive but was unthinkable for a Democrat to win until recently.  Makhija believes that scientists or doctors like Dr. Tipirneni will provide different perspectives that will be valuable in helping shape what Congress. “We are excited about building a new generation that is formidable in public service.”

Another pivotal IMPACT-endorsed Senate candidate is Sara Gideon, the speaker of the house in Maine, trying to oust their 4-term Senator Susan CollinsMaine is one of the key races on the 2020 Senate map that will decide which party will have the majority.   This highly contested race is considered a “toss up” by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report and has become the most expensive in Maine history. 

IMPACT has also endorsed Democratic VP nominee Kamala Harris because of her dual appeal to both the Black and Indian American communities.  “I think Kamala Harris is able to tie together our American stories like no other candidate has before in public, “ says Makhija.  “Her story in terms of growing up both Black and Indian and how she values both of those experiences in distinct ways but also in similar ways. – she can genuinely be a bridge and help us build a broad coalition that is needed to unite the country and get past this era of division with Donald Trump.”

IMPACT is working to make sure that the Indian American story is told. “We are seeing an immense desire to learn about (Kamala Harris) and that is not something that will disappear.  People are going to learn and better understand our community, our issues, our contributions and that will help build this bridge that we are talking about.  When a candidate is running in Texas or Arizona – because Kamala has run and been the first, it will be just a bit easier.  Because people will be more familiar and understand what it means to be Indian American.  So, I think that is one of the biggest impacts of the moment.” 

Neil Makhija, Executive Director             Indian American Impact Fund

Makhija’s own story represents how the Indian American community is coming into its own.  “I am the first person in three generations who has had this chance to come home and build a life where I grew up.” he says.  “My father was born a year and half after partition. My family were refugees from Sindh and then went to Ullas Nigar in Mumbai. My parents left everything and came to the United States. The joy that they feel when they go back and see their friends and family and connection is something I can appreciate. And it is easy to take for granted if you are in the town you grew up in and you have that. I have not left everything behind and gone across the world like many of them had to.  It’s really special and this rootedness gives you the platform to get involved in public affairs.” 

A common thread to the immigrant story is that the first generation works hard to build a new life and does not always  engage in public life . But their commitment allows the second generation to step up and fully participate in the public and political sphere. 

The opportunity to do that is what has Neil Makhija working around the clock at IMPACT.

Other groups like LatinX, LGBTQ, African American “all have a serious presence in terms of organization and you need that if you are going to bring a community that has not traditionally or historically been in power, “ says Makhija “It does not happen automatically.”  

The IMPACT Fund will recruit, train, and then endorse and elect candidates who want to serve and fully represent  diverse communities.  “What we find is that Indian American as well as other immigrant communities are often welcomed when they play narrow roles but receive skepticism when they aspire to leadership.  That’s what we are up against and so, we as a community and organization want to come together to help our candidates get beyond that.”

The Indian American IMPACT Project is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization which helps with building awareness about the political process while the Indian American IMPACT Fund is a political action committee (PAC) that helps candidates get elected to local, state and federal offices.  The IMPACT Fund is committed to the core values of inclusion, civil rights and a belief in science, qualities they seek when vetting candidates they want to endorse.

Makhija explains that “anyone can give $20 to the presidential race and that is fine.  But there are some races where you raise $1000 from a group of people and give it to a Presidential or Senate candidate who is raising multi million dollars, or you can actually help elect a State Senator and that could be the difference between them losing and winning.  What our organization does is that it provides infrastructure to have a more sophisticated analysis and decision making process about where you would make a difference.”

The Indian American community can impact this election cycle by volunteering, contributing or even running for office. We have to come together to amplify our voices and represent our community. 

Find out more about IMPACT at the Indian American Impact Fund,

And always, VOTE.

Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney is a Bay Area resident with experience in educational non-profits, community building, networking, and content development and was Community Director for an online platform. She is interested in how to strengthen communities by building connections to politics, science & technology, gender equality and public education.

Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents

What’s In A Voice

Music has been an essential part of my life since I was five years old. I don’t think there’s been a day in my life without singing.  When I’m sick or my voice croaks and squeaks, when it hurts, and even when I’m too busy to eat, music has always been there for me when I’ve needed it. When I’m listening to music or singing, everything feels right with the world.

That music has changed over the years. Much of my music comes from my parents, but my older brother affected my music taste the most. As a child, my parents would constantly stream Maroon 5 or Contemporary Bollywood on Pandora radio. As I got older, my brother got me to listen to Shawn Mendes, Camila Cabello, John Mayer, and Sam Smith. By ten or eleven I was making my own musical choices and when I was fourteen, my taste was completely separate from my family.

