Indian-American swears oath of office on Gita in Illinois legislature

Illinois State Senator Ram Villivalam, was sworn into office Jan. 5. Seen in picture are his mother Dharani Villivalam holding the Bhagavad Gita, as his wife Elizabeth, and and son Rohan, look on. (Photo: Ram Villivalam)

Illinois State Senator Ram Villivalam, the first Indian-American elected official in the state legislature, had his official swearing in Jan. 5, and chose to do so on the Bhagavad Gita.

As a “practicing Hindu,” Villivalam told Desi Talk, he has spent the last one year reflecting deeply on his own journey and that of his parents who came to this country in the 1970s. “I felt there was no other book that I could swear on. The Bhagavad Gita represents my value system and my parents’ value system, and everything we have achieved.”

In his visits to the temple with his parents and otherwise over the years, Villivalam said what the Bhagavad Gita taught him was “doing my duty, and that if you put positivity out in the world, then positive things will happen. When we go to the temple to pray, that is the guidance that we pray for,” and that God will tell us when and if we are doing the right thing, he indicated.

In his email to constituents, he said, as the first elected Indian-American member of the Illinois General Assembly, “it was especially meaningful to recite the oath office (sic) over the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu holy book, held by my mom and with Elizabeth, Rohan, and other family members by my side,” Villivalam recounted in his email blast.

He represents District 8, one of the most diverse State Senate districts in Illinois. “My district has the largest concentration of South Asian Americans out of all the Senate districts,” Villivalam told Desi Talk. “With my candidacy we were able to increase their voter turnout.” But he said there was a long way to go to make South Asian voters an effective block at the ballot box. The 8th Senate District includes Forest Glen, North Park, West Ridge, and the city of Chicago and some of its surrounding suburbs. “With education and civic engagement” to spread awareness about the process of being politically involved in campaigns and elections, he expects participation to rise more. “That is something I am committed to in the next four years,” Villivalam emphasized.

Villivalam invited everyone to watch his inauguration Jan. 9 in the state legislature in the capital, Springfield, Illinois, adding in his statement, “I would not have made it this far without all of you and I cannot say it enough–thank you! This is an incredible honor and one that I will never take lightly,” Villivalam said. “I ran for this office to be an effective, progressive, and proactive representative and I am grateful to have the opportunity to follow through on that vision.”

“We’re so proud of our Board President , officially ’ first South Asian American State Senator!,” IADO tweeted. Among the priorities Villivalam lists on Twitter – increase the minimum wage to $15/hr; passing a fair tax; equitable education funding;  protecting our environment – ” and so much more!”

Interestingly, for a few weeks before formally beginning his term, Villivalam was preceded as the first Illinois State Senator of Indian descent,  by another Indian-American, Yadav “Nick” Nathwani, of Milton Township, who was appointed and sworn in last November by the Republican leadership when incumbent State Sen. Chris Nybo resigned after losing his re-election bid from District 24.“While my time in the Senate is limited, I am fully dedicated to addressing constituent issues, advocating for better government policies, and most importantly, serving the interests of our communities,” Nathwani said in a press release.

Apart from the Jan. 9 reception at the capital, the Indo American Democratic Organization, IADO, which played an important role in Villivalam’s campaign, is hosting a reception for Villivalam Jan. 12. Villivalam is the president and member of the board of directors of IADO.

Villivalam is among several Indian-Americans elected to office in the Midwest, considered a dramatic achievement by this community this past November. One of the first state-level elected officials of Indian-American descent was Sam Singh, in 1995, in Michigan, and at that time, Singh told News India Times, there were barely any Indians in office, other than on a school board or two. At state level, there were at least two Indian-Americans, State Senators Satveer Chaudhary in Minnesota (1996-2010); and Swati Dandekar in Iowa, (2002-2011) both of whom were first elected as State Representatives before going on to the Senate.

“Over the years, there’s been more ‘intentional recruitment’ of Indian Americans,” Singh, a term-limited state representative in Michigan, noted in an earlier interview with this correspondent.

Illinois also re-elected U.S. Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi from the 8th Congressional District, for a second term.

Other notable wins included Democrat Josh Kaul as the Attorney General of Wisconsin; Ohio State Rep. Niraj Antani, a Republican re-elected for a third term; Padma Kuppa, elected to the Michigan State Assembly.

Pakistani-American Amir Malik lost his election to the Minnesota State House by a hair’s breath in District 37B; Jitendra Diganvker, a Republican ran and lost to Krishnamoorthi in Illinois. Illinois is also fielding Alderman Ameya Pawar in the race for Chicago City Treasurer.

“This coming together of Raja, Ram, and Ameya — we are seeing a critical mass, The Midwest is where you are going to see some real advancing of the community,” Ann Kalayil chair and president of the South Asian American Policy & Research Institute based in Chicago, said.

“The next election will see more frequent tries,” for public office, Singh predicts,” It takes time and intentional recruitment.” He is hoping to run for state office in four years when an opening on the Senate is expected, he said.









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