India-born US criminal court judge Raja Rajeswari Image Credit: Nilima Pathak/Gulf News

New Delhi: Chennai-born Raja Rajeswari, who migrated to the United States in 1988, was recently appointed as a criminal court judge in New York City — a first for an Indian-origin woman.

Forty-three-year-old Rajeswari has worked her way up through several trials and was nominated by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. “He kept his promise about promoting diversity among the judiciary and encouraging immigrants to achieve their dreams,” Rajeswari remarked.

She asserted putting in her papers to become a judge at the behest of her father, who implored her to do so during their last conversation. He lost his battle with cancer in 2013. “In retrospect, I can say that his suggestion was the turning point in my life,” she said.

A firm believer in the American criminal justice system, Rajeswari considers it the best in the world. “Regardless of colour, race and social standing of a person, it provides everyone the opportunity to seek justice,” she added.

In an interview with Gulf News, she provides an insight into her life.

GULF NEWS: After your appointment as the first India-born judge in New York, what are your priorities?

RAJA RAJESWARI: My main concern is to improve the language interpreter service in the court system. I want to encourage interpreters to come to the aid of immigrants, who face problems because of language barriers. I had sensed this issue during my last several years as prosecuting attorney. Most of the cases I took up were to do with domestic violence and child abuse, especially among South Asians and Sri Lankans. I want to ensure that the multi-ethnic population that forms the foundation of New York, has access to resources and is treated fairly.

Considering you know many languages, how have these helped in reaching out to people of different communities and countries?

I am fluent in several languages including Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Hindi, Sanskrit, Sinhalese, Urdu and Arabic. This skill has enabled me to communicate with and convince numerous victims of varied ethnic backgrounds to report on domestic violence and sexual assault cases. Because of what I had witnessed as a youngster, I have special empathy towards women and children, who are unable to speak for themselves. Many of them are natives of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Did you witness gender discrimination during your early days in India?

Fortunately, my parents were of a different genre and I was never made to feel inferior because I was a girl. But yes, I was extremely disturbed by the fact that many of my friends and classmates, who despite being good in studies, were married off at the age of 15. This meant foreclosing the opportunity to obtain higher education. I was also privy to hundreds of abortions of the girl child, as girls were considered a burden on their parents. Later, I became aware of women facing sexual abuse but refraining from making a complaint to the police because they were ignored due to their gender, caste and social standing in society.

What was childhood like?

I come from a humble background and lived with my parents in a one-room house. My father worked as a clerk in an office and mother was a dance instructor. As a toddler, I had started dancing at fund-raising events and began teaching classical dance at the age of 10. When I was 14, I won the research scholarship that gave me an opportunity to bring art to children in the slums, which was a learning experience in many ways. After doing my advanced studies in Kalakshetra for Bharatnatyam and Kuchipudi dance forms, I travelled extensively along with my mother’s dance troupe as India’s cultural delegate. By the time I was 16, I had travelled the entire world!

When did you immigrate to the US?

In 1988, I visited New York with my mother’s dance troupe and decided to stay back and pursue my education from here. Compared to India, the situation in the US was very different. Women were given equal opportunities to pursue their studies and become a vital part of the work force. Sadly, two years later, I lost my mother in a car accident in the US when we were on our way to perform at a charity performance for the Murugan temple in Canada.

As an immigrant, what lessons of life did you learn?

There are incredible opportunities in the US for an immigrant. But one has to be able to work really hard to utilise those prospects and be constantly ready to prove oneself. There is always a glass ceiling for a woman who is competing in a male-dominated field. And if you happen to be of a different community and colour, there’s even higher standard to prove. In the field of law, I marvelled at the old photographs in my law school since the student body consisted mostly of men. We have indeed come a long way but there’s still a long road ahead for women to achieve equal recognition and pay and the law is a powerful tool to achieve that goal.

Considering your profession, one presumes, you were drawn towards studying law?

While studying at the City University of New York in 1992, I received the Belle Zeller Merit Scholarship for academic excellence, meritorious achievement and community service. Pursuing law as a career became quite obvious to me around then and I wanted to join public service and serve the community. In 2002, I received the Women in History Award and was again awarded in 2013 for my legal and cultural contributions to the Staten Island community.

Any high point in your 16 years career with Richmond Country District Attorney’s office?

I mentored and conducted numerous trials during this time. Even to this day, I vividly remember the words of the late District Attorney William Murphy, who on my first day in office as an assistant district attorney gave me a piece of advice. He said, ‘Your job and challenge as a prosecutor is not to win or lose cases, but to do justice in every case.’ His words have stayed with me and I have always counselled prosecutors to remain righteous, even if it means that the case would be dismissed.

The high point was in 2009 when I was serving as the Deputy Chief of Sex Crimes Special Victims Bureau and Carlos Rosario was convicted for his heinous crimes. Accused of raping children and videotaping hundreds of others, he was the first to be convicted under the Predatory Sexual Assault Law and sentenced to 20 years to life in prison. We discovered hundreds of recordings during the lengthy and complex investigation. It was emotionally draining finding and counselling those children and supporting their parents during the case. The shocking thing about the accused was that he would gain trust of the families by posing as an uncle and luring innocent and vulnerable children with candies.

Biographical info

• Raja Rajeswari was born on January 14, 1972 in Chennai, Tamil Nadu to mother ‘Sudarkodi’ Padma and father Krishna Ramanathan.

• Studied at the Boston Matriculation Higher Secondary School, Alwarpet, Chennai.

• Graduated in Science Summa Cum Laude from the College of Staten Island, New York — 1993.

• Obtained a Juris Doctor in law from Brooklyn Law School, New York — 1998.