Over two dozen senators, representatives attend annual event in hallowed halls of US Congress
By Geeta Goindi
Washington, DC, November 17, 2018 – Some two dozen influential US lawmakers together with senior officials of the White House and Indian diplomatic mission were enthusiastically greeted by an overflow crowd of highly-skilled Indian-Americans who packed a spacious room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building for a sparkling Diwali celebration on Capitol Hill.
The eagerly awaited annual event, now organized by BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha and co-hosted by Indiaspora and the Hindu American Foundation, attracts several members of the Hindu, Sikh, Jain and Buddhist faiths who celebrate the popular and pluralistic Indian festival of lights.
“This is my sixth year celebrating Diwali here on Capitol Hill and it is always so gratifying and inspiring to see how every year we see more and more new faces coming to join us in this celebration”, said Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, Democratic co-chair of the House India Caucus.
“Diwali is always a fitting celebration at any time but during these times especially, unfortunately, as we have seen various acts of violence, we have seen divisiveness and bigotry surrounding us in different parts of our communities and our country, to be reminded by Diwali about how light defeats darkness, about how love defeats hate. The victory of knowledge over ignorance and of good over evil cannot come at a more relevant time”, she emphasized.
“To me, Diwali reminds us all of our responsibility, each and every one of us, to live in this spirit of Diwali not only once a year, but every single day. The choices that we make in our lives and the choices that we are making here on Capitol Hill, in politics. This way we can always think in the mind-set of how do we put others before ourselves, how can we best be of service to others. So, as we light our lamps on this Diwali, let us pray that the light and love that we find in Diwali, that we find in the aloha spirit of Hawaii, will burn brightly within our hearts”, said Gabbard, the first Hindu lawmaker to serve on Capitol Hill.
Expressing delight at being joined at the event by so many members of Congress, Indian Ambassador Navtej Sarna thanked the lawmakers “for all the support they give to the bilateral relationship, unstintingly. We are privileged to have your support”, he said. “The Indian Embassy feels very much comfortable on the Hill. We find so much support no matter which corridor we walk through, which door we knock on. We always get a warm welcome and great support. And frankly, we are the beneficiaries of all the hard work of the community – the Indian-American community which has been working its way steadily and hard and diligently into the right places, in society, in polity of the United States”.
India’s top diplomat here noted, “Diwali is many things, but Diwali is, if nothing else, a recognition of the position that the Indian-American community has in the United States and the position that India has in the world-view of the United States”.
The envoy mentioned that he has attended three celebrations of Diwali at a top US institution in a span of about one week: at the State Department; a day earlier, at the White House where “President Trump hosted a small group very graciously”; and now on Capitol Hill.
“So, I think all this shows the increasing familiarity with India and Indian culture”, he said. “Diwali is quintessentially an Indian festival. I am so happy that it is now being celebrated in such a wide way”, he added.
The four US lawmakers of Indian origin, all Democrats – Congresswomen Pramila Jayapal (Washington), and Congressmen Ami Bera (California), Raja Krishnamoorthi (Illinois) and Ro Khanna (California) – actively participated in the celebration lighting the Diwali ‘diya’ (lamp) and addressing the gathering.
It is interesting to note that Khanna took to the podium and delivered a rejoinder to critics lambasting President Donald Trump for tweeting about the festival of lights and omitting it is celebrated by Hindus while mentioning other faiths.
The lawmaker reasoned that the celebration of Diwali “is pluralistic” as is the Hindu religion. “We should celebrate a nation that values all faiths”, he underscored.
Following a Diwali ‘diya’ lighting ceremony which he hosted in the historic Roosevelt Room of the White House on Tuesday afternoon, Trump tweeted: “Today, we gathered for Diwali, a holiday observed by Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains throughout the United States and around the world. Hundreds of millions of people have gathered with family and friends to light the Diya and to mark the beginning of a New Year”. His omission of Hindus for whom Diwali is a major festival caused a storm on Twitter with criticism flowing fast and furious.