But, more than anything, the eleven years I’ve spent in choir has shaped my music forever. I obsessively seek melodic music. I find it hard to enjoy a song without a strong melody, unlike some of my friends who prefer guitar lines or layers.

Inevitably, my musical taste is tied to my choral experience, because the only way I actually learn music is by finding the melodies and harmonies that inhabit it

I’ve discovered that the music I enjoy now is rather different from the rest of my family. My parents cannot stand slow, sad songs – my favorite type of music!  It’s not as though I made a conscious decision to like sad songs, but I’ve come to realize that the strong, melodic tunes I love, are often sad ones.

Here why.  I believe a powerful melody can carry a sad theme without the pressure to have a catchy, poppy background. A simple setting can make a strong tune stand out.

But that doesn’t mean sad songs are the only thing I like. Once in awhile, I’ll listen to quick-moving, happy tunes like Harry Styles’s “Canyon Moon” or Panic! At the Disco’s “Hey Look Ma, I Made It” – they have strong melodies as well. 

At other times, there are songs I can listen to over and over again – mxmtoon’s “almost home” or Conan Gray’s “Heather” they just hit me hard.

But, in that musical search, I neglected one aspect of my childhood: Bollywood music.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Bollywood music. The background is intricate, the melodies are fun, and the storytelling is incredible. I just don’t know enough of it. 

Of the hundreds of Bollywood songs I’ve heard in my life, I only know “Subhanallah” from Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani fully, mostly because of my mom, and that took me hours on end to learn.

I don’t speak Hindi so learning the lyrics took me almost an hour. I read through it at least fifteen times – it was difficult for me to understand. The melody wasn’t hard because Subhanallah is a simple song, but unlike many Western songs, each of its two verses had different melodies -I had to figure out how the verses changed- not easy!

Give me a song from Bach’s cantata and a piano and I can learn it within the hour. That process takes me half the time. I’ll listen to the song, play it on the piano, sing it through a couple of times, figure out the lyrics, then practice it. Twice. That’s it. 

I’m incredibly tuned into Western music, whether it’s choral pieces or theatre tunes or “contemporary” music. It’s expected, easier.

But Hindi songs are difficult. They live by a different set of rules. The language requires a unique technique, while the musical tones, the different runs, vocal flexes, and background, are often more complex than a Western song  (unless it’s background-driven). 

When singing has been defined by Western classical music like mine has, it’s very hard to switch mindsets.

For instance, when I’m singing a song I’ve sung a thousand times, I can mess with it however I want, but I’m almost always true to the style of the song. It’s twice as hard to do that with a Bollywood song. The intricacies are very different and I have to really think about the nuances of the song.

Sometimes that makes me feel like a traitor to my heritage. 

One time I was asked to sing at a neighbor’s Navaratri party. I sang in English. I could’ve sung in Italian, but that would have been weird. I was complimented on my singing afterward, but I know that everyone was disappointed that I hadn’t sung in Tamil or Hindi or any Indian language.

What do I do? I don’t regret singing Western classical. I love my choir and what it’s taught me. 

But, of course, music is about give-and-take. From my point of view, I have excellent Western training but I lost a good desi background. Can you have a perfect vocal technique for twentieth-century English music and for twenty-first-century Bollywood? It seems impossible!

But it’s not like I didn’t have opportunities. For a year my mom drove me to Palo Alto once a week for Carnatic music but I sucked at it. It was not my jam. Then again, it could’ve just been my petulant eight-year-old self.

Yet despite what my fears tell me, I’m not a traitor to my culture for not enjoying Carnatic music when I was eight. And yes, I do want to get better at singing Indian music, but ultimately, that’s not what matters.

 My younger brother likes dubstep music, I hate it. My dad loves the song “Take it Easy, Urvashi” and my mom detests it. But even then, my entire family will always listen to songs like Culture Club’s iconic “Karma Chameleon”.

The thing is, music is different to everyone.

Kaavya Butaney is a sophomore at Los Altos High School in Los Altos, CA. She writes for her school newspaper, The Talon, and loves speech and debate and choir. Kaavya is an intern at India Currents.

Peoplewatch: Software Startups are in Manju Mohan’s DNA

Manju Mohan’s entrepreneurial journey began in the living room of her Toronto childhood home, stuffing envelopes for her parents’ software startup. She was about 5 when her father developed a GUI Converter that he built at home, which led to the birth of their technology company Kumaran Systems. Manju has been a part of every family enterprise ever since.

