Third annual event draws over 1,200 to the historic Library of Congress on Capitol Hill
By Geeta Goindi
Washington, DC, November 4, 2015 – In an annual tradition that is escalating in popularity, the third Congressional Diwali celebration drew over 30 influential US lawmakers and 1,200 members of the Indian-American community to the iconic Library of Congress on Capitol Hill.
The event was held a week prior to the festival of lights, a befitting precursor, in the magnificent Great Hall of the Thomas Jefferson Building. It was a sight to behold – such a distinguished gathering congregating on a mild Wednesday evening to partake in India’s most widely celebrated festival at a venue in the nation’s capital which looked more like a cross between an opulent palace, art museum and sculpture gallery!
Congressman Ami Bera of California, Democratic Co-Chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans, who served as co-host and co-emcee of the event with Shekar Narasimhan, a member of President Obama’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, emphasized that the annual Diwali function on Capitol Hill celebrates the accomplishments of the Indian-American community.
“This is a spectacular showing of the Indian-American diaspora coming together to celebrate the Festival of Lights, to celebrate who we are and all our community has accomplished”, Congressman Bera said. “Over the next decade, I look forward to making DC the hub for connecting members of the community not just from the surrounding region, but across the country to celebrate our progress and talk about the future”.
The community organizations who took the lead in coordinating the event were Indiaspora, Council of Hindu Temples of North America (CHTNA), Hindu American Foundation (HAF), and BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha.
Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, Democratic Co-Chair of the Senate India Caucus, told the gathering, “I know we are (celebrating Diwali) early, but it is a sign of this great organization”. He marveled at how the event has grown from “last year when there were about 200 people in the Rayburn House Office Building to this year 1,200 people in the Library of Congress. So, congratulations”, he said, to much applause.
Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia conveyed “greetings on behalf of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee where we do so much work to strengthen the partnership between the United States and India. Isn’t this beautiful”, he said, looking around the Great Hall.
“I think it is appropriate to say since the United States is the world’s oldest democracy and India is the world’s largest democracy, let me connect the festival of lights with our common democratic tradition” and he quoted the founder of the Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson, who said: “Light and liberty go together”, and we can’t really have true democracy without the light of transparency.
“And so, people say it is light that overcomes evil just as in the Diwali festival we recognize that Indian-American are unified in our democratic traditions and also in our spirituality”, Senator Kaine told the gathering.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi lighted the traditional ‘diya’ (lamp) as Hindu priests chanted shlokas (Sanskrit verses) for world peace and prosperity. She thanked “dear friend Shekar Narasimhan for the hospitality” and Indiaspora for co-organizing the event.
Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ed Royce (Republican – California) averred, “We should be celebrating something besides just Diwali tonight. We should be celebrating the contribution of three million Hindus, Sikhs and Jains – the great contribution that they are making to the United States of America”.
Congressman Joe Crowley (Democrat – New York), immediate past co-chair of the House India Caucus, noted how the Diwali celebration has ascended from the foyer of the Rayburn House Office Building to the world’s biggest library and revered cultural institution. “The acoustics are not much better, but you are in a palace, you are in a temple of Washington, DC”, he told the audience. “This is a beautiful, magnificent building, not quite Akshardham, but pretty close”, he said, to loud cheers.
About Diwali, the lawmaker, who is of Irish descent, noted, “It’s a wonderful holiday that Ami Bera has now taken to a new level. What he wanted to do is emulate what the Irish do on St. Patrick’s Day – bring the attention of the entire Congress and the administration and our country to understand the beauty of Diwali, its celebration and meaning”, he said.
Among the dignitaries and guests at the Congressional Diwali celebration were: Indian Ambassador Arun K. Singh; Deputy Chief of Mission Taranjit Singh Sandhu; Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska); Congressmen Mike Honda (D-California), Pete Olson (R-Texas), Jim Cooper (D-Tennessee), Sanford Bishop (D-Georgia), Mark Takano (D-California), Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), and Patrick Murphy (R-Florida); Congresswomen Judy Chu (D-California), Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), Carolyn Maloney (D- New York), Grace Meng (D-New York), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), Elizabeth Esty (D-Connecticut), Lois Frankel (D-Florida), siblings Loretta Sanchez (D-California) and Linda Sanchez (D-California); Assistant Secretary of Commerce Arun Kumar; US Court of Appeals Judge Sri Srinivasan; California Attorney General Kamala Harris, a candidate for the US Senate; and Delegate Kumar Barve of Maryland who is seeking election to the House of Representatives.
Recalling Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s successful visit to the US earlier in September, Ambassador Singh told the gathering, “One of the things we focused on was the partnership of innovation”. He lauded “the role that the Indian-American Community is playing here and in the innovation space”.
Quoting author J.K. Rowling, Delhi’s top diplomat in Washington told US lawmakers, “We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on”.
Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (Democrat – New York) emphasized it would be befitting, as millions of people around the world celebrate the festival of lights on November 11, to issue a Diwali stamp here in the US. In Congress, there are 55 co-sponsors of the Resolution for a Diwali stamp and she urged more lawmakers to support the measure. “Let’s give this celebration the recognition and honor it deserves by passing it”, she said.
Indian-American Attorney General Kamala Harris, who is in the race to succeed Democratic icon Senator Barbara Boxer in the November 2016 general election, recalled, “Going to India for Diwali was one of my favorite childhood memories. Diwali represents one of the best traditions of what we have as Indians and Indian-Americans”, she said.
Congressman Bera told the gathering, “The United States and India have been building a partnership to make both our nations safer and stronger.
The Indian-American community has been playing a key role in building needed ties between our two countries and I congratulate the volunteers who worked to make this year’s Diwali celebration in Washington a success. In the coming year, I look forward to continuing to strengthen the bonds between our countries”, he said.