By Aminta Kilawan-Narine
Counter to what mainstream media outlets including CNN, ABC and NPR have reported this past week, Diwali is not a guaranteed school holiday in 2023. A bill was introduced by Assembly Member Jenifer Rajkumar to remove “Anniversary Day” from the New York City public school calendar and replace it with a Diwali holiday. While this is a creative way to make room on the public school calendar, the bill has not passed yet.
There have been bills previously introduced in the State legislature that would declare a Diwali holiday. None of them passed. In order for a bill to become a law at the state legislative level, it must have two companion bills in both houses of the State Legislature, specifically the State Assembly and the State Senate. Rajkumar is carrying the bill as the sponsor in the Assembly, but it is unclear who will carry the companion bill in the State Senate. Rajkumar’s bill must reach the floor of the State Assembly for debate and consideration, then be voted on by the Assembly, then it has to go through the exact same process all over again at the State Senate. Then the two bills must be voted on by the entire State Legislature (both the NYS Assembly and the NYS Senate). Finally, if both bills pass, then they would have to be signed into law by the Governor. The Mayor has absolutely no say in any of this.
Anniversary Day, also known as Brooklyn-Queens Day, was first celebrated in Brooklyn on May 28, 1861on the 32nd anniversary of the founding of the Sunday School Union, a powerful Christian Protestant organization. The holiday came to be through State legislation and the law set the first Thursday in June as the day for future holidays. In 2005, in a contract with the United Federation of Teachers and the NYC Department of Education, the holiday became citywide, giving students the day off but requiring that all teachers participate in a professional development day. For any bill eliminating Anniversary Day to pass, negotiations will inevitably warrant a conversation with the teachers union and other impacted stakeholders.
Mainstream media sources have published headlines indicating that Diwali “will be” a school holiday in 2023. This misleading news has spread to the masses and few have spoken up to correct it. While the press coverage presuming a 2023 holiday may put the pressure on elected officials to make it a reality, this is by no means a done deal. With hope in our hearts, we shouldn’t celebrate yet.
Our communities deserve to understand the full scope of the legislative process. We cannot continue to accept empty promises. On the campaign trail, Mayor Eric Adams visited Richmond Hill and spoke at a 2021 rally hosted by the United Madrassi Association, exciting the crowd when he stated that he would “make Diwali a holiday on Day One,” namely, the day he becomes Mayor. Adams has been the Mayor of New York City since January 1, 2022. In his most recent visit to Richmond Hill for the Grand Diwali Celebration at Lefferts Boulevard and Liberty Avenue organized by the Divya Jyoti Association, community members in the crowd and leaders alike called on the Mayor to make Diwali a holiday. On October 20, 2022, in a press conference at the Tweed Courthouse in Lower Manhattan, Adams expressed his support for Assembly Member Rajkumar’s aforementioned bill. While news headlines have indicated that “Mayor Eric Adams Declares Diwali a Holiday in 2023,” that is simply not what occurred at the press conference. Such headlines are irresponsible. Adams could have supported a New York City Chancellor’s regulation to make Diwali a holiday, just as had been done under Mayor Bill de Blasio to create the Eid and Lunar New Year holidays. Instead, Adams reneged his campaign promise and expressed support for legislation completely out of his jurisdiction and power, effectively passing the buck to his State counterparts.
There has been a long-standing call to action to recognize Diwali from Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists city-wide for nearly a decade, if not longer. In 2005, with advocacy from local leaders and elected officials including then-Council Member John Liu and president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America, Dr. Uma Mysorekar, the City Council’s Transportation Committee approved legislation to suspend alternate side of street parking for Diwali. Then-Mayor Bloomberg and the Department of Sanitation opposed the legislation but the bill ultimately was enacted. A public school holiday cannot be created through City Council legislation because the City Council’s legislative authority with regard to education matters is limited or preempted due to State law. To get around this limitation, as mentioned, the holiday could however be created through a Chancellor’s Regulation. The DOE School Chancellor is appointed by the Mayor, in this case, Eric Adams.
There are approximately 200,000 school aged children in New York City who celebrate Diwali each year. The advocacy to make Diwali a holiday spans many years. In February 2014, the Diwali Coalition of NYC, comprised of close to 40 multi-faith and community organizations including Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus, the Federation of Hindu Mandirs, the Sikh Coalition, the Interfaith Center for New York, the Indo-Caribbean Alliance, GOPIO, and many others wrote a letter to then Mayor Bill de Blasio stating: “Should you proceed with the new public school holidays for Eid and the Lunar New Year, we request a meeting with you in person to discuss the inclusion of Diwali alongside them.” The same month, another letter was sent to de Blasio from immigrant rights organizations led by Annetta Seecharan, who is currently the Executive Director of Chhaya CDC. The letter stated: “Every day, immigrants and young people of color encounter messages that tell them they do not matter; excluding Diwali as public school holiday is yet another one of these messages…Recognition of Diwali would also signal to our City, and to entire school communities, from leadership to students, that students of all cultural and religious backgrounds deserve equal recognition and respect.”
Rallies later ensued. The New American Voters Association (NAVA) held a rally in November 2018 and the United Madrassi Association held one rally in 2019 and another, mentioned above, in 2021. District leader Neeta Jain joined with Vijah Ramjattan of the United Madrassi Association and others including community leader and public school teacher Dr. Dhanpaul Narine on the steps of City Hall to call for the holiday in 2020. District Leader Richard David boycotted Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 2019 Diwali Celebration at Gracie Mansion to send a message. District Leader and public school teacher Ramdat Singh held up a sign at that same celebration, calling on the Mayor to declare a holiday, before he was swiftly escorted out.
It feels like no coincidence that a press conference was held just days before Diwali 2022 announcing a “plan” to make the holiday official on the school calendar next year and just days before the Mayor’s Diwali Celebration at Gracie Mansion. It feels nearly insulting that the media has rushed to judgment without fully grasping the legislative process and presenting the public with the facts. It’s not over til it’s over. As a community, we shouldn’t have to fight this hard, but alas, we must. #MakeDiwaliAHoliday #DiwaliNYC #DiwaliSchoolHoliday
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.