The president took to the microblogging site again posting a message which read: “It was my great honor to host a celebration of Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, in the Roosevelt Room at the White House this afternoon. Very very special people”, he said about the guests who attended: Indian-Americans serving in his administration and Indian Embassy officials led by Ambassador Sarna.
Responding to the criticism of Trump omitting Hindus in his earlier Diwali tweet, Khanna told the Capitol Hill gathering, “What I thought, this is partly the point – this is a celebration that is pluralistic. It is a religion (Hinduism) that is pluralistic in a time we should celebrate a nation that values all faiths”, he said to much applause.
Thanking Khanna “for defending the president’s tweet”, White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah said, “I appreciate that in particular. This is a bipartisan occasion”, he emphasized.
About the Diwali celebration held a day earlier at the White House, Shah, who also serves as Deputy Assistant to President Trump, described it as an “intimate gathering. It was incredible to be flanked by so many very senior Indian-American officials in this administration, the best and brightest in their position”, he said. “I think it is a testament to how far Indian-Americans have come in all walks of life”.
Extolling members of the Indian-American community, Republican Congressman Pete Sessions of Texas pointed out, “They have been educated. They have been enlightened. They have been driven. America is a land not just of opportunity, but a land of people who care deeply about the world we live in. That message you give to your countrymen is the same message that this festival of lights is all about”, he said.
Congressman Krishnamoorthi noted that he is one of a handful of Indian-Americans in Congress who he affectionately refers to as the Samosa Caucus. “Hopefully, in the next Diwali and the Diwalis to come, we will expand the ranks of the Samosa Caucus”, he said.
Among other members of Congress who attended the event were: Senators Thom Tillis (Republican-North Carolina), Cindy Hyde-Smith (Republican-Mississippi), Bill Cassidy (Republican-Louisiana) and John Boozman (Republican-Arkansas); Democratic Congresswomen Grace Meng (New York) and Norma Torres (California); Congressmen Brian Fitzpatrick (Republican-Pennsylvania), Mike Coffman (Republican-Colorado), Keith Rothfus (Republican-Pennsylvania), French Hill (Republican-Arkansas), Danny Davis (Democrat-Illinois), Garret Graves (Republican-Louisiana), Donald Norcross (Democrat-New Jersey), Ted Deutch (Democrat-Florida), Gregory Meeks (Democrat-New York), Sanford Bishop (Democrat-Georgia), Hank Johnson (Democrat-Georgia), Rob Woodall (Republican-Georgia), Tom Graves (Republican-Georgia) and Peter Roskam (Republican-Illinois).
Co-sponsors of the event included the Art of Living Foundation, Federation of Jain Associations in North America, Jain International Trade Organization, Jain Society of Metropolitan Washington and US-India Friendship Council with support from the US India Business Council. The BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir located in Beltsville, Maryland, took the lead role in coordinating efforts to host another successful celebration of Diwali on Capitol Hill.
In his remarks, Khanna recalled interning for Maryland Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in 2000 when he was in law school. At the time, the policy director told him that someday he should go and work on Capitol Hill. Any feeling of being flattered was short-lived, he recounted, as the director added, ‘Of course, being Indian-American and of Hindu faith, you can never get elected. But, you should definitely go and work for a member of Congress’.
Khanna told the gathering on Capitol Hill that he refrained from sending him a note after he got elected to Congress. He also mentioned talking to his mother following the slight by the director and she told him, ‘This is a great country. Be proud of your heritage. Be proud of your faith. You will make it’.
“Our country has come a long way when we see the incredible diversity now in the United States Congress”, Khanna enthused. “It’s a terrific moment that we are celebrating Diwali – Republicans, Democrats – on the Capitol and in the White House. I appreciate the work here. I’m very proud of my heritage and very proud of my country that allows me to serve in the United States Congress”, he said.