An entrepreneurial spirit runs strong in Manju’s family. One grandfather was a mango trader and another ran a saree shop. Her mother, who had Manju at 18, became an accountant with the support of her husband and managed the accounting and sales aspects of the business.

Manju’s path to success today did not come in a linear fashion. Soon after college where she studied Computer Science and Economics, she started an e-learning company for corporate training – Iora Learning Solutions. But the timing was not great; it was smack dab in the middle of a recession when corporate budgets for learning were low. But during that time, she also got a masters in Instructional Technology where she learned about design; that helped her pivot to where she is now.

Today, she is the CEO and Co-founder of Ionixx Technologies and the secret sauce behind the success of Ionixx is design. “The DNA of Ionixx is that we are design driven – we think MVP.” Of her three years in the Bay area says Manju, “One of the most important learnings for me was the importance of design. Building any software, without giving enough significance to design, just won’t work.” Really understanding the user before building anything, and prototyping, is a big part of her success with customers.

Ionixx’ clients include Tenshey for whom they built a platform to advance gender diversity through executive coaching, and Wow Laddus, for whom they are building a blockchain-based application to track the quality of the sweets during production.

Today, they work mostly with startups providing web and mobile application development. “Design differentiates us. We focus more on emerging technologies like mobile technologies, micro services architecture and the blockchain space”.

Ionixx first got started by digitizing loan approval workflows for the microfinance industry in India. Field officers equipped with android mobile phones would go to villages to photograph documents to onboard a customer and transfer information to data centers to be digitized so they could verify and approve loans immediately. This automated system transformed what was a laborious, time consuming process involving lots of paper, with technology that created a near paperless office, and saved money and time.

Many of Manju’s clients also have female founders or strong female representation in their management. “… when I talk to other women entrepreneurs, they connect with me,” she says, because being one of the few tech companies founded by a woman is what attracts these female entrepreneurs to Ionixx.

“I see a lot of that,” reflects Manju, “where women are trying to help other women out, rooting for them.”

Strong family ties and support are in Manju’s DNA as well as the penchant for risk taking. “My parents have always said – try it out. What’s the worst that can happen?” This is an attitude that is encouraged in her company where every employee is empowered to try new ideas. She credits her sister Swathi, Co-Founder and VP of Growth for the increase in sales.

“The company took off just as my son was born but,” she says, “somehow, I found that I became more efficient. Getting things done, instead of getting done perfectly. I have learned to use help – family, friends or paid. It does take a village.”

Manju, who lives in the LA area with her family defines success as inner happiness.

“I don’t actually believe in work life balance. You cannot be a different person at work or home. You need to be happy with what you are doing, day in and day out.”

Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney is a Bay Area resident with experience in educational non-profits, community building, networking and content development and was Community Director for an online platform. She is interested in how to strengthen communities by building connections to politics, science & technology, gender equality and public education.

Edited by Contributing Editor, Meera Kymal

MacArthur Genius, sujatha baliga, and Restorative Justice

 In September, 2019 sujatha baliga won the MacArthur “Genius Award” for her work in Restorative Justice. The MacArthur fellowship is awarded to individuals who have shown “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” 

It’s an honor that sujatha, a survivor of sexual abuse, could not have imagined as a child growing up in rural Pennsylvania.

Today sujatha dedicates her time to implementing restorative justice alternatives,  across communities, working with crime survivors and those who have harmed others.  

Her mission – what she describes as her “heart’s interest” – is to heal conflict and harm without the courts and without reliance on the criminal legal system. sujatha’s unique take on alternative restorative justice has its roots in indigenous cultures. It’s a system that works better she says, “because there are no sides and it increases the dignity and humanity of everyone involved in conflict.”

Developing her perspective on conflict resolution took a long while, given sujatha’s own struggles with her history as a victim of sexual abuse.  

She talks about the anger she felt towards her father, her abuser, the shame she hid, and her fear of telling anyone the truth through high school and college.

“We were the only Indian family around. I couldn’t tell white people, because I didn’t want to be separated from my family and my father to go to jail.” 

Eventually, sujatha confessed her terrible secret to her older sister who immediately believed her. It saved her, says sujatha. Speaking out publicly made her effectively ‘unmarriageable’ in the Indian marriage market; in her experience, Indian men and their families did not want to deal with a sullied woman. “I felt like damaged goods,” she remembers.

Predictably, the Indian community treated the disclosure harshly, as it tends to when taboo subjects like sexual abuse are raised.

“It is imperative that we reduce the amount of gossip and competitiveness and using other people’s sorrows and horrors in a way of feeling better than others, is really something that we need to let go as a community.  I have definitely been on the receiving end of people.”  

