US Secretary of State John Kerry Hosts First-Ever Diwali Celebration at State Department

Sparkling event celebrating the Festival of Lights is testimony to growing clout of the Indian-American community

By Geeta Goindi

Washington, DC, October 23, 2014 – In a heart-warming gesture sure to touch Indians around the world, Secretary of State John Kerry hosted the first-ever Diwali celebration at the State Department. It was a testament to the growing popularity of the festival of lights in America and the rising clout of the Indian-American community.

Diwali is the most widely celebrated of all Indian festivals and the event here in Washington drew a packed crowd of Indian-American leaders and activists to the opulent Benjamin Franklin Room. The entrance was beautifully adorned with flowers and Indian motifs. Inside, there was a lavish spread of mithai (sweets), savory Indian snacks and dinner – truly befitting a grand celebration!

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US Secretary of State John Kerry addressing the gathering at the first-ever Diwali celebration at the State Department

Welcoming the gathering to the historic event, Secretary Kerry said, “Happy Diwali to all of you. It’s nice to be here”!

America’s top diplomat underscored, “As we celebrate Diwali this evening we also hail the accomplishments of the many hundreds of thousands of Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and Jain Americans who live now all across our country in every community. And we honor their faith and their traditions, and the indispensable contributions that they make every single day to our prosperity, to our freedom, and to our culture – to this new chapter of American history that they are helping to write”.

Secretary Kerry’s address was music to the ears of the audience. “Today, the South Asian Diaspora is a pillar of every aspect of American society”, he said. “South Asians sit in the executive suites of some of our country’s most successful companies, or at the very helm of all of them. They launch startups and earn graduate degrees at several times the national average. They are a driving force behind American leadership and science and innovation, and in the history of our nation – and we are a nation of immigrants – it is hard to find any group of Americans who have achieved more in such a relatively short period of time”.

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US Secretary of State John Kerry is flanked by, from left to right: Mythili Lee Bachu, Chairperson for the Council of Hindu Temples of North America; Hindu priest Narayanachar L. Digalakote of the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple in Maryland; Kyoko Somekwa Jaishankar, wife of the Indian Ambassador; Indian Ambassador Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar; and Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Biswal, at the Diwali celebration. Photo credit: US State Department

Among the eminent gathering at the Diwali celebration were: Indian Ambassador Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar; Mr. Taranjit Singh Sandhu, Deputy Chief of Mission at the Indian Embassy here; Rajiv Shah, head of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the highest-ranking Indian-American in the Obama administration; Nisha Biswal, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs in the State Department; Kiran Ahuja, Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders; and Nancy Powell, who retired earlier this year from her post as US Ambassador to India.

Secretary Kerry was upbeat and optimistic about India-US ties. “India is, of course, a country of enormous energy and power”, he said, admiringly. “It is by far the largest nation in South Asia, and last month during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the United States, we had an unforgettable chance both to build on the already deep ties between America and India”.

It is noteworthy that Vice President Biden and Secretary Kerry hosted a luncheon for Prime Minister Modi in the same magnificent room as where the Diwali function was held.

Dwelling on the visit, Secretary Kerry maintained it “was a moment when Indians and Americans could get a real sense of what our two nations are able to accomplish together by working together, by fighting against terrorism, by creating opportunity for our young people, by combating climate change, to achieving greater progress by pushing back the boundaries of science and technology. And we are determined to build on that moment that was so well defined here in the Prime Minister’s words and in the Vice President’s words, so that the world’s oldest and largest democracies can realize the truly extraordinary, boundless potential of our relationship”, he said.

As an influential lawmaker, Kerry recalled leading the first Senate business mission to India in the early 1990s, shortly after Dr. Manmohan Singh, Finance Minister at that time, announced economic reforms. It was a time when India and the US were “still breaking through the prior years of some suspicion and a certain hangover from the Cold War”, he said. “And we worked hard to prove that we were, in fact, natural partners, which I believe we are. We are two optimistic nations who believe that history doesn’t shape us, but that we have the power to shape history. And that spirit of hope and optimism is really at the center of the Diwali celebration”.

