US Lawmakers Celebrate Diwali on Capitol Hill

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November 26, 2014

By Geeta Goindi

Washington, DC – On November 19th for the second consecutive year, the Congressional Diwali celebration added light and luster to Capitol Hill, notwithstanding the delay in holding the event due to the mid-term elections.

November 26, 2014

By Geeta Goindi

Washington, DC – On November 19th for the second consecutive year, the Congressional Diwali celebration added light and luster to Capitol Hill, notwithstanding the delay in holding the event due to the mid-term elections.

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (Democrat – Hawaii) lighting the lamp at the second annual Congressional Diwali celebration on Capitol Hill

Some 16 bipartisan members of Congress eagerly mingled with, and addressed, over 200 Indian-American activists who packed the spacious foyer of the Rayburn House Office Building on a cold and blustery weekday evening for late Fall.  The event was co-hosted by the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans, co-chaired by Congressmen Joe Crowley (Democrat – New York) and Peter Roskam (Republican – Illinois), and the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple of Lanham, MD, with its trustees Mr. Shekar Narasimhan and Mrs. Mythili Bachu spearheading the efforts.

Congressman Crowley, emcee for the evening and the force behind the event, spoke about the significance of Diwali when one “celebrates light over darkness, good over evil”.  He noted that “the beauty of Diwali is that it shares so much in commonality with other great religions of the world.  In Christmas, we know that lights play such a special role.  In Hanukkah as well, lights are so special at this time of the year”, he said.  “So, it’s bringing all these traditions together that somehow, we do recognize the beauty of light and what it means”.

The lawmaker told the gathering, “It is an exciting time in the US-India relationship.  India has become a global power and the US is happy about that.  I am personally happy about it.  And we want to see it continue”.

He assured that “the India Caucus is going to play a critical role in our relations going forward whether it is forging ties between our Congress and their Parliament, securing hate crimes protections for Hindus and Sikhs here at home, and much more”.

He underscored, it is time that India join the UN Security Council as a permanent member.  “With nearly one-fifth the world’s population, India should be a member already, he said.  “So, let’s find a way to make that happen.  Events like tonight help lay the groundwork for this type of action because tonight isn’t about having a party.  It’s about learning about one another, respecting differences, and being proud of our unique traditions.  This is what we stand for as a country”.

It was clear that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s US visit, in September, was a hit, a home run for US lawmakers who referred to it in glowing terms throughout the evening.

Scenes from the second consecutive Diwali celebration on Capitol Hill, clockwise from top left: Senator Mark Warner (Democrat – Virginia) lighting the lamp; Congressman Joe Crowley (Democrat – New York) addressing the gathering; Deputy Chief of Mission Mr. Taranjit Singh Sandhu addressing the audience as Congressman Crowley looks on; Congresswoman Grace Meng (Democrat – New York), and Congressman Ami Bera (Democrat – California) lighting the lamp.

Congressman Eliot Engel (Democrat – New York), Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, recalled, “When I was a little boy growing up in New York, I could only dream that one day I could go to Madison Square Garden.  I never dreamed that I would be on the stage when the Prime Minister of India came and all of us went on stage with him.  And I was thinking, okay, I fulfilled my dream of being on stage in Madison Square Garden in New York City.  I thank the Prime Minister of India”.

Noting that India and the US share common values and face similar threats, Congressman Engel told the gathering that he has “long pushed for close US-India ties and I am glad we are moving in the right direction”.  He said, “I look forward, with all my colleagues, to working to strengthen India-US relations”.

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee (Democrat – Texas) marveled how Prime Minister Modi drew a crowd of over 50,000 to New York City’s iconic arena, Madison Square Garden.  “What a dynamic experience”, she gushed.  “India and the United States, together now and forever”!

Congressman Crowley quipped, “This just goes to show the power of Modi is so great that 50,000 people were fitted into a 20,000-seat arena.  But, it did feel like 50,000 people”, he admitted.

Congresswoman Jackson-Lee responded, “If you say it, people will believe it”.  The audience was clearly enjoying the light-hearted exchange.

