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Fourth Diwali celebration in US Congress draws over 400 guests

Twenty-three US lawmakers and three envoys address attendees in Senate office building

By Geeta Goindi

Washington, DC, November 9, 2017 – Some two dozen US lawmakers, joined by three ambassadors, graced the fourth Diwali celebration in the historic Kennedy Caucus Room of the US Senate.

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, Democratic Co-Chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans and the first Hindu lawmaker elected to the House of Representatives, lighting the 'diya' (lamp) at the 2017 Diwali celebration on Capitol Hill
Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, Democratic Co-Chair of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans and the first Hindu lawmaker elected to the House of Representatives, lighting the ‘diya’ (lamp) at the 2017 Diwali celebration on Capitol Hill

Looking on were about 400 guests, mostly members of the Indian-American community and some Congressional aides. It was an eye-catching event rich in culture, tradition and color, spearheaded by the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha and co-hosted by Indiaspora and the Hindu American Foundation. The dreary weather, focus on Election Day, the fact that the festival of lights was being celebrated three weeks past the actual date, did nothing to diminish the turnout or enthusiasm.

In opening remarks, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, Democratic Co-Chair of the bipartisan Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans, spoke about the unifying message of Diwali to people of all religions and backgrounds, and how the festival teaches them to overcome divisiveness with love, respect and understanding. “This is a great time to recommit ourselves to light over evil, charity over greed, and love over hate”, she said.

Gabbard is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Asia-Pacific Subcommittee and the first Hindu lawmaker to serve on Capitol Hill. At the celebration, she affirmed that the story of Lord Rama’s triumphant return to Ayodhya after 14 years in exile transcends generations, borders and languages, and highlights the universal values of honor, loyalty and peace.

Noting that Diwali signifies the triumph of light over darkness, truth over falsehood, righteousness over wrong-doing, Gabbard told the gathering there is much to learn “as we seek to apply these lessons in our daily lives, especially here in Washington”.

She lamented how “we see too often here and around the world, people trying to divide us. We may be different, but these differences are not something that should be ridiculed or feared, they are strengths that should be celebrated, welcomed and embraced”, she said. “So as we think about how to overcome these challenges of bigotry and divisiveness and prejudice in the world today, we can learn from Lord Rama how to fulfill our own duty to build bridges, to bring people together. When we encounter hate and bigotry in this world, we can respond with open hearts and outstretched hands instead of closed minds and clenched fists. This is at the heart of our celebration of Diwali”.

Gabbard warmly commended the organizers “for this wonderful celebration of Diwali”. The event was spearheaded by Mukesh Swaroop of BAPS and co-sponsored by the Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA), Art of Living Foundation, Association of United Hindu and Jain Temples, and Global Indian Jewish Relations Institute (GIJRI).

Congressman Ami Bera of California, former Democratic Co-Chair of the House India Caucus, spoke of the contributions of immigrants particularly those of Indian descent. “We are a unique nation, one generation after another of immigrants bringing with them their religion, their culture, their traditions. This is a time for the Hindu American and Indian-American community to stand tall, to stand up”, he said.

Democratic lawmaker Raja Krishnamoorthi informed the gathering that the eighth Congressional District of Illinois which he represents “has one of the biggest concentrations of Indian-Americans and ‘desis’ (South Asian Americans) of any Congressional District anywhere in the country. It has so many Indian-Americans that there are10,000 registered voters with the surname ‘Patel’. And so, you can understand why they and everybody in this room tonight would be so overjoyed to see all of us celebrating Diwali in solidarity”, he said.

Krishnamoorthi who took the oath of office on the Bhagavad Gita had introduced a Resolution in the House of Representatives last month recognizing the religious and historical significance of Diwali. The resolution was co-sponsored by his Indian-American colleagues in Congress: Bera; Ro Khanna (Democrat – California); and Pramila Jayapal (Democrat – Washington); as well as Gabbard and Joe Crowley (Democrat – New York).

“I am one of four Hindu Americans in Congress and five Indian-Americans”, he told the Diwali gathering. “I affectionately call us the samosa caucus. You are looking at one of the samosas”, he said, triggering laughter from the audience.

Imploring more Indian-Americans to run for Congress, Krishnamoorthi said, “I hope we can enlarge the samosa caucus by next year’s Diwali celebration”.

Senator Chris Van Hollen (Democrat-Maryland) called for an even “stronger and deeper relationship between India and the United States, two great democracies”, and commended the Indian-American community for its manifold contributions to the US.

Thanking the lawmakers for their commitment to India-US relations, Indian-Ambassador Navtej Sarna underscored the “strategic convergence” of the two largest democracies in the world.

Singapore Ambassador to the US, Ashok Kumar Mirpuri, affirmed, “I believe the future of peace and stability in the world is a strong India and a strong United States working together”. The envoys were joined by Suriname Ambassador Niermala Badrising.

White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah conveyed warm regards from the Trump administration. “It’s an honor to serve the President and all of you working, living here”, he said, noting that “Indian-Americans have done tremendously well in the United States”.

As a son of Indian immigrants who grew up seeing the festival of lights being celebrated, he told the gathering that the event in the US Congress “is very personal to me. To see Diwali being celebrated on Capitol Hill and in the White House a few weeks ago is an amazing, beautiful thing”, he said.

Congressman Randy Hultgren (Republican-Illinois) serves as co-chair of the bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission which, he said, “recognizes the preciousness of the freedom of religion, freedom of worship”. About the Diwali event on Capitol Hill, he marveled, “It is a wonderful celebration of light and hope and unity”, stressing that unity is now more important than ever before.

Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu of California told the gathering, “As I look across this room, I see the amazing diversity and one of the things that makes America great is that we allow religious freedom. It is enshrined in our Constitution, in the First Amendment, that gives you the right to worship who you want to, and how you want to”.

Democratic Congressman Hank Johnson represents Georgia’s 4th Congressional District which, he noted, is the proud home of the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Lilburn. “I was happy to celebrate the inauguration of the Mandir in 2007 and this past August, I was also able to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the Mandir. On both occasions, I had the opportunity to enjoy the festivities”, he said.

Democratic Congressman Bill Foster of Illinois told the crowd on Capitol Hill that the light we celebrate with Diwali can be appreciated in the scientific sense, in the search for knowledge and in a spiritual manner. “In all three instances, the contributions of BAPS and the Indian-American community to my District in Illinois and to the United States cannot be appreciated enough”, he said.

Democratic Congresswoman Val Demings who represents Florida’s 10th Congressional District including Orlando, noted, “There is a little passage that says, ‘Let your light shine so that others will see good and will glorify’. Let your light shine”, she told the audience.

“Tonight, we refuse to be divided by hatred, by fear, by anger, by hurt or harm. Tonight, we stand together focusing not on our differences, but on our similarities. Tonight, we stand together as one”, she said to much applause.

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