First Ever Diwali Celebration on Capitol Hill – A Resounding Success

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Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (Democrat – New York) is flanked by volunteers of the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple in Maryland at the first ever Diwali celebration on Capitol Hill. Photo credit: US State Department

Powerful US Lawmakers Host First Diwali Celebration

By Geeta Goindi

Washington, October 29, 2013 – The first ever Diwali celebration, held Tuesday evening in the hallowed halls of the US Congress, was a resounding success!

Hosted by influential lawmakers in conjunction with the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple of Maryland, over 300 people packed the ornate foyer in the Rayburn House Office Building. The event underscored the immense importance that bipartisan members of Congress accord to India-US relations and their keen recognition of the flourishing Indian-American community.

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At the first Diwali celebration hosted by US lawmakers on Capitol Hill are, from left to right: Nisha Desai Biswal, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia in the State Department; Congressman Joseph Crowley of New York, Democratic Co-Chair of the India Caucus; and Ajay Banga, USIBC Chairman and CEO of MasterCard

The list of attendees read like a Who’s Who of leaders in virtually every field. On hand were: over two dozen bipartisan lawmakers who are steadfast supporters of strong India-US ties; Indian Ambassador Mrs. Nirupama Rao; Mr. Taranjit Singh Sandhu, Deputy Chief of Mission at the Indian Embassy; Nisha Desai Biswal, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia in the State Department; Kumar Barve, Majority Leader of the Maryland House of Delegates; Ajay Banga, USIBC Chairman and CEO of MasterCard; Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi, one of three Sikh Americans serving in the US military with his articles of faith intact; Neera Tanden, President of the Center for American Progress; and several Indian-American community stalwarts.

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Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (Democrat – Hawaii) lighting the traditional Indian Diya at the Diwali celebration in the hallowed halls of the US Congress. Looking on are Indian Ambassador Mrs. Nirupama Rao and US lawmakers

Taking the lead in hosting the historic event were: Congressmen Joseph Crowley (Democrat – New York) and Peter Roskam (Republican – Illinois), Co-Chairs of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans; Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (Democrat – Hawaii), the first Hindu ever elected to the House of Representatives; and Congressman Ami Bera (Democrat – California), the only Indian-American in the current Congress.

The program was organized by Sri Siva Vishnu Temple, led by Shekar Narasimhan, a prominent community activist. Pandit Narayanachar Digalakote chanted Vedic mantras for world peace and prosperity.

It was a sight to behold – the most powerful lawmakers in the world lighting the traditional Indian ‘Diya’ (lamp), followed by Pandit Digalakote wrapping colorful shawls around their shoulders. Given the recent federal government shutdown, it is interesting to note that the legislators saw, and stressed on, Diwali as an occasion to dispel darkness!

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Congressman Joseph Crowley (Democrat – New York) lighting the traditional Indian Diya at the first Diwali celebration on Capitol Hill

Congressman Crowley stated at the outset that the event is a “wonderful celebration of light over darkness, of good over evil, of knowledge over ignorance. What a universal and beautiful gesture that we take from our Indian friends”. Looking around at the power-packed, overflowing gathering, he said, “Thank you all for making this the first successful Diwali of several Diwalis of years to come. I cannot say how pleased I am at the turnout this evening”.

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At the first Diwali celebration in the US Congress, Mr. Taranjit Singh Sandhu, Deputy Chief of Mission at the Indian Embassy (center) is seen with Major Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi (left), one of three Sikh Americans serving in the US military with his articles of faith intact

The lawmaker has been in the forefront when it comes to addressing concerns of the Sikh American community and, on Tuesday, with Major Kalsi by his side, he declared, “I believe it is time we let all Sikhs serve in our US armed services”. Congressman Crowley pointed out that Major Kalsi “not only saved lives in Afghanistan, he has won numerous awards for his service”.

Congressman Roskam noted that Indian-Americans are an example of an enormous diaspora that is incredibly influential. He told the gathering, “You have the ability to bring together people from both sides of the aisle in ways that are powerful and significant”.

It was heartening to see that the Diwali celebration on Capitol Hill drew Indian-Americans from all walks of life and various faiths. The Hindu, Sikh and Jain communities were well represented on Capitol Hill.

