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Remembering Human Rights Champion and Legal Scholar Ved Nanda Who Passed Away on New Year’s Day

Remembering Human Rights Champion and Legal Scholar Ved Nanda Who Passed Away on New Year’s Day

  • He championed the cause of preserving Hindu Dharma in America. In 1961, he started the first shakha in the U.S. at the University of Chicago.

As the world rang in the New Year, many received the somber news of the passing of noted legal luminary and prominent Indian American, Prof. Ved Nanda. He was surrounded by close family and friends as he breathed his last in his hometown of Denver, CO. Beyond his globally recognized scholarly pursuits, Prof. Nanda was celebrated as a friend, philosopher, and guide, embodying qualities that inspire generations.

Born in 1934 in Gujranwala of undivided India, Prof. Nanda underwent an arduous immigration to Punjab in India along with his family during the Partition. He went on to build an exemplary career starting with an M.A. in Economics from Punjab University, a Law degree from Delhi University in India, an LLM from Northwestern University, and subsequent postgraduate work from Yale University in the U.S. He was a champion of Human Rights and a successful International Law professor at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law since 1972. He was also Honorary President of the World Jurist Association, former honorary Vice President of the American Society of International Law, and a member of the advisory council of the United States Institute of Human Rights. In 2006, the University of Denver’s Law alumni founded the Ved Nanda Center for International and Comparative Law in his honor. In 2017, the University released a video commemorating his 50 years of service and dedication. 

A Friend to All

Prof. Nanda was one of the friendliest people known to many. His smiling, humble, and humorous demeanor endeared him to students, activists, lawyers, and leaders across the globe. He was known for his warmth, compassion, and genuine interest in the well-being of those around him. Colleagues and students alike speak of his approachability, making him not just a professor but a friend. His ability to connect on a personal level created a supportive community among those he touched. He took a special interest in advocacy for the rights of refugees and displaced persons. His commitment to justice earned him recognition from organizations worldwide. His classes were not just about imparting legal knowledge but also instilling a sense of ethics, justice, and global citizenship. 

He greeted Indian and Hindu Americans, young and old alike, with folded hands and the words “Saadar Pranaam,” meaning a respectful salute to the divinity within each. His humorous takes during speeches and witty comebacks during conversations were enchanting and reassuring at the same time. In one of the camps he visited, we had cooked kheer, a milk-based pudding, for all the campers. I was serving it intently to all and also requested Prof. Nanda to have some more. He politely refused. As I moved on, he called me in a slightly raised voice. The dining hall fell silent. I stopped, turned around, and looked at him in anticipation. With a big smile and a twinkle in his eyes, he quipped, “You don’t have to tell me to have kheer… I’m a Punjabi and all Punjabis love kheer!” Instantly, the whole group burst out into laughter.

A Philosopher

A leading expert in international law, Prof. Nanda’s influence extended far beyond the classroom. He catalyzed change in the global legal landscape. His work on human rights, environmental law, and the law of the sea was instrumental in shaping international legal discourse. He was a consistent voice for those without a voice, using his expertise to raise awareness and influence policy changes. He was recognized with the Gandhi-King-Ikeda Award for Community Peace Building in 2004. Honoring Prof. Nanda in the U.S. Congress in 2017, Rep. Mike Coffman said, “His work has inspired a countless number of students to become a part of the conversation on Human Rights and International issues”.

He was also a fervent advocate of healthy U.S.-India relations. The Indian government had conferred the Padma Bhushan award to him for his academic brilliance and legal expertise. The cause of preserving Hindu Dharma and integrating Hindus in America was dear to Prof. Nanda and he championed it lifelong. He started the first shakha in the U.S. in 1961 at the University of Chicago. Since 2001, after becoming President of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh USA, he constantly traveled across the country to meet, guide, and inspire HSS volunteers. He took the initiative to reach out to the opinion makers of the society for various Indo-American and Hindu-American causes. He also served as the Chairman of the Board of the Hindu University of America. He was the chairman of the board of trustees at the Hindu Temple of Colorado and also remained active in interfaith activities in Colorado.

A Genuine Guide

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Prof. Nanda’s commitment to nurturing the next generation of leaders is evident in the countless success stories of his mentees. Colleagues and students often turned to him for advice, finding in him a source of inspiration and guidance. His guidance went beyond professional development, encompassing personal growth and a sense of responsibility towards society. Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s words summarize this well, “I’m very grateful personally to Ved Nanda for introducing me to International Law, for making me understand it, and for helping me to see things in myself that I didn’t myself see…”

Once, in response to a young Hindu American’s concern about the preservation of Hindu identity in America, he said, “Parents, schools, and temples are the three places that can exert a great influence on children.” He impressed the need for parents and temples to educate children and answer their questions, so they can carry on the legacy. He concluded by stating, “We have a wonderful heritage. We are the trustees. No other culture has such excellence in philosophy and values.” In his last speech before HSS volunteers in Texas in early December, he exhorted them to keep the end goal in mind — to promote Dharma and to foster peace. He ended with folded hands, and his signature words, “Saadar Pranaam.”

In the tapestry of academia and diaspora, Prof. Nanda emerges as a brilliant thread, weaving together intellect, compassion, and advocacy. His contributions to international law, coupled with his role as a friend, philosopher, and guide have left an indelible mark on the world. His profound impact on the lives of those fortunate enough to call him a mentor and a friend makes Prof. Nanda stand as a beacon of wisdom and compassion, illuminating the path for generations to come. 

Anil Kothari is an Oklahoma City-based mechanical engineer, yoga practitioner, and yoga teacher.

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