She says poignantly, “I didn’t need layers of shame to help me end up being the the person who got a MacArthur. It impeded my brilliance.”

After college she became a victim advocate while applying to law school and spent time working in shelters in Mumbai, but the experience triggered her own unresolved issues with sexual abuse. Then, during a backpacking trip around India, a chance audience with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala changed her trajectory in life and set her on a path towards forgiving her father and starting to heal.

The search for healing and forgiveness in her own life eventually led to sujatha’s trailblazing work in Restorative Justice today. 

How Restorative Justice works

 “Restorative justice puts the needs of the victim at the center of the process,” says sujatha, now an attorney and  Director of the Restorative Justice Project at Impact /Justice, a national research center in Oakland advancing new ideas and solutions for justice reform.

“Instead of asking what law was broken, who broke it and how should they be punished – we ask who is harmed, what do they need and whose obligation is it to meet those needs? It invites us to a paradigm shift about these three questions.”

sujatha spent years in therapy, grappling with complex questions in her own struggle for answers. Anger towards her father had motivated her to want to study law, become a prosecutor and lock other criminals in cages. 

“But,” she says, “I knew in my gut that wasn’t the solution, because it was not the solution I had sought when I was a child. I did not want my father in a cage. Why then would I go down a road that I did not believe was the solution for myself? It was patronizing to decide for other people something I would have never decided for myself.” 

Before embracing restorative justice, sujatha worked as a Public Defender for many years, but she contends that “In all my years in court, I never saw anything as healing or as productive as restorative justice processes.” 

Why restorative justice works, says sujatha, is because it gives new voices to victims, to offenders, and to community representatives, and as a facilitator,  she counts on the wisdom of family and community to solve the harm themselves. 

“Our process starts with who has been harmed, but then it is about family and community wrapping around the person who has caused the harm in order for them to be directly accountable to their crime survivor’s self-identified needs.” 

“I am not interested in rights; I am not interested in diagnosis.  We aren’t fixing anyone,” explains sujatha.

The restorative justice facilitator creates the container of the process for people to come to their own solutions, through face-to-face dialog and consensus-based participatory decision making.   

What Forgiveness Means

Despite her own journey to find forgiveness, sujatha is emphatic that restorative justice neither requires forgiveness for participation nor has it as an expected outcome. 

“I have worked on cases where people just want answers to questions and would like their stuff back or to know what their child’s last words were.” 

But forgiveness has played a big role in sujatha’s own life.  She recognizes that her father was a complex man – he had an incredible sense of humor but was depressed and “deeply dissatisfied with his life – why we left India, he missed his family, we were super isolated.”

She reflects that “…when I think about my father, I am because he was – both the things that have been challenging about me and the positive things.” 

sujatha suspects her father himself was probably abused. “The vast majority of people I have met who have caused sexual harm, have also experienced sexual harm or some other horrific abuse in their past. That is not an excuse, but its data, it is information that can help us figure out how to end this global pandemic of sexual abuse.” 

Her mother, says sujatha, was “enraged” when she learned about the abuse. “She has a different forgiveness journey. Forgiving someone for something they did to their child is a much more difficult thing.”

But sujatha is relieved her secret came out in the open. “…a big part of what allows child sexual abuse to continue is the nature of the secrecy and shame and silence. If we can’t talk about what is happening, it can’t be seen, it can’t be known, it can’t be stopped.”

She implores communities to create safe spaces where we can tell each other what is really happening in our lives. People must support organizations that help victims of intimate partner violence and sexual violence –  “donate your time and money and educate yourself.” 

sujatha is grateful that she is building a career based on Ubuntu; a Nguni Bantu term often translated as “I am because we are” or “ A person is a person through other people”.  It’s a concept about the interconnectedness of the universe that is basic to Vedic and Buddhist philosophies and exemplified in the story of Indra’s Net. 

“We fall prey to individualism in the US, but  South Asian culture has always prioritized the interdependent way of humanity.”

At its heart, restorative justice uses this concept to bring the community together.

sujatha baliga does not capitalize her name, both for aesthetics as well for the notion of equality or interdependence of all life. “We as humans consider ourselves to have dominion over animals or think we are the most important species on the planet. If we understand all things as equal, we would be more likely to not mistreat the environment.”

Changemakers: Individuals making a difference in all walks of life

Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney is a Bay Area resident with experience in educational non-profits, community building, networking and content development and was Community Director for an online platform. She is interested in how to strengthen communities by building connections to politics, science & technology, gender equality and public education.

The article was edited by contributing editor Meera Kymal.