CIVICS, CULTURE & COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT
By Aminta Kilawan Narine, Esq.
For years, there have been isolated conversations about making Diwali a school holiday in New York City. Several petitions were circulated among both the Indo-Caribbean and South Asian New York City communities. Thousands of people signed to express support. Rallies have been held by organizations like the New American Voters Association and the United Madrassi Association, featuring a roster of elected officials. Despite the traction, advancing the holiday as a reality has seemed out of reach.
For all the excitement and buzz among community members and Diwali observants, there is opposition. Many New Yorkers see the school calendar as saturated with too many holidays. Another concern is finding child-care on another day off. There are also more specific issues. Diwali is often celebrated in the evening, outside of school hours; some question the need for a day off. Moreover, parents often prefer to send their children to school rather than keep them home on Diwali so they don’t miss out. Thus, school attendance rolls haven’t been greatly impacted. Finally, each year there’s seldom consensus on which date the holiday actually falls on. With people on different pages, necessary coalition building can be difficult.
Diwali is one of the most sacred holidays on the Hindu religious calendar. For Hindus, Diwali marks the new year, the return of Lord Ram, Mother Sita and Lakshman to Ayodhya from their exile and the welcoming of Mother Lakshmi, the goddess of light and prosperity into our homes. Diwali is also celebrated by Sikhs as Bandi Chor Divas (“Day of Liberation”) celebrating the release of the Sikhs’ sixth guru from prison. Buddhists and Jains also celebrate Diwali. Contrary to the argument that Diwali is a nighttime holiday, observing Diwali takes the entire day. Growing up, my mom had my sisters and I clean our house on the weekend when Diwali fell on a school day. After all, Mother Lakshmi must enter a pristine home. On Diwali, my mom would come home from work to cook dinner and sweets which we’d eat after offering some to the gods during our prayers. We were lucky that my grandma lived with us; she began the preparation earlier in the day. Our prayers were often cut short so we could do our homework. Having Diwali as a holiday would mean less on the shoulders of mothers like mine and more students actively participating in their sacred traditions.
As mentioned, the call for Diwali as a holiday is not new. In 2014, before Mayor Bill de Blasio added both Eids and the Lunar New Year to the school calendar, over 40 community-based organizations, Hindu and Sikh faith leaders, and interfaith partners sent a letter to Mayor de Blasio calling on him to consider including Diwali alongside these holidays. Sadhana (meaning “faith in action”), a NYC-based non-profit organization helped to corral signatories. The letter detailed: “There are approximately 2.5 million Hindus in the United States, and NYC is home to one of the largest within this population. According to the latest census, Asian Indians constitute 2.4% of the city’s population and celebrate Diwali. This percentage does not include the estimated 100,000 Hindus of Indo-Caribbean heritage, or countless Hindus of either mixed and other racial and ethnic ancestry, who also consider Diwali amongst their holiest of holidays.”
While these extrapolated numbers exist, and while we know how large of a population celebrates Diwali in NYC, the Mayor asked us to show how many children would be served by a Diwali holiday. At a town hall in 2017, responding to a question about Diwali, the Mayor said the issue was that there wasn’t a large enough number of students served. At a town hall held in Corona this past Thursday, de Blasio indicated, “I’ve had this conversation with this chancellor and the previous chancellor – we’re just at a very tough point in terms of our school calendar where we have very little wiggle room in the event of snow days or other disruptions and we had a state law that requires us to get 180 instructional days in no matter what, or you don’t get your funding … We feel like we’re out of options. We’re certainly going to keep looking at it to see if there’s anything, any way to accommodate. But … the central problem is we don’t feel we have a clear option. Every holiday is different. It has to be weighed differently, but this one is about the supply problem.”
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. If it means adjusting the calendar to accommodate for Diwali, the Mayor can do it. Moreover, for the last several years, NYC students only used up a handful of snow days; there is wiggle room. To address the Mayor’s 2017 concern, how can the City determine the number of kids who would be served? For starters, we need to be sure we’re counted in Census 2020. Last time, we were severely undercounted. The Census is one of the primary ways communities can certifiably prove they exist and get the resources they deserve funnelled into their neighborhoods. We also need to have one centralized easily accessible petition, with tens of thousands of unduplicated signatures.
We should also keep our children home from school when Diwali falls on a school day. This year we didn’t have to, as most celebrated Diwali on Sunday. Next year, the holiday seems set for a Saturday. In 2021, Diwali will fall on a school day, which ironically coincides with the next mayoral election. If Diwali isn’t declared a holiday by then, we need to keep our kids home. The NYC Board of Education allows students to miss school to observe religious festivals without penalty. We wouldn’t be breaking any rules. Yes, students may have to play catch up the following day, but taking this step to keep them home would directly refute the claim that there aren’t enough kids served. Don’t get me wrong: this ask is unfair. We should not have to choose between observing one of our faith’s most sacred holidays and learning in the classroom. Unfortunately, justice doesn’t come without a fight. One of the best ways to fight is peaceful protest. Students deserve to see themselves reflected in the school calendar. We owe it to our ancestors to protest. They worked too hard to retain our traditions.
On October 25, Mayor de Blasio held a reception for Diwali at Gracie Mansion. While there were calls to boycott the event, I chose to attend with my parents. The evening was a moment to celebrate our faith in a historic place. For many I spoke with that night, it was the first time they stepped foot in Gracie Mansion. Boycotters wanted to stick it to de Blasio since he hadn’t declared Diwali a holiday yet. Some outright don’t like the Mayor and wouldn’t show up in any case. Others were utterly torn because of the calls to boycott. Nevertheless, the space was filled to capacity. The calls to boycott didn’t make any noticeable dent. Peaceful protest did manifest though. Someone in the crowd was bold enough to pull out a sign calling for Diwali as a NYC public school holiday as the Mayor delivered his remarks.
Now that there’s a mayoral election around the corner, everyone seems to want in. On October 21, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams declared his public support for Diwali as a NYC public school holiday in a tweet. He wrote “#Diwali begins a week from today. I believe it’s time to embrace our South Asian neighbors and make it a City-recognized holiday. If I had the power to do so, I’d do it right away.” On October 28, NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer, who is also running for mayor, reaffirmed his support for the holiday. Stringer committed to doing what he could to make Diwali a holiday years ago. At the City Council’s Diwali celebration on October 29, Assemblymember David Weprin said that thanks to the efforts of community leaders like Dr. Neeta Jain, “this holiday is going to happen sooner rather than later.”
It should be noted that Diwali is a public school holiday in parts of New Jersey as well as Long Island. Yet we struggle to achieve this in New York City, where there are way more students who observe the holiday. At the city level, a Diwali school holiday can be achieved through a regulation issued by the Chancellor of the Department of Education. The Mayor can simply call for this to happen. At the state level, a Diwali school holiday can be achieved through a law that governs the entire state of New York. There is state-sponsored legislation to advance this holiday. If we really want to get this done, we can’t put all our eggs in one basket and focus on the buy-in from one elected official. That would be short-sighted. We need to mobilize in a massive unified collective, with tailored irrefutable messaging.
If our Mayor wants a legacy piece and truly cares to lift up the diversity of our City, he should beat a future mayor to it and declare Diwali a public school holiday. Either way, we as a community need to be in this fight for the long haul.
This piece was solely in my personal capacity as an observant Hindu and local community activist.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the position or policy of the THE WEST INDIAN.