Ambassador Rao, in her customary, all-embracing manner, noted that “Diwali is really a universal festival. It belongs to each and every one of us regardless of which religion or faith we belong to”.

Delhi’s top diplomat in Washington stressed, “This is an occasion for us to light lamps to dispel darkness and to pledge to work towards greater friendship and cooperation between India and the United States, two great democracies. I am so happy to be here on Capitol Hill today for what is truly a milestone in the history of this partnership”, she said.

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Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, Leader of the Democratic Party in the House, addressing the eminent gathering at the first ever Diwali celebration in the US Congress

Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, Leader of the Democratic Party in the House, acknowledged, “The US owes a great debt of gratitude to India because our civil rights movement was built on the non-violent movement in India. Martin Luther King, Jr., studied there, spoke there. We are blessed not only by that legacy, but by the presence of so many Indo-Americans in our country and I might say, so many in the state of California”, she said.

Congressman Ed Royce, Chairman of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee and a founding member of the India Caucus, underscored that India and the US have common goals and objectives. “Our goals are political pluralism, our goals are India’s goals”, he said.

The lawmaker emphasized that “our goal should be to increase and deepen this relationship with counter-terrorism cooperation, with more trade and investment and trying to make certain that we strengthen our ally India. That is our intention whether we are Republican or Democrat”, he said. “Our goal as Americans is to deepen this relationship”.

Congresswoman Gabbard greeted the gathering with “Aloha (from her native Hawaii), Namaste, Happy Diwali”! She marveled at the diversity in the spacious setting. “You know today around the country there are people who could not be here tonight who are celebrating and applauding the diversity that is represented in this room, on this historic occasion”, she said.

“What is happening here if you look around – the diversity that is represented not only among yourselves, but among the leadership in Congress – is indicative of the special nature of Diwali itself. It is a fun celebration. More importantly, for us during these times, it is a celebration of righteousness over wrong, of light over darkness. So, as we go forward, we can take this lesson with us and light the lamp within our own hearts to make the changes in our own lives and in our work. Happy Diwali! Jai Shri Krishna”, she told those assembled.

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Congressman Ami Bera (Democrat-California), currently the only US lawmaker of Indian origin, lighting the traditional Indian Diya at the Diwali celebration on Capitol Hill

“Isn’t this an incredible Diwali celebration”, Congressman Bera gushed, looking around the jam-packed venue. “It’s great to be an Indian-American in Congress”, he said. “But, for our next Diwali celebration, we want to see more members of the Indian diaspora elected to the House of Representatives and we want to see a deepening of this relationship as we move forward. This is a great day for the Hindu, Jain and Sikh communities. Diwali brings us together. Let us continue to move forward as a diaspora. What a wonderful day! What a wonderful turnout”!

Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (Democrat – New York) stressed on the importance of a Diwali stamp recognizing the significance of the festival. “For ten years, I have been trying to get a Diwali stamp and convince the postal service that they should have one”, she told the gathering. “They just turned us down for the tenth year. So, I want to urge you to write to the postal office, the citizens stamp committee and the postmaster general that it is long past time for a Diwali stamp. We have stamps for every major religion except for Diwali”, she pointed out.

Congressman Eliot Engel (Democrat – New York), Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a founding member of the India Caucus, lauded the contributions of the Indian-American community. “The great contributions that Indian-Americans of all walks of life have made is something to really behold”, he said. “The Indian-American community is a very important part of the puzzle – bringing India and the United States closer together”.

Congressman Mike Honda (Democrat – California) believed the US Congress “is a wonderful place to celebrate the festival of lights. We talk about good over evil, light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance and you add all these great things to our country”, he told the gathering, concluding with “Namaste, Sat Sri Akal”.

Congressman David Price (Democrat – North Carolina) echoed similar sentiments. He noted that Diwali has been celebrated on a large-scale in his District for 13 years now. “In Cary, we have a large, vibrant Indian-American community that makes a tremendous contribution to our Triangle community – Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill – and we love this event and it is entirely appropriate that we bring it to the US Congress”, he said.

Congressman Charles Rangel (Democrat – New York) told the gathering, “Working together in love and peace and harmony is something that God wanted all of us to do and you could not have picked a better place to celebrate this beautiful holiday because our US Congress needs your prayers more than ever”!

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