By Aminta Kilawan Narine, Esq.
This past week, New York City (NYC) government opened its doors to Hindus in grand celebration of Diwali. On Sunday, at an event held at the Mayor’s house, Gracie Mansion, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio hosted 1,497 guests to an evening reception.
On the line to take photos with Mr. Mayor, a staff person doing crowd control said “I’ve never seen so many people here before.” At the reception, the Mayor lit a diya with his wife, First Lady Chirlane McCray, and Dr. Uma Mysorekar, president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America. Dr. Mysorekar also delivered the invocation.
In his address, the Mayor recognized the massive group of attendees that gathered and celebrated their contributions to the city. “You all do so much for New York City.” The Mayor said his administration values everyone, including the immigrants that make up the majority of NYC’s population as well as Dreamers, recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). There were several prominent Indo-Caribbean Hindu leaders present, including Pandit Chunelall Narine of the Shri Trimurti Bhavan Mandir and Acharya Arun Gossai of Bhuvaneshwar Mandir.
The honoree at the event was Hari Kondabolu, an Indian activist and comedian who is unafraid to call himself a Hindu. Mayor de Blasio commended Kondabolu for showing the world the power of spoken word and comedy, to “help move the world forward.” Kondabolu is among the many voices that have emerged to respond to the hatred, Mayor de Blasio said. Kondabolu jokingly called the award the “best dating profile in the world.” He said that Diwali “marks the triumph of truth over deception, or what we know call alternative facts.” Kondabolu said, “Diwali teaches us that justice is the inevitable consequence of history,” specifically alluding to America’s current political climate.
On Monday, October 23, the NYC Council held its annual Diwali event at City Hall. In an audience predominantly comprised of Hindus from India, the first honoree of the evening was a Guyanese. For the only award to be issued by the leader of the Council, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, said: “I am very proud to honor with the first proclamation tonight a group that embodies the values we uphold in this Chamber – the Shaanti Bhavan Mandir located in Richmond Hill, led by Pandit Manoj and their active youth group.”
Speaker Mark-Viverito, who is a bold champion of immigrant rights, highlighted that Shaanti Bhavan Mandir was the first Hindu temple in the nation to publicly declare itself a Sanctuary congregation, a “brave step that says we stand for immigrants.” She pointed out that Shaanti Bhavan Mandir has a vibrant youth group that “participates in numerous community volunteer activities” such as “providing meals to seniors and homeless people, cleaning up Jamaica Bay and responding to natural disasters.”
As he accepted the proclamation, Pandit Manoj had a request – he wanted everyone to hold hands. Some smiled willingly while others, mainly older men, hesitated at first. The gesture was one intended to bring everyone present closer together, to demonstrate that we are all in fact connected. “This acknowledgement from the NYC Council proves that once you join forces as one, anything is possible,” said Pandit Manoj. “The Shaanti Bhavan Mandir, our temple, stands for love, stands for peace, stands for togetherness, and it stands for change. It is our mission to always help, despite our limitations, because despite your race, creed, religion, or gender, we all are one.” Pandit Manoj was joined by many members of his temple, young and old alike. Referring to the Naujavaan Mandalee Youth Group, he said, “This evening I stand strong with our future by my side. And I pray that if more organizations can come together like this and unite for a positive cause, we will all have a better future.”
In the days after Diwali, City government officials clearly recognized the thousands of Hindus across New York with proclamations and invitations to visit landmark buildings. But, beyond these token annual events which recognize NYC’s community, what would it take to get Diwali to be an actual public school holiday? For years, there have been isolated efforts to lobby the city for this. Thus far, every one of those efforts has failed. On October 16th, at a town hall specifically convened to address issues affecting City Council District 28, which includes parts of Richmond Hill, South Ozone Park and Jamaica, community activist and former candidate for District 28 Richard David got up and asked the Mayor, “What is the criteria you’ve set for Diwali to become a public school holiday and could it become a public school holiday in your second term?”
Mayor de Blasio responded by saying, “This issue came up four years ago and I had many friends in the community who raised the concern. I said my challenge was trying to accommodate some big holidays that have not yet been accommodated while managing the school calendar which has been a challenge because it is very tightly packed.” As for the criteria to determine whether Diwali can become a holiday, de Blasio said that the key was “the number of children served.” According to Mayor de Blasio, “there is a substantial number of kids who celebrate Diwali, but not numerically as much as the other holidays that we are addressing.” The Mayor added Eid-al-Fitr and Eid-al-Adha, as well as the Lunar New Year as holidays in 2015 and 2016, respectively. “Right now it feels like we have gone as far as we can go, so I cannot commit to it, going forward,” he said at the town hall. Yet, he ended his response by saying, “I am certainly going to keep an open mind on it and if the number of kids who would be served goes up that would be very important.”
What would it take?
Here are my thoughts on how we can achieve the holiday:
Unified messaging – The NYC Hindu community is quite diverse. There are South Asians in Jackson Heights and Indo-Caribbeans in Richmond Hill. Sikhs celebrate Diwali too. If a loose coalition was built (one in which members work for a specific amount of time and then disbanded) rather than a handful of disparate groups and individuals working on their own, governmental officials would take those who want Diwali to be a holiday far more seriously. This can also exert political pressure and wield a large amount of power in the future.
One spokesperson – They say too many cooks spoil the broth. Finding an articulate, level-headed and trusted liaison to speak on behalf of the coalition is crucial.
Positive tone – The last thing we should be doing is pitting minority communities against each other. Starting off a lobbying pitch by saying “The Muslims got their holiday and the Chinese got their holiday, so we need ours!” isn’t going to help anyone and will instead make advocates for Diwali appear divisive and jealous. The best thing to do is actually to solicit advice and guidance from those groups who were successful in getting their holidays.
Good Data – The Mayor said his reason for not granting Diwali as a holiday is because he doesn’t have the numbers to back up the need for the holiday. We need to find a way to get those statistics whether through a widely distributed survey or making a statement through action or both. We know that there are thousands of Hindu, Sikh, Jain and Buddhist children who observe Diwali but don’t take the day off. Parents should know that students can receive an excused absence for religious and cultural observations. Of course, the hesitation is always there to keep a child from going to school, but it behooves us to send the message that this holiday is important enough that we make the choice to keep our kids home.
Commitment – Success does not happen overnight. Leading Muslim advocates once told me it took them over ten years to get Eid as a public school holiday. They never gave up. Neither should those whose dream is to see Diwali become a holiday.