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US Secretary of State John Kerry lighting the ‘diya’ (lamp) at the first-ever Diwali celebration which he hosted in Washington. Photo credit: US State Department

Continuing to touch a chord with the attentive audience at the State Department, Secretary Kerry noted, “As the days grow shorter, Diwali reminds us that Spring always returns – that knowledge triumphs over ignorance, hope outlasts despair, and light replaces darkness. Diwali is a time for the revitalization of mind and spirit. And just as critically, it affords a chance to reflect on how we can bring light to others. It is an opportunity for us all, regardless of our own traditions, to renew a shared commitment to human dignity, compassion and service – and it is a commitment, I think, at the heart of all great faiths”.

Looking across the room at Shaun Casey, who he appointed to head the first-ever Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives in the State Department, Secretary Kerry expressed gratitude for his “good efforts” on account of which “we are now appropriately celebrating Diwali”, he said. Last week, Secretary Kerry hosted a celebration for the diplomatic community commemorating Eid al-Adha. Earlier, in the year, Nowruz (Persian New Year) was celebrated at the State Department.

Regarding “these special celebrations”, he noted that they are observed in communities all across America and in India and are “an indication of how our mutual commitment to religious tolerance and pluralism helps to define and to strengthen our two democracies”.

Recalling that last month, President Obama joined Prime Minister Modi in visiting the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial, he pointed out how Dr. King, the slain civil rights leader of the 1960s, cautioned against the tendency for violence to fuel future violence. Quoting Dr. King, he said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that”.

So, “Tonight, as we come together in the spirit of the Diwali festival, we need to, all of us, think about how to reaffirm our shared commitment to the light”, Secretary Kerry said. “And this is particularly a moment as we look at the events around the world where that commitment could serve all humankind”.

Looking across the packed room, he thanked everyone for attending “the State Department’s first-ever Diwali celebration. I guarantee you it will not be our last”, he said, to much laughter and applause.

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Indian Ambassador Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar (third from left) with leaders of the Sikh community at the first-ever Diwali celebration hosted by US Secretary of State John Kerry at the State Department. At left is Mr. Taranjit Singh Sandhu, Deputy Chief of Mission at the Indian Embassy in Washington

Ambassador Jaishankar remarked, “When I first served in Washington three decades ago, it would be hard to imagine a gathering like this hosted by the Secretary of State. That it takes place says much for our relationship today as it does, indeed, for our societies”.

Noting that Diwali is the most widely celebrated festival in India, the envoy spoke of how it signifies the triumph of light over darkness, represents a sense of renewal, and is a time of house-cleaning, both literally and figuratively. To Secretary Kerry, he said, “I am confident you will join me in hoping all these messages apply to the India-US relationship”.

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Indian Ambassador Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar with US Secretary of State John Kerry at the first-ever Diwali celebration at the State Department. Photo credit: US State Department

Nisha Biswal recalled the keenness of Secretary Kerry to host a Diwali celebration at the State Department. “In his tenure, he has made celebrating of diversity in America a key aspect of our diplomacy”, she told the gathering. “He has underscored that diversity is one of America’s biggest strengths. The fact that he flew half way around the world from Indonesia to be here is a testament to his commitment”, she said, to much applause.

On his part, Secretary Kerry said, “I’m particularly grateful for Nisha, both for her generous welcome to all of you and to me, but more especially because she’s making really critical efforts in a key part of the world, obviously, as Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia. And I was delighted to select her for that job, and she has not let me down. She is persistent, tenacious …. She’s doing fabulous. And she left India when she was only six years old, and today, literally in just a few decades, she’s become one of the important leaders in American foreign policy. And her odyssey, if we call it that, really speaks to the power of the American dream. It shows how aspirations and traditions and histories from all over the world come together still in this melting pot, and they revitalize and they renew our nation.

And that’s really what makes America different from every other place. We are not defined by one race or one ideology or one history. We are defined by the idea of all people being created equal and being able to come and exercise their right to pursue a dream here in the United States, but to become very American in doing so”.

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US Secretary of State John Kerry greeting Mythili Lee Bachu, Chairperson for the Council of Hindu Temples of North America, at the Diwali celebration at the State Department
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Pandit Narayanachar Digalakote, a priest at the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple in Maryland, led the diya lighting ceremony at the Diwali celebration at the US State Department
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Diwali at the US State Department
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