Reena Ranger, Chair of Women Empowered, is In Conversation with Shikha Varma for her regular series for 'iGlobal' to explore some inspirational facets from the life and achievements of prominent Global Indians.
Shikha Varma is a Specialist Senior Prosecutor at the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). She has been a criminal barrister for 22 years and says she knew from a young age that this was going to be her career path. She is also a professional dancer and actor, who has acted in several Bollywood films.
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What set you on this career path?
While most people feel that arguing well is a prerequisite to being a good lawyer, it is, in fact quite the contrary. A good lawyer needs to have good judgment and know when to argue and when to say nothing.
Looking back at my early years of schooling I recall being told by many teachers and mentors that I should choose an alternative career path. The Bar was a male dominated profession and it would be an uphill struggle for me, a young woman, to get into.
When I was 11, I remember my Form teacher subtly advising me to consider becoming an acting teacher or something that involved drama and performance instead.
Of course, it was never said in quite as many words but I am certain that all those years ago the thought of a young woman of South Asian heritage ‘making it’ in the highly competitive, male dominated world of practising as a Barrister in an esteemed set of Chambers was almost farcical!
Give us a glimpse of your journey.
In 2016 I received a special award in ‘Excellence for Public Confidence Services to Victims and Witnesses’ and in 2018 I was nominated for ‘Criminal Lawyer of The Year’ at the Asian Legal awards.
When I first qualified as a Barrister the initial part of my career was a mix of criminal defence and prosecution cases, but I knew quite early on that defending was not for me as it gave me very little career satisfaction. Once this became clear to me I spent the next decade focusing on prosecuting criminal cases that included murders, national drug operations, domestic violence and honour abuse cases.
In February of 2022 I started my position as a specialist Senior Crown Prosecutor within the RASSO division (Rape and Serious Sexual Offences). The role entails prosecuting rape, sexual abuse of young children, (sadly, the majority of these cases occur within the family environment) and historic sexual offences.
My current role incorporates providing legal advice to the police during an investigation so that the accused can be charged and taken through court proceedings. During the whole process the needs of the victim are paramount as these are sensitive cases and many of the victims are too young or vulnerable to speak out.
Giving evidence against close family members can be an ordeal for many of the victims. Most of these cases attract high custodial penalties which have an impact on the accused and their family. Careful consideration has to be given to all the evidence in a case. Therefore, my role is not to persecute at any cost – but to test the evidence and ensure that justice is done all round including a fair trial for the defendant.
I have had to learn to detach my work from my personal life. Although my job is very satisfying, I do deal with things that are sometimes very traumatic and I wouldn’t be human if I said that none of it has an impact on me. Over the years I have learnt to compartmentalise my feelings and channel my emotions into focusing on providing justice for the victims.
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How would you describe your relationship with the UK and India?
Growing up I realised there were few like me. I was born and brought up in England, in the heart of London but have always had a very strong affiliation with India. At a time when most British Indians would shy away from admitting to visiting India, we as a family would go a few times a year and I would revel in the anticipation of going back months in advance. I see myself as a true Indian at heart. When I visit India most people are surprised to hear that I was born in the UK as I speak fluent Hindi and have a real love for Hindi film music, cinema and poetry.
I trained as a classical dancer from a very young age, learning Kathak and Bharatnatyam which later transitioned into contemporary dance forms thanks to having a huge appetite for Hindi cinema as a young girl. Bollywood is something I grew up on and take great pride in the influence it has had on my cultural knowledge and the proud Indian I am today.
I was a professional Indian dancer in the UK and while I was studying to become a Barrister I ran my own dance company for over 10 years. I had the good fortune to perform and choreograph for big events at Wembley Arena, The O2 and International film festivals around the world having appeared alongside world renowned artists like Shah Rukh Khan, Sonu Nigam, Akshay Kumar, Sukhbir, Bipasha Basu and Juhi Chawla… To name a few!
I do feel I have two different cultural personas – there is a side to me that is very British and yet so Indian in so many ways, while many saw this as a negative I fully embraced the richness that both cultures had to offer and continue to do so.
I always had a keen interest in acting and have been fortunate enough to act in a few Hindi films – one of them being ‘I - Proud To Be Indian’ alongside Sohail Khan, ‘Ramji Londonwaley’ with Madhavan and a film with the legendary Naseeruddin Shah and Kirron Kher – maybe my Form teacher knew something I didn’t all those years ago!
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Which one person has had the greatest influence in your life, and why?
One person would be difficult to pinpoint but for me I feel my parents are a unit. Both my parents have been very inspirational throughout my childhood and they have shaped me into the person I am today. From a very young age my mother always encouraged me to study and always taught me that: “A woman needs to stand up on her own two feet and be financially independent. The future is unpredictable and the best thing you can do is equip yourself with all the right tools.”
Although my parents were immigrants and had limited income, they ensured that my brother and I went to private school and had the best education.
My father would always encourage us to fight for what is right and had ensured that we had our own opinions and moral compass. He would always quote from the celebrated poet and writer Allama Iqbal:
Khudi ko kar buland itna/ ke har taqdeer se pehle/ khuda bande se khud pooche/ bata teri raza kya hai”
“Elevate yourself so high that even God/ before issuing every decree of destiny/ should ask you: ‘Tell me, what is your intent?’”
These words from both my parents resonate with me to this day, for which I am eternally grateful.
Reena Ranger is the Chair and Co-Founder of Women Empowered. In this exclusive "In Conversation" series for iGlobal, the dynamic entrepreneur-philanthropist catches up with high-achieving Global Indians across different fields to spotlight some insightful life lessons. (The views expressed in the answers are of the interviewees).