During the course of the evening, it was announced that Congressman Ami Bera, a Democrat, who was in a close race in the seventh District of California, has been re-elected for a second term.  He is the only Indian-American currently serving in Congress and the news was received with jubilation by the gathering.

Speaking about the significance of Diwali, Congressman Bera said it was important to celebrate the festival “at a time when Washington, DC needs to see that light, needs us to move forward, to see us work together, how we gain knowledge”.  The lawmaker believed that celebrating the second Diwali on Capitol Hill showcases the vibrant Indian-American community and its clout.  “I am proud to represent my community”, he declared.

Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (Democrat – New York) warmly applauded her colleague Bera for winning the election.  She announced that the very first bill she plans to introduce in the House will be a Diwali stamp, to much cheers from the audience.

“It is long past due”, she said.  “We are working together to make it happen.  We are gathering co-sponsors as we speak.  We want to introduce it with at least 30, 40, 50 original co-sponsors.  We are reaching out to the postal service to meet with the members of Congress that support it”.  She urged the gathering to write to the US Postmaster General in support of the Diwali stamp.  “Let there be light over darkness, friendship over evil, progress and hope for the world working together”, she said.

The sole Senator present, Mark Warner (Democrat – Virginia), underscored that the Senate India Caucus, which he co-chairs with John Cornyn (Republican – Texas), is the largest country-specific caucus in the Senate.  He spoke of strengthening India-US ties and noted that it’s a strange time when politics in Delhi is more stable and rational than politics in Washington.

Congressman Ed Royce (Republican – California), Chairman of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee, pointed out that the House India Caucus, which he has co-chaired in the past, has grown to over 160 members and is the largest caucus of its kind in Congress.

He recalled meeting Modi on several occasions when he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat and more recently, in New York and Washington, as the Prime Minister of India.  The lawmaker, an avid proponent of strong India-US economic ties, extolled Modi for re-building Gujarat into a vibrant, pro-growth state following the devastating earthquake in 2001.

Congressman Gerry Connolly (Democrat – Virginia) pointed out that the fastest-growing population in the Commonwealth is that of Asian Americans, of which the fastest-growing are South Asian Americans.  “We are delighted to see that community grow and its influence really take hold”, he said.

About the popular Diwali celebration on Capitol Hill, he believed that it’s “an acknowledgment of the state of maturation of the inclusion of the Indian-American community in the fabric of American life”.

Congressman Gregory Meeks (Democrat – New York) affirmed that he has the largest Indian-American constituency and the Diwali celebration was a special event for him.

“For me, personally, and as a member of Congress, had it not been for Mahatma Gandhi and the principle of non-violence that was followed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (civil rights leader of the 1960s), then I and the 45 members of the Congressional Black Caucus would not be in the US Congress right now”, he said.

Among other distinguished speakers, guests and participants at the celebration were: Congresswomen Tulsi Gabbard (Democrat – Hawaii), the only Hindu legislator in Congress, and Grace Meng (Democrat – New York); Congressmen Mike Honda (Democrat – California), Pete Olson (Republican – Texas) and Steve Israel (Democrat – New York); Mr. Taranjit Singh Sandhu, Deputy Chief of Mission at the Indian Embassy here; and Dr. Vivek Murthy, President Obama’s nominee for the next US Surgeon General.

In his address, DCM Sandhu noted that several speakers had referred to the recent visit of Prime Minister Modi to the US and he thanked the lawmakers for their presence at the grand community reception in New York.

He emphasized that the Indian government is committed to advancing bilateral ties and believed that tangible results of the strategic partnership would be clearer by year-end.  “I join with all my friends here in praying for the success of the India Caucus and praying for the success of all of you”, he said.

Narasimhan extolled Congressman Crowley for being the driving force behind the Diwali celebration, stressing that “without him, this wouldn’t have happened.  He is the inspiration”.

On his part, Congressman Crowley predicted, “This celebration will get bigger and bigger every year.  I promised last year that it will not be a one-off, just do it once and forget.  I said we would do it as long as I am here and I know that once we have set the spark and the flame is lit, that this light will continue to shine in the years to come”.


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